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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 27 Feb 1992

Vol. 416 No. 4

Irish Land Commission (Dissolution) Bill, 1989: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

Before the debate was adjourned yesterday evening, I was outlining to the House the role played by the Irish Land Commission in the area of land reform since 1881. I had outlined the position up to the end of the seventies. By the end of the seventies it was generally accepted that the Land Commission had outlived its usefulness. There were a number of reasons for this. In the first instance, the pool of large estates available for acquisition had declined considerably and, accordingly, the Land Commission found themselves acquiring smaller, unused properties, the acquisition of which, in general, proved long and tedious as owners availed of their statutory rights to oppose proceedings to the limit. In view of the small areas involved the contribution of this activity to the land settlement programme was minimal and it was questionable whether the effort and cost involved in the necessarily long drawn-out acquisition procedures could be justified in terms of results. Another important factor was the rise in land prices. These were far in excess of what the Land Commission could recover on re-sale and the subsidies involved were putting an increasing strain on the taxpayer. There was also the growing unacceptability of land bonds as a means of payment. Accordingly, it was decided to terminate acquisition and dispose of the lands on hands as quickly as possible. No land has been acquired since 1983 and only about 2,500 hectares of agricultural land remain on hands at present. It is expected that this will be disposed of by the end of the year.

The Bill is designed to give statutory effect to the position which has obtained since 1983. In short, the Bill provides for the dissolution of the Land Commission; the revocation of the power of the State to take over land, except by exchange, for land settlement purposes; the transfer to the President of the High Court of the jurisdictions vested in the Office of the Judicial Commissioner and in the Appeal Tribunal; the transfer to the Minister for Agriculture and Food of certain functions of the commission and the four lay commissioners, mainly to allow for the disposal of land on hand and for the continuation of controls in the purchase of land by non-qualified persons; the transfer to the Minister of all land and other property vested in the commission, with the exception of fishing rights and fisheries which will be transferred to the Central Fisheries Board and the payment of compensation to the lay commissioners.

I should like to make clear that the enactment of this Bill will not affect the continuation of certain work and functions of the commission. These are: the disposal of the small area of land now left on hands; the revesting in the names of the new owners of land already allotted and of land yet to be allotted; the exercise of statutory control over the subdivision of farms and over the purchase of land by non-qualified persons, mainly companies and non-EC nationals; the promotion of group purchase and leasing of land as well as provision of assistance for schemes for rearrangement and commonage division and miscellaneous matters and to the obligations, such as the collection of annuities, custody of title documents, the management of lands awaiting disposal, responsibilities of the offices of Examiner of Title and of Public Trustee.

There is a certain reluctance when it comes to putting on one side a body who have had such an important part in our country's history. The fact is, however, that for some years the Land Commission have ceased to function as a body who acquired and disposed of land. The situation which brought forth the Land Commission is no longer with us. The whole basis of Irish agriculture has been changed since our entry into the EC. The point is of particular relevance in regard to the position of the Land Commission as the body who took over and disposed of land. The demand for that kind of activity is gone. The primary function of the Land Commission over the last 60 years was to create as many viable farms as possible in accordance with the social directives of the Constitution. This is still the objective of public policy and the Government are fully committed to it. However, we can no longer depend on some State agency like a land authority to fulfil this obligation. Instead we turn to the Common Agricultural Policy through its support for agricultural products and the various schemes being financed by the Structural Funds. There is a range of EC structural measures available at present to help the farmer. These include incentives for modernisation of farms, the promotion of alternative enterprises, including agri-tourism, headage payments, etc. I am convinced that the best hope of maintaining and strengthening the family farm is by using these incentives to the full.

It is against this background that we have no need to be afraid of winding up the Land Commission. At any rate the demand for land has been greatly reduced due to Community measures to cut back on production. There is therefore no longer any pressure for any new initiative in the field of land policy. It seems to be generally accepted that, given the range and scale of the structural aid now available, land mobility can be left to market forces and that in future the role of the State will be limited to subdivision control, the control of sales to non-EC nationals, commonage division, to which I have referred, and rearrangement and group purchase.

Before concluding, I would like to express my gratitude to and admiration of the work carried out by the staff of the Land Commission. That sentiment has been expressed on many occasions by Deputies in this House. Their dedication to Irish agriculture and in particular to improving the lot of the smallholder is well known and appreciated in every parish in the country. The demise of the Land Commission is due essentially to the completion of their task. That task was both a viable and historic one and was carried out effectively, often in the face of the most difficult human circumstances and always in accordance with necessarily cumbersome legal procedures.

No one will claim that this work was perfect and the critics will point to the fact that there is still a considerable number of holdings below the economic standard. To accept that it has not been possible to bring every holding in the country up to standard is not to indict performance. It is more a question of insufficient land being available to meet the demand. It can be said, however, that over the years there were very few farms that did not get some benefit from land settlement operations and there were many that benefited substantially. Given all the constraints, legal and otherwise, within which the Land Commission had to operate, this was quite an achievement. No one can deny that the social dimensions of the Land Commission were considerable. Most commentators agree that by stabilising the farming population it saved the fabric of rural life, particularly in the west of Ireland. It is hard to imagine how bad conditions were in the thirties and forties when thousands of smaller farmers were on the destitution line. The only hope they had of surviving was by getting a few more acres of land. As they could not afford to buy this themselves they had to depend on the Land Commission to give it to them. Without these allotments, small as they were, many of the farms would have disappeared as their owners would have gone abroad. The country owes a debt of gratitude to the public servants who over the years developed and implemented the policies of the Land Commission. I commend the Bill to the House.

We will not be opposing this Bill, considering that we introduced it in the middle eighties and that the last acquisition by the Land Commission was in 1983. However, I would take issue with the Minister on one specific statement in his speech when referring to the abolition of the Land Commission. He said: "There is therefore no longer any pressure for any new initiative in the field of land policy". That statement is regrettable and highly undesirable. Of course there is need for a new initiative. We, in our intent to abolish the Land Commission, made it quite clear that we would set up a land authority to manage the land resources of the country once the Land Commission were abolished. I do not want to be highly political on this, but if the Minister looks back on his party's election manifesto of 1987 he will see that Fianna Fáil promised that a land authority would be set up following the dissolution of the Land Commission. We are entitled to know why this Government have seen fit to renege on that election promise. A land authority of some kind is absolutely essential, and I will develop that point at a later stage.

Initially, when this Bill was introduced in this House in May 1989, there was quite a lengthy debate on it, ranging over a number of days. However, in the midst of that debate a general election was called in May 1989. For the information of the new Members to the House, and to remind Members who were here at the time, we are now starting ths debate.

As the Minister rightly pointed out in his opening address, the Land Commission were set up in 1881 following a protracted period of great unrest, culminating in the land wars. People died during the agitation over land at that period and there was great suffering and hardship. The landlord system, which dates back to Cromwellian and penal times, was eventually disbanded. One could say we have gone the full circle and today we are about to dissolve what was set up in the interests of the Irish farmer, particularly the Irish smallholder. Theoretically, a new landlord system could develop in Ireland in that any EC national is now allowed to buy as much land here as he or she wishes if he or she has the money. There is nothing to stop individuals buying a million acres so long as they are EC nationals. The general public should be aware of that, but I do not wish to be a scaremonger because I do not believe such massive activity will occur.

We are members of the EC and we have to abide by the rules of the Community. It is obvious that considerable estates will be built up by non-Irish EC nationals.

People ask whether the Land Commission were a failure. That is a difficult question to answer and one would have to qualify one's answer. I am of the opinion that the Land Commission were not a failure but the Commission could never win. The Commission had the impossible task of dividing estates and of building up smaller farms. The objective was to create a viable farm entity. Therein lies the question of what is a viable farm.

Twenty years ago the Land Commission defined a viable farm as being one of 45 acres of reasonably good land. In today's world, of course, 45 acres is not sufficient. In today's terms a viable farm would probably have to comprise 150 to 250 acres of reasonably good land, depending on the type of agricultural activity to be carried out. One could say that the Land Commission failed miserably because there are still tens of thousands of farms here, particularly in the west, that range from ten to 30 acres in size.

It could be said that the Land Commission failed because even the aim of creating farms of 45 acres of reasonably good land was not achieved and most farms are of ten acres or less up to 30 acres. It is very hard to blame the Land Commission because if they had pursued a policy of making every farm at least 45 acres then the country would have been denuded of a huge number of its people. There are approximately 170,000 people engaged in farming today but if all land units were of 150 to 200 acres then the number involved in farming could go down to about 20,000 or 30,000. If an economist were to carry out a study of the number of farmers there would be if all farm units were to be viable I am sure the forecast number would be very small.

The Land Commission had an unenviable task, they were between the devil and the deep blue sea. They could aim either to keep as many people on the land as possible or have units so large that they would get rid of the bulk of farmers. The Commission did not have an easy decision to make and I realise, particularly when taking social factors into consideration, that they did their best.

Unfortunately, we have been left with a form of farming that relegates most farmers to dependency on handouts. We are lucky they will receive funding from Europe rather than from the national Exchequer. Whether the handouts come in the form of small farmers dole, unemployment assistance, or the compensatory measures promised from Europe, for the vast bulk of farmers the future lies in handouts. That is not a very attractive prospect but it is the way our farmers will survive.

I shall not delve too far into the historical background of the Land Commission or of the landlord system. We should look ahead, and it is the future I wish to speak about today. That is my reason for objecting to a part of the Minister's script. It was an unfortunate inclusion. There is a need for a new look to be taken at land policy in Ireland. It does not have to be entirely tied up with agriculture. There have been so many changes in the past 20 years that the whole scene needs to be re-assessed but, unfortunately, no one is big enough, inventive enough, innovative enough or courageous enough to do that. We are letting our people, particularly those living in rural areas, down unless we grasp the nettle and devise new ways of giving those living in rural areas a chance to make a living.

I can think of many names for the new authority. It could be called a land authority, but I would go further and call it a land use authority. The policy of that body should embrace not only farming but also forestry, agri-tourism and other outdoor activities. Studies should be carried out to determine how many jobs those forms of activity could create. It may be that in the EC, a Community of 340 million, our land could be put to better use than the rearing of cattle and other animals or the growing of tillage crops such as grain and sugar beet.

The obvious alternative to farming is an activity that at the moment is a bone of contention in many parts of the country, particularly in the west of Ireland, that is afforestation. Nobody has ever tried to work out the merits or demerits of afforestation vis-á-vis agriculture. Could we create more jobs per acre from afforestation than from farming as we have known it, or is afforestation a way of eliminating a lot of farmers from the land? Which is the most profitable in terms of jobs? As far as I know, nobody has even attempted to do a study; but it has to be done. We could call it the initial stage of a land use policy. What employment could our land provide if much of it was used for agri-tourism or outdoor leisure activities? What wealth would it generate? I have my doubts about afforestation providing more jobs than agriculture, but I have no doubt that land used for leisure activities or for agri-tourism would generate considerably more jobs than is presently generated on a lot of our inferior land. There has not been a study to show that my belief is correct and we need studies on this issue.

If 20,000 or 30,000 acres of a 100,000 or 200,000 mountain range were set aside for breeding and cultivating game birds and animals, that could be instrumental in providing dozens and perhaps hundreds of jobs, whereas at present the area might be responsible for creating jobs for perhaps one dozen or two dozen sheep farmers. Has anybody ever given that a bit of thought? I understand that one cannot have game birds in conjunction with sheep because the sheep apparently nip the budding and flowering heather which is also a source of nutrients for game birds. Therefore sheep render that type of mountainous land uninhabitable for game birds. About 100 years ago a mountain range near me was famous for game birds such as woodcock, grouse and a whole lot of other game. Nowadays it has no game birds worth talking about and there is no attraction for sportsmen who want to shoot.

I cannot think of a greater growth area in leisure pursuits or outdoor sports than shooting, fishing and hunting. The bulk of our inferior quality land is not attractive for game life. Therefore it has no appeal from the point of view of tourism and it cannot generate jobs and wealth. We must examine the feasibility of using this type of land for activities which will be beneficial to the nation. I know that what I am saying is a bit offbeat but my instinct is that I am right. That is why I find the sentence in the Minister's statement totally alien to the good of this country and its people. We should start innovating and thinking. We should not just confine ourselves to the land masses. We should consider our waterways and water courses, many of which have already been drained, thus eliminating numbers of game birds such as duck and associated families like quail, snipe and so on. Drainage seemed like a good idea at the time, but nowadays it might not be such a good idea at all.

We have a ferocious contradiction in the system of government in Ireland and in the EC. The EC are paying people to set aside the best land, to waste it, to let it go sterile, while at the same time we and the EC pay people large grants to reclaim and slightly improve the worst quality land in the country. Can anybody explain that logic? I would like to know how many millions or billions of pounds the EC will spend in 1992 to persuade farmers not to use their land and how many millions they will spend in 1992 to pay people to reclaim inferior quality land. The system is haywire. It is upside down. We should be vigilant from today onwards, although perhaps it is too late in some cases, to preserve the habitats for wildlife here, because that wildlife could be the wealth of this country in years to come. We are not giving it a second thought. That is a disgrace. From now on we should ensure that no ponds are drained, no streams got rid of or no marshland interfered with until we have a coherent Community policy on the use of land and how much land we need for production.

I do not wish to be patronising but it is a great pity that Deputy John O'Donoghue did not retain his portfolio in the recent Cabinet re-shuffle because I believe he is one of the few Deputies who understands what needs to be done and understands what I am talking about and as Minister of State was capable of doing something about it.

We have debated the issue of job creation and the setting up of a jobs forum. We have the ability to create tens of thousands of jobs under our feet but we just do not recognise how it should be done. I am alluding to how that can be done and I hope that my remarks will be taken on board. I do not know how the Minister of State will raise this matter as he is not a member of Cabinet. We are destroying rather than exploiting our potential to create jobs.

We should have very clear projections of the income to be generated from the types of alternative enterprises I have suggested and clear projections on how much employment could be created. We should then compare that with the status quo. We should examine whether the two dozen farmers who are grazing sheep on tens of thousands if not 100,000 acres of mountain would be better off if the mountains were preserved for activities which could generate tourism and thereby create a great many jobs. I believe they would be considerably better off and they would have to endure a lot less hardship; indeed, their sons and daughters might then not have to emigrate as they could be employed along with many other people in the area. I am sure if the Dutch or the Germans had our natural resource of land they would have done something along these lines years ago.

I am sure other Members will have a great deal to say about the Land Commission which was established in 1881, over 111 years ago. I am not interested in looking back in time. I am more interested in looking to the future. I will leave it to my colleagues to comment on the division of estates, the amalgamation of smaller farms and the problem that farmers are experiencing with land annuities. I came in to express a single point, that we should be concerned about using land in the best way possible for the betterment of our people.

I take this opportunity to extend congratulations to Deputy Hyland on his appointment as Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food. Because I have served on committees with Deputy Hyland over a long number of years I was particularly pleased that he was chosen by the Taoiseach to fill the ranks of the Ministers of State. Deputy Hyland and I served on the county committees of agriculture and on the General Council of County Committees of Agriculture, ACOT, An Foras Talúntais and, more importantly, he was involved with Muintir na Tíre when that great national movement was founded by Rev. Fr. Hayes, who was Parish Priest in my native Bansha, County Tipperary. The Minister's brief reflects the concepts that Fr. Hayes espoused for the people of the land, Muintir na Tíre. Fr. Hayes was a missionary and he advocated that rural people should help one another at parish level and at guild or "muintir" level and work together for the common good of the people of Ireland. In the light of the Minister's background I have no doubt that he will fit very comfortably into his ministry, with special responsibility for rural development. The Minister also has experience in Europe as he was leader of the group on the Council of Europe and, therefore, he knows how Europeans think about the importance of land.

It is a pity that on his first official function in the House the Minister of State has to deal with the abolition of the Land Commission. The Land Commission had their flaws and were not perfect, indeed, on many occasions they were accused of having a political bias but, in fairness, the Land Commission have stood the test of time. As a member of the Labour Party and as a socialist I agree with the principle of helping small farmers to better themselves and in doing so in an organised way by State intervention. I have a special interest in this Bill.

This Bill was mooted by previous Governments. We all had our say and I had my say as a Labour Party Member of this House. I believe that if we were to abolish that powerful body, it should only be done if a more effective and streamlined organisation was put in their place. Land is a very precious commodity, especially in Ireland. You cannot leave decisions about land to the discretion of the cheque book brigade, whether they are non-nationals, EC nationals or native people. If one believes in the principle of assisting smallholders to survive in rural Ireland, they must be assisted by a co-ordinated programme operated by the State because they cannot compete in the market-place. The Land Commission fulfilled that role in the past and they withstood the test of time. The Land Commission withstood challenges to their constitutionality when they acquired land against the will of the owner in the interests of the common good. Nothing could be closer to the hearts of Social Democrats than that power which was operated for the benefit of people who tried to better themselves but could not compete in the market-place.

Coincidentally, my first speech in the Seanad on 25 April 1975 was on the subject of land bonds, which were not then the popular way to compensate people for the acquisition of land. Afterwards land bonds became extremely popular because of the increase in value. The amount of land that comes on the open market is practically negligible, a minute percentage of the total. Most land is transferred from father to son or acquired by inheritance. The opportunity for young men qualified in agriculture to acquire land is very limited. I hope this progressive Minister of State has not lost sight of a previous commitment by his party to establish a land authority, irrespective of the restrictions of European law. One of the first constitutional requirements is that we look after our own people. The right to private property is enshrined in the Constitution and is defended by everybody as something very special. It is appropriate that powers should be conferred on the State or on local authorities to acquire land compulsorily to build houses for people who need them or to widen roads in the interest of safety. What landowner will voluntarily offer land to the local authority or to the Land Commission? There were very limited offers and, at times, there were jokes about making land available but at a price. The acquisition of land for the common good is an admirable concept, based on agreed compensation, with an appeals procedure and an independent arbitrator to decide the true value.

I have always felt that the abolition of the Land Commission would be a retrograde step, particularly if there were no replacement body. Much work was carried out on the possibility of such a replacement body. The General Council of Agriculture Committees, before their abolition, produced the concept of a land authority. The ICMSA and the family farm section of the IFA also brought forward proposals for some regulatory body which would control the movement of people from land, assist them to be rehoused in better holdings, address the problem of fragmented holdings and so on.

With the passing of this Bill the land of Ireland will be available in the market-place. I am worried that smaller farmers who want to improve their holdings and landless young farmers will have no opportunity to acquire land except through inheritance or by borrowing heavily. Naturally the banks and other lending agencies will offer facilites to everybody to compete in the market-place for the one farm. This causes the market value of a holding to escalate. However, the banks quickly get tough when times are difficult and insist on payments of moneys borrowed, sometimes requiring the disposal of part of the land.

I am saddened that there is no evidence of a replacement body to regulate land for the common good. I am also concerned that much of the land acquired under the original legislation has not yet been distributed. Vast powers were conferred by law and land was to be acquired specifically for redistribution. I understand that land which is still held is to be handed back to the people from whom it was purchased or, worse still, it is to be offered publicly for sale to the highest bidder. The Land Commission went beyond their brief. They used their powers to acquire land and then made other decisions about its disposal. I presume there are still quite decent amounts of land available which are to be handed to the Minister, to Coillte or to fishery boards. Up to the seventies the Land Commission had acquired some 14 million acres for redistribution. But for the Land Commission that land would never have been used to benefit people in rural Ireland. Resettlement of farmers happened in my county. People were moved to other parts of the county and integrated into new communities. Their original holdings were used to assist the people left behind and to make their undertakings viable. We inherited a system of fragmented holdings. Absentee landlords granted holdings which were fragmented throughout a county and beyond. There were endless arguments about rights of way, riparian rights, water rights and rights of entry and exit.

This is a sad day because there is no commitment from Government to set up another body to do some of the very useful work which was carried on by the Land Commission. The Minister might agree that the land should be disposed of to those in need, on the basis that this is the purpose for which it was acquired. Otherwise we will have reneged on our original responsibilities. If we sell the land we are involving the state in land trading.

Thousands of farmers have to pay land annuities and some of them are experiencing extreme difficulty due to milk quota restrictions, the changes in the Common Agricultural Policy and so on. Things will never be the same again in agriculture, particularly for small farmers. People are paying annuities which have created a drain on their diminishing incomes. I hope the Minister through this Bill will consider giving them an opportunity to acquire those annuities over a stated period in the same way as people in occupation of land or property had the opportunity to acquire the ground rent ownership. Perhaps the Minister would consider in the case of annuities which are now being vested in the Minister or in the courts that land owners would be given the opportunity over an agreed and specified period to acquire total ownership of the annuities, particularly if they are annuities which have an extended period of life. People have picketed this House recently on the basis that annuities for Land Commission land have now escalated beyond their ability to repay.

We must remember also that parts of Europe are progressively developing factory type farming — for example, in Holland land cannot be bought for any price. People who look at the study wind patterns map of Europe and study wind patterns have identified in Ireland the last bastion in Europe least likely to be affected by acid rain. People from Holland are now coming to Ireland to acquire land, particularly land for special farming, farming not affected by fertilisers, acid rain and so on. Even in my constituency there is effective farming in that category, which is probably the way in which many more Irish farmers should be proceeding. Because of the very special position of Ireland and the European view of ours as a green country — a land that is green, pure and unpolluted — people are more likely to turn their attention to the acquisition of land here. Under the Treaty of Rome European nationals have a right of access to land, services and so on in any member state. They will be able to come in and compete with Irish people under common European law. This will put small Irish farmers, and particularly young Irish farmers, at a tremendous financial disadvantage because of their inability to compete with the amount of capital available to efficient Dutch and other farmers for specialised farming — something we have begun to turn to, but not to the extent the Minister would wish. There will be more demand for Irish land, but unfortunately that demand will not be from Irish people. I know we are on the periphery of Europe but we cannot claim any privileges in regard to the rights of EC nationals. I hope that, as a result of my pleadings and those of other Members of this House, the Government would consider some regulatory authority to take account of this dilemma, especially in regard to the social dimension, where the Land Commission played such an effective role.

Funding is available from Europe through the Structural Funds. The Leader programme, which I hope will be within the Minister's jurisdiction, will give local communities an opportunity to develop their areas in a co-ordinated way. Spectacular amounts of money are available through the Leader programme. I hope Muintir will be considered as expert in the area of operating the Leader programme in their districts because they have branches in most rural areas. I hope the Leader programme can be used to ensure that Irish agricultural development continues, especially in the areas of alternative farming enterprises in tourism and in many other ways and that Bord Fáilte will be promoting and supporting the programme to ensure viable income for people who stay on the land.

I am pleased to note the provision in the Bill whereby the lay commissioners will be taken care of. There is a tremendous pool of expertise in the Land Commission which has been slowly run down from the time of the publication of this Bill six or seven years ago. No land has been acquired, but these experts have been beavering away trying to divide and sublet land. I hope that those people will not be coaxed out by redundancy compensation payments because, with the restriction on recruitment, their expertise could never be replaced. Whole areas are being denuded of advisory staff with agricultural expertise — expertise which in the past was given independently to farmers with no vested interest from co-ops or any other agency. That was one of the benefits of ACOT and, until recently, of the Teagasc service. I have expressed regret publicly about this. In my constituency, I have condemned the present chairman of Teagasc, someone who has achieved the top status in farming, for allowing the dissolution of Teagasc, a body we had all been involved in setting up.

I note Deputy Hogan is in the House. I recall the contribution of his late father to the General Council of Agricultural Committees. He was chairman of that robust body in the days when farmers and those with an interest in agriculture developed the whole concept of agricultural advice and training for young people. That is being eroded every day in every constituency for the sake of financial rectitude. I would hate to see our expert lay commissioners lost to an area which will need every assistance in the future to survive in farming and in alternative farming enterprises.

There are people who are drawing up plans and proposals for alternative farming through the horse breeding industry in riding schools and in other areas to which land lends itself. An EC regulation specifies that no grants are available if the foundation work is started without prior approval, even with planning permission. We should look at the areas where people are trying desperately to find an alternative to the production of milk or beef and give them every assistance. We should not allow restrictions imposed by Eurocrats on the basis that this is probably good for planning and development. I know the people in our rural areas. They do not make too many mistakes. The fact that they may have a contractor available to lay the foundations should not debar them from grants which will assist them in the area of alternative enterprises.

Deputy Deasy referred briefly to large mountain tracts which form the natural habitat for wildlife — what he said was quite true — but there are also large mountain tracts where sheep have been grazed for as long as anyone in any parish can remember, going back hundreds of years. Even though the land is in private ownership, people have grazing rights. I am talking here about parts of the Galtee Mountains which stretch from Cahir through Cappauniac, Rossadrehid, Glencushabainne and Lyre, which are difficult to pronounce and spell but support rural people who are quite happy to live there. They may only come down the the mountain once a week to go to Mass, but they certainly come down to vote. They should be considered as happy people. If they are left with a source of income they will be content and happy and will make few demands on the State. They rear tremendous families who take their place in every facet of Irish life.

Those people live four or more miles into the Galtee Mountains. It was only during the past ten years that the scheme of rural electrification was extended to them. They have reclaimed land on the mountain. Those people do not want hand-outs from the European Commmunity; they want to be happy producing a product and should be assisted in doing so.

They have grazing rights on land which was originally owned by landlords in the time of the White Boys. Those with grazing rights own many sheep. I understand that when this land was put up for sale only part of it was acquired by the Forestry Division and by Coillte Teo because the remainder was considered to be mountain land. Needless to say, these small mountain farmers, or highland farmers, who form the backbone of rural Ireland, could not afford to buy it. I requested the Land Commission to purchase this land to regularise the position but they showed no interest. That is a pity because they could have acquired and redistributed it.

Some of the land is in public ownership and the remainder, I understand, is now owned by a person who lives in England. These mountain farmers have defended their grazing rights which they and their grandfathers have had. A nominal sum was paid to the original landowners in respect of the grazing rights. I understand it was of the order of one shilling per sheep and that it was not collectible if there was snow in the month of May. This was legally binding as were many other traditions. Eventually, the landlord came to the conclusion it was not worth collecting this nominal sum and decided to sell the property.

When the new English owner acquired the property he discovered all these sheep belonging to the mountain farmers who have squatter's rights. I ask the Minister to consider the request I made to his Department to acquire that section of the Galtee Mountains which is owned by someone in England but in respect of which these mountain farmers have squatter's rights. He should see if there is any way the position can be regularised and the matter clarified in relation to title. I should make the point that the Department gave grants in an effort to help these mountain farmers fence off land even though they did not hold title.

I plead with the Minister to consider the possibility of establishing an alternative body who at some stage in the future might have the political courage to become involved in the redistribution of land for the benefit of small holders and young farmers in particular. In abolishing the Land Commission we are also removing the power to acquire land with the exception of bartering and swapping. As we are aware, people bartered and swapped long before money was invented. It is a pity the new Minister for Finance, who is a young person, will not allow his Department have anything to do with swapping and exchanging. I should have thought he would have shown more ingenuity in regard to the buying and distribution of land. I ask the Minister to consider this possibility.

Given the changes that will inevitably be made within the European Community in relation to the Common Agricultural Policy, GATT and the Maastricht Treaty I ask the Minister to ensure there will be an agency responsible for this. The Government cannot forget the important role carried out by this body, even if things have changed in Europe. I hope a progressive attitude will be adopted in regard to the regulatory role in the purchase and distribution of land given that the weakest sections of the community, small and young farmers, are unable to compete in the marketplace with those who have financial expertise in the European Community.

I am aware that stud farms acquired by people from the Middle East have been refurbished and restructured. These stud farms had begun to deteriorate because there was no capital available to restructure them properly. I have no problem with this development because it is of benefit to the local area and the economy in general in relation to employment and exports. However, I am anxious about tracts of land in rural areas which would only be of benefit to small farmers to extend their holdings being subject to the marketplace, the hammer and cheque book. That would be a retrograde step in a nation where there has always been the power to intervene in the area of housing, to house poor people and the power to acquire land to widen roads, for redistribution to increase the size of holdings and to facilitate the resettlement of farm families. That policy has been successful.

Deputy Deasy said he does not like to look back but I think we can be proud of what has happened and of what we have managed to achieve. I hope we can look forward to a commitment from the Government to the suggestion that they should intervene in this area.

I would like to take this opportunity to sincerely congratulate the new Minister of State, Deputy Hyland, on his appointment. It has been acknowledged on all sides of the House that he is a gentleman. I have no hesitation in saying he will be an excellent Minister of State and will facilitate everyone, irrespective of politics, because that is the kind of person he is. I am delighted that someone of his considerable experience in political life has been recognised in this way.

It would be fair to say that in the course of Irish history nothing has stirred the emotions, caused as much passion, excitement or, indeed, human feeling as the issue of the ownership of land. That is not because the Irish people have a greater fascination with land than anybody else but rather because their land was taken from them for so long. The Land Commission demonstrated, in a functional way, more than any other State agency the republican ethos of the country. Although the Land Commission was founded prior to the foundation of the State nonetheless it heralded a change in Irish life which was brought about during the following 40 years or so.

The Irish Land Commission, in a very real way, expressed the hopes and dreams of a young Ireland. Their achievement in giving back to the people what was their is a singular one. The question was posed this morning whether the Irish Land Commission were a failure. They were certainly not a failure in what they did. Their job was to distribute the land in an even-handed manner and they were quite successful in this regard. Whether rural Ireland is as well off today as their aspirations meant it to be is very questionable. However, the Irish Land Commission should not be blamed if rural life is not as it might be. If depopulation along the west, south-west and north-west is the position today — as it certainly is — then the Irish Land Commission should not be blamed. If you tear up the railway lines to the west, south-west and north-west of the country, fail to provide the infrastructure which is in place in the east and ignore the plight of those who are forced to flee from the land because of falling incomes, of course there will be depopulation and a disparity in society.

The division of east and west since the foundation of the State becomes more pronounced with each passing year and the measures to address the problem have never been implemented by any Government. The time has come, in the context of a new Europe, to address the problem or to accept that we will not have parity or equality of opportunity.

The Leader programme is the first real initiative in respect of garnering imagination or innovation to assist the south, west and north-west. I strongly believe that the Leader programme should have been confined to the areas which are, without a shadow of doubt, on an unequal footing with the east coast. If the Leader programme fails I strongly believe that depopulation in the west, south-west and north-west will continue, which would be a shame.

There is a very serious position in relation to commonages. The days of commonages are outmoded and it is time, from the point of view of animal hygiene and in fairness to the farmers involved, that they should be divided. I think it was under one of the Acts in the thirties that the Irish Land Commission were given the power to compulsorily divide commonages. I understand that a legal question has been raised in regard to the constitutionality of that power. I strongly urge the Minister to bring about a situation where one farmer would not be allowed to prevent five or six others dividing the commonage to make some kind of reasonable living for themselves and their families. What is happening in regard to certain mountain commonages has a very serious environmental impact; there is considerable over-grazing on some mountain commonages which is causing worry not only in regard to the fairminded farmers who do not overgraze but in regard to the environmental hazard which must be addressed.

I note from the Minister's speech it is proposed that the Land Commission's fishery rights would be transferred to the Central Fisheries Board. I wish to sound a serious note of caution in relation to the manner in which fishery rights — and their ownership — are progressing. Too many of our finest fishery rights are in the hands of large, very often foreign, companies or individauls with a consequential downstream effect because they are being kept for the use of exclusive clubs and people. They are not being used for the benefit of all the people. These fisheries have become exclusive domains and a public policy must now address the problem.

If we are to seriously consider growth in tourism it is of crucial importance that our natural resources are made available to those who visit the country and indeed to our own nationals. To be historical, there was enough trouble in the past — and many people died — so that our fisheries and lands were free and it is just and right now that our people should utilise those natural resources and preserve them for future generations. Our people should also have the right to decide who will utilise these resources. It is not acceptable that a few chosen individuals or companies can tie up — by buying up — some of our finest fisheries. I strongly believe that any person with freedom in his heart and fair play and justice on his mind would say that this has to be stopped now. In talking about rural development, I ask the Minister to keep a very close eye on our resources to ensure that there can never be a question of them getting into the hands of a few.

A recent Habitat Directive by the European Community established a landmark in the history of Europe. It provides that member states must buy, in so far as they can, areas of special interest which would, for example, be important in relation to wildlife, fauna and flora. It is a recognition, if ever there was one, by the European Community that the development of Europe has become so commercialised and indeed modernised that there is a danger to the natural environment. Ireland, of all the European states, is unique in this regard and can boast without a shadow of a doubt of the finest examples of wildlife, fauna and flora. However, we need to be extremely careful and vigilant about tourists who shoot wildlife indiscriminately in our bog-lands, moorlands and mountains. Too many countries in Europe and throughout the world have learned to their cost that when they lose their wildlife it is extremely difficult to get them back again. It would be a great shame if we were to allow these people to interfere in any way with our wildlife. I hope amending legislation to the Wildlife Act will be introduced as soon as possible to ensure that the risk to our wildlife and natural heritage is minimised as far as possible.

I again wish the Minister well during his tenure of office. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this historic debate.

It was a pleasure for the Chair to listen to the Deputy, as it is to listen to Deputy Paul Connaughton.

Unfortunately, this is the second time I have had to attend the funeral of the Land Commission.

I do not take any pleasure from the fact that I am the undertaker.

I sincerely congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment. Like Deputy O'Donoghue, I do not know of anyone who is better able to carry that mantle. I hope the Minister will be given enough latitude in Agriculture House to do the things he wants to do.

I view the dissolution of the Land Commission with a certain element of regret. I spent four and a half years in Agriculture House and, as many people will testify, I had a great personal interest in this matter. I put a great deal of effort into the land question without, I have to acknowledge, achieving any great results. It is true to say that many of the schemes I thought would be of benefit to rural Ireland were not implemented for a variety of reasons.

Like my colleagues, I do not think there is much to be gained from harping on what the Land Commission did and did not do. This is an historic occasion because no other State institution was as important to so many people for so long as the Land Commission. Even though the Land Commission are now deemed to have outlived their usefulness, like other rural Deputies, I know what the Land Commission meant to people in rural Ireland.

About two months ago I attended a ceremony at Creggs on the Galway-Roscommon border to mark the last speech given by Charles Stewart Parnell one hundred years previously, a few days before he died. Charles Stewart Parnell, Michael Davitt and others lit the torch for the establishment of a body such as the Land Commission. First there was the congested districts board, which was eventually replaced by the Land Commission. We should never forget the history of the Land Commission and how much they meant to people.

I do not think I will be wasting the time of the House if I refer to a story told to me by my grandmother which is very relevant today. My grandmother was in Creggs the day Charles Stewart Parnell gave his speech. I remember as a young lad asking her what she thought of his speech. Like many other thousands of peasants, as they were, her family were very poor — they had only four or five acres of land and lived in a hovel which had only one window and one door. The only part of his speech which she remembered — there was no amplification and in any event she may not have understood what he was saying — was his statement that wealth should be redistributed and Irish people should be given the opportunity to reclaim land which had been taken off them many generations previously. When she was travelling home from the meeting with her neighbours she remembered saying that she did not believe this would ever happen.

My grandmother's family were given a new two storey house, which would now be regarded as a hovel, and 27 acres of land. She told me that the first day they moved into the house she looked out the gable window and prayed to the Blessed Virgin that the day would come when they would have enough stock to fill that large farm. The history of the Land Commission goes back to those times. Like most people, I am not ashamed of this. However, times change and massive changes have taken place in Europe and Ireland.

I believe we will be making a monumental mistake if we do not replace the Land Commission — I have no problem with their dissolution — with another land authority. There is as much a need now for an overall land authority as there was at the time the Land Commission were set up. In fact, there is more of a need for a land authority now in a different way than there was over the past 50 or 60 years. The Land Commission were given overriding acquisition powers — they could literally acquire the land at your doorstep. If we were to go back to the courts with similar legislation now I have no doubt that it would be deemed to be unconstitutional. Taken together with the method of payment, land bonds, this was daylight robbery. However, like last year's snow, that system of payment has been done away with.

Ireland has a high dependency on agriculture. Fourteen per cent of the population are actively involved in agriculture and many other people depend on this industry. Obviously we have different demands and considerations from a country like, for example, England where only 2 per cent or 3 per cent of the population are involved in agriculture. It used to be said that land matters were of interest to farmers and their families only. I believe that in the future the decisions made in regard to land in this country, 15 million or 16 million acres, will impinge on the lifestyles of everyone. I should like to think that whatever proposals are put forward in the future will take this into account.

We need a new land authority. Perhaps they should have a different name as they will have to deal with many more items of a much broader nature than anything the Land Commission ever had to deal with during their lifetime. I want to give a few examples. It is now accepted by all and sundry that there will be no huge increase in the production of commodities. A ceiling has been placed on their production. For the foreseeable future quotas will apply to milk production and there will be a limit to the number of sheep and cattle that may be reared. That is as far as we can go in that area, but there are many other areas we can concentrate on.

There is a new phenomenon in rural Ireland whereby trees are planted in many areas. That is a matter of land usage. Obviously you cannot plant trees on O'Connell Street; they must be planted on land. Tree planting is a new dimension to rural life in Ireland. This matter has been discussed at length over the last couple of years and the question has been asked whether people should be allowed to plant trees wherever they want. In the beginning there was no problem because trees were considered as a worth-while resource and it made great sense, as it still does, to plant much of the lands with trees. Overall it is a good project, but at the end of the day there may be more trees than are needed. We are now arriving at a stage where for some people there may be only one way to look in 20 years time, that is towards the sky, because they will be surrounded by trees. This is a matter for a land authority. Obviously the Government may give a direction in the matter but the expertise that existed in the Land Commission should be called on to help deal with it. At present it is the responsibility of the Department of Energy, but in many cases too many Departments are involved in these matters with no Department having overall responsibility.

Deputy O'Donoghue mentioned the whole question of wildlife. There are areas of this country that should be used as golf courses, shooting areas and so on, but at the same time we want to ensure that people who live in those areas have certain rights. What is needed is a balance and I was long enough in Kildare Street to know that it is very difficult to get the balance right. There will be great tension among all the warring factions but that is no reason for not going through with projects. I had hoped that an all-party interdepartmental committee would be set up to oversee this matter. I will mention later five or six other items with which they could also deal.

There is also a European dimension to this matter. There are about 15 million acres of land in Ireland and we should concentrate on how best this land can be used for our people. I have no doubt that leisure activities will play a much greater role in people's lives in the future, and anybody who spends time in Europe will realise that. Over the last 20 or 30 years there were occasions when there was a great shortage of office space and housing space in Dublin and it appeared that the right thing to do would be to build on half of the Phoenix Park. If that had been done it would have alleviated certain problems at the time, but it would have been a disaster for the people of Dublin and of Ireland. There are many parks throughout Ireland, and there is nobody better equipped to take initiatives in this area than the Minister.

I have not mentioned the work of the old Land Commission. If an inter-departmental committee were set up all interested parties could be invited to give their views. It will always be the view of people in Agriculture House that if vested interests are consulted we will get nowhere, but I believe we will get nowhere if we do not consult them. I see no reason the expertise of farming organisations, cultural and sporting organisations and others cannot be called on to devise a strategy for the future so that projects can be initiated throughout the country.

The Department of Energy have responsibility for areas of scientific interest. Some time ago a court case found that the Department interpreted some rules in an unconstitutional manner. This is a question for the whole country but particularly for Country Galway. Recently, in the greater Connemara area a restriction was placed, without notice to the landholders, under the ASI heading. At the stoke of a pen, without notification to the landholders, the property was devalued. Obviously the courts did not accept that. When considering the establishment of a land authority all these matters must be taken into account. Of course, there are areas in the country which should be designated as ASI areas but not at a cost to the people who own the land. Similarly, with environmentally sensitive areas in which the Department are involved, it is very important that basic reasons are given for certain areas being chosen for certain projects. There should be some rationale in this regard.

I want to refer to some functions of the Land Commission which should be continued. I do not envisage a return to the purchase of land under the system as it existed previously. I have been a critic of that system for many years. The system whereby land was acquired under the Land Commission, held for up to six years, as was normally the case, and then redistributed was of no value to the Exchequer. The former landowner was paid in land bonds which was of little use to him and, by the time the land was allocated to the next farmer, it had become so poor that, particularly in latter years, some farmers would have been better off if they had never got it.

I am very disappointed that the Department in the last four or five years have dropped the group purchase system which I introduced. That system worked extraordinarily well in the years 1985 and 1986. I have always believed that there is a collective opportunity, as in the co-operative movement, for small farmers to do something that they would be unable to do individually. The model was taken from the old Land Commission but without the powers of that body. In brief, the local Land Commission inspector would act as an honest broker. People who displayed an interest in a farm coming up for sale would go to the local inspector and say that five or six of them wanted to purchase the farm jointly and needed someone they could trust, an honest broker, to divide the land among them in relation to the amount of money each was able to invest. I again draw attention to an issue to which I referred two and a half years ago, and I am sure that Deputy Kitt, who is on the other side of the House, will also remember this case. A farm of 300 acres came up for sale in Eyrecourt. Local people called together a few meetings at which emotions ran high and at which, quite rightly, people said that they were not able to buy the land and asked whether the Land Commission would acquire it. I said that that would not happen because it was not the best procedure to follow. Instead, I suggested that the Government would set up the model. Within two months 14 local farmers had the 300 acres bought and registered in their names.

I admit that one of the reasons the scheme did not work was that for a while Land Commission inspectors were asked to go out and work on the land tax issue, which meant that there was no one in the offices to do the work. Following that trying time and following the repeal of the legislation, I am bitterly disappointed that none of the Minister's predecessors has seen fit to implement such a scheme. Perhaps that is a minor point but is an extremely important one in the small farming areas. The establisment of such a scheme would give neighbours a chance to purchase an additional nine or ten acres without the State incurring any cost.

A few years ago I introduced into the Dáil legislation for long-term land leasing. There were great expectations of that legislation but, for a variety of reasons, it ran into trouble as a result of the downturn in agricultural income. However, there is always great space for long-term leasing, particularly in the good farming areas where there are fairly large farms and a farmer has one or two sons involved in agricultural work.

Bogs and commonages in poorer land areas are now written off. Having read the Minister's speech, I have to come to the conclusion that no one has thought of that matter. Although it is stated that that will be a function of the Department of Agriculture and Food, the Minister should not be misled about the position: it would take three months for a person to hunt down a Land Commission staff member because there are so few of them around; they are not allowed to travel——

They are a rare species.

They are a rare species, indeed. I cannot see people being recruited through the Civil Service for that work. Is it possible that that function could be transferred, still within the Department of Agriculture and Food, to the farm development service, who operate in every county? That idea should be explored because of the opportunity it offers, particularly to those from poorer land areas. There needs to be an agricultural inspector in each farm development service office to carry out that responsibility. At least there would be someone to whom farmers could explain their problems and from whom they could receive advice.

I am long enough in the tooth to know that once there has been a change in direction it will not be possible for farmers to receive the same kind of service they got from Land Commission inspectors. It is a personal opinion of mine — one that I am sure is not shared by too many Members on either side of the House — that when a group of farmers want to divide an area of commonage they should be asked to employ the services of an engineer to draw up a plan for its division. The usual programme for the division of commonage has in the past been for such a group of people to make contact with the local Land Commission inspectors, who would go to interview those concerned to try to reach agreement on division and, when agreement was reached, the commission would call in engineers with the necessary technical expertise to draw up a plan. That system will exist no more. I see no reason at all a group of farmers should not be asked to employ their own engineer in the some way as would be done when applying for planning permission. Farmers will not like me saying that but I make the point because I know that the commissioners will not be there.

The problem arises as to what the engineer will do with the map of division. At the moment the engineer would have nowhere to take the map. Speaking practically and taking into account the powers of the Department of Agriculture and Food, I wonder why the responsibility for organisation should not be given to one member of the farm development service. There should be someone to take that responsibility, and one would not need to have spent a few years at Harvard University before taking it on. The provision of such a service would be welcomed by many.

Deputy O'Donoghue made a technical point about the lack of legislation providing for the instance when a selfish shareholder in a commonage refuses to row in with the majority of shareholders. That problem has been put to the test and in my view there is now no problem with the legislation. The decision in a court case in Mayo last year in that regard was very definitive. If one or two participants in a commonage of eight or nine decide to object, the law calls on the Department of Agriculture and Food to divide up the commonage, inclusive of those who refuse to join in, giving the objectors the chance to appeal to an ordinary court. I believe that that measure meets the requirements.

As I have said, there is a breakdown in the actual delivery of service. That is why I suggested that the Minister give the farm development service a chance to carry out that function. My proposal would not add much extra cost to the Exchequer and it would provide a service.

If there is to be an overall land authority at some stage, then I should like the Minister to state specifically whether he personally is in favour of a new authority, one that could not and should not have the same functions is the old Land Commission. Times have changed and it would be most inappropriate now to have an authority that was anything like the old Land Commission.

Surely there must be some control on foreigners. I know that the officials would say that there is such control. It is true that the control is there on paper but it does not manifest itself on the ground. I am experienced enough to know that all that is needed by a foreigner from any country in order to purchase land is a big cheque book. Someone might have to make an application to an office in Kildare Street for a document that would issue in three days. The position is much the same with subdivision, but I am not arguing that issue. I have never had a hang-up about the subdivision laws as such. In the light of the laws that apply to Irish nationals when they go to other countries, there should be conditions imposed on foreigners wishing to purchase land here. I do not say that in the interests of keeping people out, which would be anti-European and against the spirit of the Treaty of Rome. However, it would be reasonable to require such people to have at least the same educational standards in agriculture that we ask of many of our young people applying for grants. People who possess the required qualifications would be as much entitled to buy land here as I should be entitled to buy land in Portugal or Denmark, for example.

If and when the Minister decides on some overall body for land usage he should ensure that all sectors of the community are involved, even people having no connection with farming. That 15 million acres is for the benefit of the people. Of course we want to keep the maximum number of families farming on the land. That must be a priority as far as is possible, but we must be able to ensure that something like the amenity of the Phoenix Park, for instance, will be left and other such spaces will be created throughout the country for people who do not live on farms, who have no interest in farming but who wish to live in rural Ireland.

I look forward to the Minister's winding up speech because what was said in his opening speech was inadequate. It appears that the people in Agriculture House who always believed that there should not be any regulatory body are winning. That is not good. The Minister and the Minister of State in the interests of all the people, before this debate is over, should give us some indication of what they genuinely believe about such a body. I wish the Minister of State well.

I join in congratulating Deputy Hyland on his appointment as Minister of State. I served with him in the Council of Europe. I hope his experience in Europe will help him in his negotiations in Europe on behalf of Irish farmers, particularly small farmers. We are from adjoining constituencies and would have the same interests in the whole area of agriculture.

I join with the Minister in paying tribute to the staff of the Land Commission. Given that this Bill was presented in March 1989, I have been saddened by the fact that there has been very little discussion with the staff of the Land Commission about their future following the dissolution of the Land Commission. When staff from the Land Commission were redeployed to the income tax offices to carry out land evaluation for land tax purposes the Department of Agriculture would not take them back when that was abandoned. I am amazed that there have been attempts following that to move Land Commission staff from the west of Ireland to Dublin. That is a disgraceful proposition when the Leader programme has been introduced and when rural development programmes have been introduced.

I am delighted that one of the responsibilities that has been allocated to Deputy Hyland relates to rural enterprise and development. I would ask the Minister to take on board the fact that Land Commission staff in western areas could take responsibility for some of these programmes and in other areas. It was suggested that county development teams would be expanded to work on rural development and that is another area where Land Commission staff expertise might be needed. It is fair to point out that if the Minister moves even ten offices to Dublin we could be talking about moving 40 or 50 people to Dublin from the west. There is serious concern in the west about emigration and unemployment and we are proposing to move people from the west to Dublin when these people could be used productively on other schemes in the west.

In the past the Land Commission built houses, provided water supplies and built roads. When the Land Commission were first set up there was what was referred to at the time as the congestion of smallholders. Not only had the Land Commission to build houses and provide water supplies but they had to find farms for people in other parts of the country. That gave rise to Gaeltachtaí being set up in places like Meath when people were moved to those areas. The roads the Land Commission built were first class and it was easy for the county councils to take them over at a later stage. The roads were of a good quality and they are a testament to the Land Commission work at the time.

I hope that commonages and bogs will be divided now. It was totally ridiculous that one farmer could object to the division of a commonage. I know of areas where one farmer could object to the division of two or three commonages because he would have shares in each of them. This holds up the whole question of land allotment in western regions. Irrespective of whether or not we have a Land Commission, this question must be dealt with.

With regard to land annuities, the Land Commission bought land when it was expensive but they have been too quick to ask farmers to pay high land annuities. The farmers cannot pay. Farming has been going through a difficult time particularly over the last two years. There must be a way out of this. I suggest that a longer period should be given within which to pay annuities. I know that Deputy Michael O'Kennedy as Minister set up a working party to look at individual cases because we could not legislate for people with problems paying land annuities. At the moment many farm grants, such as cattle and sheep headage grants, are being used to pay land annuities. In many cases the annuities are being deducted from the grants. It is difficult for any farmer to plan ahead when he sees his grants being deducted to pay land annuities.

I hope that following this Bill we can have a replacement for the Land Commission. I hope that the Government and the Minister for Agriculture and Food, and particularly Deputy Hyland, can come up with a body which will look at land use. It is land use we have to consider now. The concerns of the staff are also important, but I have raised that point already. Naturally, the staff are worried about their future. When one considers the role the Land Commission played in the group purchase scheme, which was very successful in some areas, I wonder who will carry out the work of redistributing land when the Land Commission are dissolved. There is a role for some organisation to deal with the commonages, bogs and land distribution.

The Minister said that the Department's policy is to ensure that we retain as many viable farms as possible. Indeed, it is part of the constitution of the Fianna Fáil Party that we have as many farm families on the land as possible. As the Minister said, we will have to look very carefully at the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, which will affect small farmers in particular. I have said at public meetings and I repeat in this House that our Commissioner for Agriculture, Mr. Ray MacSharry is going in the right direction in trying to protect the small farmers. I have been criticised for saying this at some meetings. Certainly changes will have to be made, particularly in the number of livestock units per hectare. The commissioner is going in the right direction to protect the smaller farmers. We must ensure, however, that subsidies, headage, and grants payments are made on time. I cannot understand why we cannot arrange to have payments made on two or three set dates in the year. It is ridiculous that a farmer on one side of the road can get his grant payment today but the farmer on the other side of the road has to wait for two or three months for his payments. I would like to see the bureaucracy eliminated.

Approximately ten years ago there were similar problems with the payment of social welfare cheques but after decentralisation the Department of Social Welfare pay the recipients of different schemes from different offices. For example, pensions are paid from the Sligo office and the children's allowances are paid from Letterkenny. Surely, some similar arrangement could be made in the Department of Agriculture and Food because the Department administer only three schemes, headage, suckler cow and beef premium payments. The Department could arrange for the payments to be made from different centres and the farmers should receive their payments on set dates throughout the year.

I would be the first to admit that the Land Commission made mistakes. Perhaps it was Government policy that was responsible for the mistakes they made. For example, the land bonds were a disaster and people lost out in a big way on their introduction. However, the Land Commission played a very import-and role particularly in the 12 western counties where farmers could buy out their land at half the market value. That scheme has been done away with. Under section 50 of the Land Act, 1931, a farmer could buy out the land if he or she paid one-third of the instalment in a once-off payment on top of the fixed payment for the land. I would like to see a similar provision in the Department of Agriculture and Food. Tribute must be paid to the Land Commission for the social role they played in rural Ireland. It may be only a small thing but they provided playing pitches for various sporting organisations. Many GAA, soccer and rugby clubs that I know of got the land for their playing pitches from the Land Commission. They were then able to provide other facilities. The starting point in many parishes in the west was to get the land for sporting facilities.

May I congratulate Deputy Hyland on his appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for rural development. He has a very important role as far as the western Deputies are concerned. Even though we are abolishing the Land Commission I hope we will not forget the great work they did. I hope we will see alternative uses of land, as this is the most important issue facing our farmers.

I join with my colleagues in extending every good wish to Deputy Hyland on his appointment as Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food. As a near neighbour of mine in Kilkenny. I can say that his commitment to agriculture and his involvement in the agricultural industry over the years will be of great benefit when he is putting together the appropriate policies to ensure a brighter future for the troubled agricultural industry.

The Land Commission Bill introduced in 1989 resulted in the dissolution of the Dáil. I hope that history will not repeat itself on this occasion. The efforts that have been made to dissolve this historic body have been many and varied and go back to 1984. However, I expect we will succeed on this occasion.

The system of land tenure prevailing in Ireland is almost exclusively owner-occupancy. This system evolved between 1870 and 1923 from an unsuccessful landlord-tenant system which had been imposed on the country by British conquest between the mid-16th and mid-17th centuries. Unfortunately, the need for land reform in Ireland is as critical now as it was in 1870. It was in that context that the Land Commission were established as a State agency that would bring about agricultural viability and at the same time introduce new entrants to agriculture, a plantation method. It became an extension of the work that had been carried out by the Congested Districts Boards in the 19th century.

The total agricultural area in Ireland which can be utilised is around 5.7 million hectares. One might think that this is a tremendous amount of land to cater for the small island of Ireland but everybody knows there are great structural problems varying from one region to another.

Land is unique in that it is fixed in location and limited in supply. Consequently the relationship between man and land is central to the structure of rural society. Therefore the rational allocation of land between the competing demands made on it by society is both a delicate and complicated matter. The records of our courts will show that there have been more internal and external family disputes relating to the ownership or otherwise of lands than any other issue before the courts. Land is such a delicate issue that it conjures up the potential for friction in communities that is unlikely to be surpassed.

However, because of our unique dependency on agriculture it is undoubtedly in the interests of both the agricultural sector and the national economy to have the maximum amount of land utilised to produce value-added products in spite of surplus production in the European Community generally.

When one looks at the present structure of farming in Ireland it is obvious that there are major obstacles to achieving maximum utilisation. The census of population in 1986 shows 22,111 farmers aged 65 years and over. In addition there has been a trend towards part-time farming and the removal of marginal land from active use which has been accelerated in recent times by a reduction in product price through reduction in supports from the Common Agricultural Policy.

The facts, coupled with the extent of conacre, would suggest less than full utilisation of the land in Ireland. There is a general misconception that massive land resources are mobilised through the land market each year. The reality is that approximately 3 per cent of land changes hands through ownership changes but by far the largest proportion of land, 84 per cent of changes in ownership, is transacted through inheritance and gifts. Accordingly, if we are to make any impact on land mobility, it will be through financial inducements in the area of inheritance which will generate the greatest impact.

Various measures have been introduced by successive Governments over the years to include stamp duty exemption, relief under the capital acquisitions tax code, young farmer installation aid, farmer retirement schemes, tax incentives for long term leasing; but in spite of all of these important incentives there are many people in Ireland today who still find it difficult to relinquish the reins of ownership, and indeed more so in recent times when there is a general reluctance on the part of new entrants to agriculture to take over the reins of ownership in view of the uncertain aspects of a viable standard of living on agricultural holdings in the future.

Undoubtediy the most significant problem in agriculture is the persistence of low and volatile incomes. It is particularly striking that this problem should remain even after a period of very strong growth in overall agricultural income. Indeed the disparities in incomes in the agricultural sector would seem to have widened since 1973, particularly because of the structural characteristics of Irish agriculture and the rural economy. It appears that the increased output of Irish agriculture in the seventies or indeed subsequently was provided by a minority of farmers. The remainder occupying the large proportion of agricultural land were unable for a variety of reasons to respond to the strong incentives offered by the Common Agricultural Policy. This dichotomy in the agricultural sector has been investigated and found to coincide closely with the age, education and marital characteristics of farmers, as well as farm size and regional properties. The persistence of low incomes and the narrow base of the progressive sector reveal the existence of very severe structural and other problems in the Irish economy. This is stated in an NESC report into the problems of Irish agriculture vis-à-vis the changes in the Common Agricultural Policy.

It is widely accepted throughout the European Community, and becoming more so in Ireland, that the achievement of adequate farm incomes requires the inevitable reduction in the numbers employed in that sector. Indeed, various studies have indicated that the minimum variable size of holding for grassland production is increasing over time. This implies that we will have more adjustment in land structures over the next decade. One would have to say that, in spite of the activities of the Land Commission to make more farmers viable and to increase their holdings and introduce new entrants to agriculture, the underlying structure which was being preserved was one which sustained inadequate income levels in a period of relative agricultural prosperity.

It also appears that the policy since our entry to the European Community failed to induce significant change in the size and structure of agricultural holdings. One will recall that the former Minister for Agriculture, Mark Clinton, established an interdepartmental committee on land structural reform during his term of office in the mid-seventies. This report identified three characteristics of the Irish land tenure system which were obstacles to improved land use. First, there was the predominance of owner occupancy; second, the strong sense of attachment to the family holding and, third, the prevalence of short term leasing. The committee concluded that these inflexible features of our land tenure system constituted the major barriers to development of the country's agricultural industry. The proportion of farm holdings with total incomes below the 50 per cent relative poverty line, with an income less than half the average industrial wage, almost doubled since our entry to the EC. This is hard to believe, in spite of the net Common Agricultural Policy transfers to the economy which rose as high as over 10 per cent of GNP in the early eighties but which have been declining gradually since 1980 itself.

Obviously the age profile of our farming population has been largely responsible, in addition to the structural problems of agriculture, in failing to respond to the opportunities given to the agricultural sector since 1973. In addition there has been no national land policy to develop or re-orientate the rural economy since the mid seventies. There has been a laissez-faire attitude to the problem of Irish agriculture so long as the net transfer of aid from the European Community continued to flow into the Irish economy. In recent years one can only conclude that the chickens have come home to roost.

It is vital that the current EC philosophy on maintaining the rural society does not provide a veil on inherent structural problems in Irish agriculture. A properly co-ordinated rural development programme is urgently required. In particular this programme must effectively improve the structural efficiency of agriculture.

More and more of our aid is coming from the Community through various compensation payments for reduced product price. However, thousands of farm families are undergoing tremendous financial pressure and it is cold comfort to them that there is a problem at EC level in respect of the payment of the special beef premia, suckler cow premia or other payments. There is no source of income whatsoever coming into the family farm at this time of the year except those payments.

Mansholt failed in his objective in the early seventies to destroy rural communities, but Commissioner Ray MacSharry has succeeded in one fell swoop through his proposals and through the encouragement of the Euro barometer in reducing commercial Irish agriculture to subsistence level. He is closing down the engines of agricultural productivity and replacing them with the "cheque in the post syndrome". That appears to be the mentality and the policy which Deputy Michael Kitt would wish to make permanent in the Irish agricultural industry. I hope the new Minister of State, Deputy Hyland, who comes from a part of the country where we still depend on the weather, will actually ensure that the commercial farmer in this country will continue to have a vital role to play in agricultural productivity.

The MacSharry proposals are not thought out properly. His alternative proposals of treating farmers as hewers of wood and protectors of the environment are insufficient and no substitute for a proper land reform policy.

The need for a modern and effective land policy and programme is now more urgent than at any time in the recent past. We have an ageing population and an increasing capital cost of establishing on a farm today. It is ironic that these are the facts of life at a time when we are dissolving the Land Commission, especially when we consider the historic contribution that that body made to viable farm families and holdings throughout the country. Production quotas, environmental factors and the trend towards extensification all combine to increase the area of land required to generate our given level of income.

The State has in the past through the Land Commission built a land policy around the notion of purchasing land and redistributing it to smallholders. It is totally unacceptable to me to abolish the Land Commission today and fail to replace it with a new land agency to formulate and implement a new land use programme to bring about an economically sustainable and acceptable land tenure and ownership structure.

We need an agency that will implement the objectives of the President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, when he stated that the general thrust of European agricultural policy would be to maximise the number of viable farm family units on the land. Since he made that statement in County Wicklow he has unfortunately failed to back it up with properly constructed and co-ordinated policies.

In the past 20 years the number of farm families has fallen from 180,000 to just 90,000 full-time farmers. On further examination of these figures it is clear that most of the reduction has taken place in the farming category under 30 acres. This has obviously major implications for the structure of rural society and the income distribution in rural areas. More and more land is required to meet the average household income today than was required 20 years ago.

It is now accepted that it would take at least 90 acres of good agricultural land to earn a similar income to that of the average industrial wage and your income from agriculture will be largely determined by whether you have a milk quota or not. It is generally accepted that a 40,000 gallon milk quota on a 90 acre farm is required to have that type of income. This is the type of huge structural change that has taken place in rural Ireland without any reference to the implications for rural society or any preconceived planning for the entire agricultural industry. Is it any wonder then that the various incentives I referred to earlier are not working to increase land mobility?

At the same time as there is a huge reduction in farm incomes, the State continues to penalise inter-family transfers through the capital acquisitions tax code. The Minister for Finance and, indeed, the Taoiseach, fail to understand the damage that this penal taxation regime is causing to the commercial agricultural sector through the enactment of the various Finance Bills over the past couple of years. I call on the Minister for Agriculture and Food today to use his good offices in the preparation of the Finance Bill to amend thresholds in the Capital Acquisitions Tax Act, 1976 to ensure proper account is taken of the value of agricultural land.

The introduction of contributory pensions for farmers takes away a valuable incentive for transferring farms. The farmer no longer needs to transfer his farm in order to qualify for a pension. Retirement schemes have failed to encourage land transfer in spite of EC Council Regulation 1096/88 which allows for a lump sum payment to a farmer who retires at age 63 or earlier and which has never been implemented in Ireland. The young farmer installation aid scheme, a proper retirement scheme and a realistic capital acquisitions tax threshold could mean a new impetus to land mobility in Ireland which gives the farmer a specific work routine, plenty of social contact and the social standing of one who is providing for his or her family in contributing to society and job creation in agriculture.

It is reasonable to expect that, with the downturn in agricultural activity and the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, there will be an increasing amount of land coming on the open market in coming years. Thus, it is essential that some regulatory authority be established to ensure that this land is used for agricultural purposes rather than speculative development. It is important that full-time farmers gain access to this land rather than people from the professions who seek only to obtain the holding for future capital gain or as a family playground. I contend that the land market between now and the end of the decade should account for most of the transfer of land rather than the amount of land that has been transferred by gift or inheritance to date.

It is essential that proper safeguards and the financial framework are now put in place to assist potentially viable farmers obtain additional land. The central thrust of any new land agency should be to reform the current land market and to increase the ability of the medium-scale farmer to compete with other land purchasers in the open market so as to bring about a more economic and socially acceptable land tenure system. Unfortunately, reduced access to capital from the financial institutions and anomalies in the income tax code create a bias in the land market against small and medium-scale farmers. Two very important and fundamental ingredients are essential for new entrants to viable farm holdings in relation to access to land. First, we must have a well qualified and educated work-force in agriculture that will be able to meet the challenges and opportunities of Common Agricultural Policy reform and, second, the same income tax concessions available to persons and companies outside of agriculture should be available to people directly in the industry to finance the purchase of agricultural land to offset interest costs on borrowed capital and so on.

Perhaps reform of the tax code in this way would have a moderating influence on land prices and would give an opportunity to the farming sector to purchase agricultural land thus reducing the competition from the non-farming sector. It is unrealistic to expect any restructuring of land and essential subsequent development of the enlarged holdings in the absence of fixed repayments or income-related long term finance.

The country and financial institutions have failed to devise any system of financing capital for land purchase which takes account of changing conditions over a long period. Substantial amounts of money for long term investment can be raised in the money markets with the backing of a State guarantee where the rate of return to the investor is 1 per cent to 2 per cent in real terms.

The best example of this particular method was through the Housing Finance Agency established by the Government to provide more housing in 1981. That body borrowed £300 million over five years and, unfortunately, the experience has not been one of success for many borrowers. Nevertheless, we should learn from that experience and apply this type of system of financing to land purchase.

It is ironic that the State has an agricultural bank at its disposal — through the ACC — to establish a similar type of agency to raise long term capital under State guarantee but it does not have the political will or the foresight in terms of long term planning to initiative such a scheme.

The country has one of the highest real levels of interest rates in Europe and the financial institutions are making huge profits. Consequently there should be a fund at fixed levels of interest which could be made available for agricultural development. There is no consistency in the way in which security policy is implemented in the financial institutions today. There is no consistency in the manner of economic development or agricultural development here that takes account of lending policy vis-a-vis the economic conditions of the day. In good times money is literally thrown at people and in bad times banks feel they will never have the repayment made on the day on which it is due.

An enlightened approach to the availability of finance for agricultural development is essential in order to ensure that the engine of agricultural activity, namely, the commercial farm is equipped to cope with the onslaught of product price reductions which Commissioner MacSharry is intent on implementing.

Any new land agency should have responsibility to ensure that all land transfers are monitored and that detailed statistical information on land transfers and leases be published annually. At present there is a huge information gap on the question of land policy and it is difficult for any agency or Government to make decisions on land restructuring without any idea of the trends in respect of land mobility taking place at present.

The attack on rural Ireland from the European Community, the reduction in direct income support from the State and the huge socio-economic changes that are taking place throughout rural Ireland should provide the necessary impetus for the Government to implement radical and planned changes in our rural development policies that will ensure viability for as many farm families as possible and retain the population of rural areas intact at a time when there are little or no opportunities outside agriculture.

I urge the Minister to bring together the farm organisations as soon as possible to discuss a replacement of the Land Commission by establishing a new and dynamic land agency. Another factor which makes this agency even more important is the mobility that is taking place in terms of the milk quota and the need to monitor the transfer of milk supplies from one region to another on a national basis.

I commend the thinking of farm organisations like Macra na Feirme and the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers' Association on their thought-provoking and enlightened approach to the issues of land reform. All farm organisations could make a valuable contribution towards the establishment of a dynamic land agency. In respect of this matter I was disappointed to note in the Minister's speech that he was content to leave the issue of land policy to market forces and, because of the downturn in agricultural support from the European Community, he was of the opinion there was no need for a new land agency or that any impetus be given to a land use policy.

Legislation was enacted recently by the Houses of the Oireachtas in respect of land bonds. This has given an opportunity to the Minister for Agriculture and Food to review the land annuities paid by farmers for lands acquired by these farmers from the Land Commission over the years. The problem of many farmers in meeting their bi-annual payments to the Land Commission is now a cause of serious concern. It is estimated that there are approximately 6,000 farmers with serious arrears problems with the Land Commission. The question of withholding various premium payments from the Department of Agriculture and Food and, indeed, the fact that some cases have been dealt with through the sheriff has highlighted the escalating problem with these repayments.

Many of the farmers have had to resort to applying for social welfare but many are deemed ineligible as they cannot claim the annuity as a legitimate expense. The problem of high annuity occurred mainly in the period 1978 to 1982 when a combination of high interest rates and high prices led to a very high payment being arrived at. Many of the farmers who got land at that time would have been better off if they had never got it in view of the millstone they have put around their necks. The highest interest rate payment was 18.25 per cent and in some instances the payment per acre was as high as £180 per annum. This problem has been compounded by the reduction in farm produce prices and the introduction of milk quotas.

The outlook for many of our farmers is bleak. It is estimated by the Irish Farmers Association that arrears owing to the Land Commission are of the order of £5.4 million and that these arrears will rise significantly in the years ahead.

Radical measures are now required to alleviate the problem and I am glad the Minister for Agriculture and Food has set up a working group to examine the issue. In view of the fact that the Minister is now abolishing the Land Commission and that he has vested himself with powers under the Land Bond Act, 1991, this is an opportunity for the State to dispose of all properties, through a tenant purchase scheme at a knock-down price. The precedent for such a scheme is well known to the Department of the Environment. The State, under a generous buy-out scheme, gave tenants the opportunity to become owner-occupiers.

People with holdings, which were acquired from the Land Commission, and who made their repayments on time, should be considered in drawing up any scheme in the future.

I know of many farmers who bought their properties from the Land Commission using funds borrowed from financial institutions. Should consideration be given to holders of property presently vested in the Land Commission similar consideration should also be given to farmers who have paid on time and have worked with great difficulty to meet their financial commitments. It would be very unfair if farmers who have paid their way and have borrowed money at high rates were not given concessions or did not receive consideration while those who have not been in a position to make their land annuity repayments were the only ones to receive consideration under a potential land buy-out scheme. Indeed it would be grossly unfair if farmers who are in arrears, through no fault of their own, were the only ones to receive consideration. I hope the working group established in the Department of Agriculture and Food will take this into account.

In October 1984, the Government announced that it was their intention to abolish the Land Commission. Eleven estate officers were informed, through their trade unions, that it was proposed to transfer them from the Department of Agriculture and Food to the Department of Social Welfare, on a temporary basis. The functions of the estate officers it was proposed to redeploy were the rearrangement of land, commonage division, group purchase, the letting of lands, the collection of Land Commission annuity arrears and so on. It was proposed that they be redeployed to the Department of Social Welfare as investigation officers they would be involved in checking on recipients of unemployment benefit and so on. However, there was no negotiation with the estate officers at that time and they were not transferred or redeployed because the social welfare officers' union objected.

In 1987, the estate officers were transferred to work in various district court offices around the country, effectively as clerical officers. This represented a unilateral alteration of their terms of employment. Again, there was no negotiation with the affected officers. Effectively, the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Agriculture and Food, were in collusion and acting ultra vires, without any consultation. They were in breach of the contract of employment of the estate officers when they decided that they should be redeployed.

There was added urgency to get rid of the Land Commission estate officers in 1987 because the farm tax office had been abolished and the redundant officers had to be accommodated in their former Department. As the House is aware, the estate officers of the Land Commission operate under the aegis of the Department of Agriculture and Food and were appointed following an open competition held by the Civil Service Commission under the Civil Service Commissioners Act, 1956. They were appointed under regulations made under that Act.

In summary, the estate officers were deemed to be holders of posts created by an Act of Parliament. Their conditions of service were embodied in a document entitled CS13/121/68 which was furnished to the estate officers at the time of their appointment. The estate officers decided to instigate a judicial review of their redeployment which eventually led to a full blown High Court case. Effectively, the estate officers deemed themselves to be in the permanent service of the Department of Agriculture and Food, that their assignment to the Department of Justice was wrong, that the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Agriculture and Food had exercised powers that were unlawful and were purporting to derogate from the applicants' original appointment.

The Minister for Finance at the time, Ray MacSharry, introduced a voluntary redundancy scheme. A number of officers applied and were successful. However, the High Court case continued and the outcome was that the Department of Finance were deemed to have failed to have due regard to an estate officer's reasonable expectations to continue in the Land Commission until the office was abolished by an Act of Parliament. Today tributes have been paid to the Land Commission for the work they have carried out. I wonder, therefore, in the light of these tributes why these estate officers were treated so harshly.

On 24 July 1989 Mr. Justice O'Hanlon gave leave to the estate officers to put their case to the High Court. Initially, the Department of Finance and the Department of Agriculture and Food failed to file a defence because of their incompetence in the matter. Eventually, the Department of Finance had to settle out of court. On 11 December 1990 a settlement was reached on the following terms: that the Minister for Finance was agreeable to the termination, with effect from 4 January 1991, of the assignment of the estate officers, who numbered 11, to court officers; to reinstate them as local officers with the Department of Agriculture and Food; the Minister was also prepared to agree to the application of many of the estate officers for the voluntary early retirement scheme, which was previously offered to them and he was prepared to re-engage some of the estate officers who had successfully applied under the scheme earlier once they repaid certain sums of money which they had received.

This detailed High Court case which I have just outlined, is a measure of the incompetence of the former Minister for Finance, Ray MacSharry, and the former Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy O'Kennedy, in their dealings with the Land Commission and their treatment of staff. It is another indication of how the Government's control of public moneys has been absolutely disgraceful. Effectively, the Ministers in question had broken every rule in the book in respect of the employment of personnel in the Department of Agriculture and Food, in particular in the Land Commission, without any hint of remorse from the Ministers in question or the civil servants who had advised them.

The Secretary of the Department of Agriculture and Food indicated, following the reinstatement of those officers, that they were to be assigned to the offices of the Land Commission and that there were no duties which he could assign to them. In other words, salaries have been paid to employees of the Land Commission which will run to approximately £600,000 without any duties being assigned to them. They are effectively being paid to do nothing.

I ask the Committee of Public Accounts to examine this question in detail to ensure there will not be a recurrence in the future and that proper procedures are put in place to make sure money will not be wasted in such a scandalous way in the future. This is another indication of low standards in the public service which we are prepared to accept in this jurisdiction. In any other country the issue of resignation or redeployment of the people who made those decisions would be on the agenda, but this will not happen in the Republic of Ireland.

In discussing this issue, which is of rural interest, I would like to take this opportunity to call on the Government to establish immediately a rural development agency. The Minister for Agriculture and Food should co-ordinate the activities of a new land authority and Teagasc, under the Leader programme, and initiate meaningful rural enterprise and development. I congratulate the Taoiseach on ensuring that Deputy Hyland was put in charge of this matter and I urge him when he comes to reply to the debate to indicate that he will establish an agency who will bring together under one body all strands of rural enterprise and development and that he will co-ordinate the activities of the farm development service and Teagasc under the Leader programme to ensure that development proceeds in a co-ordinated way in rural areas.

There is a great misconception about the frustration and despair that is apparent in rural society today. People are clutching at straws and looking for some hope for the future. This is not just a farming problem; it affects chambers of commerce, trade unions and farm organisations who are concerned about the future prosperity and survival of rural economies. We are all aware that when the rural hinterland is prosperous our towns and villages benefit tremendously. When the farming community make money and are going well this eventually will lead to job creation in towns and villages. Unfortunately, I must say that the sheltered public servants of Kildare Street seem to be immune to the fact that rural society is breaking up beyond the Pale. Hundreds of people are turning up at seminars and conferences, in places such as Ballyfin College, and want to hear messages of hope. No amount of political rhetoric from the Government is acceptable and no amount of "Eurospeak" from Commissioner MacSharry will convince ordinary farmers and people in rural areas that increased Structural Funds and alternative enterprises in mushroom production, rabbit or deer farming will provide any lasting solution to the income crisis they face.

A development officer should be appointed in each rural county and individual people who have good ideas should be given every possible assistance to realise their job creation potential. Particularly as a result of the proposals put forward by Commissioner MacSharry, Teagasc have a unique expertise, with their advisory staff, to initiate development programmes throughout rural communities. These people are perhaps the most experienced and best equipped to take on this innovative role. Development officers should be in a position to visit every village and town to realise the potential of ideas and to offer leadership to rural communities to lift them out of their present difficulties.

If the Government fail to initiate a radical and innovative rural development programme vast tracts of rural areas will become depopulated. The idea that Europe can resolve our economic and social problems will become just a theoretical pipe dream of the decision makers. It is essential that Government, at local, national and international level, respond to people's sense of despair and hopelessness in order to avoid rampant poverty and alienation.

I am glad to have the opportunity to articulate some of the views I cherish in relation to the future development of land policy. I do not accept what the Minister of State said in his speech; indeed, I find it difficult to believe that he accepts it, because I have known him for a long time and know his commitment to agriculture and rural development. He is wrong in thinking that market forces alone will be sufficient to ensure that we continue to have a viable rural community.

I do not accept that there will not be a land agency during the term of office of the Minister of State, Deputy Hyland. I appeal to him to bring together all the potential of rural areas in one body to ensure that he heads a Department of rural enterprise which will show leadership and dynamism and bring hope to frustrated people who are looking for leadership at the moment.

There are a number of estates in the constituency of the Minister of State — and mine — which need to be divided and I know that there are plans in that regard in 1992. Very important work was carried out by Land Commission officers in respect of rearrangement of holdings and the elimination of fragmentation. In the village of Mooncoin in South Kilkenny there is a huge prevalence of fragmentation. The Minister of State, with the staff of the Land Commission — those who are left — should be able to say whether progress has been made in this area to ensure that we have a more ordered farming practice and a more viable farm holding system in that part of County Kilkenny.

Again, I wish the Minister of State every success in his new portfolio. The demise of the Land Commission following the important historic role they have performed over the years will, I hope, signal the commencement of something more dynamic, significant and concerted for rural areas in future.

I also congratulate the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food, Deputy Hyland. He has an enormous contribution to make. I have known him for a long time because we both entered the Seanad together in 1977. Not only is he an astute politician, he is a caring man, and such is certainly needed in his Department.

In talking about the demise of the Land Commission some of us will have mixed feelings. They did good and bad work as far as land distribution and improvements were concerned over the years. We all know of cases where they did not seem to do the proper thing and where land was not given to those who seemed entitled to it, perhaps for the officer's own reasons. Indeed, in latter years the Land Commission have been a total failure. They were set up over 100 years ago to deal with the problem of land rents and when they are finally dissolved they will probably be seen to have been the worst landlords of all, because the rents sought for land subdivided by them were totally beyond the means of those to whom the land had been given. We all accept that the action taken by the previous Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy O'Kennedy, was necessary in trying to deal with the problems people ran into as a result of being granted Land Commission allotments, which were, to put it mildly, bought at totally unrealistic prices in the mid-seventies.

In future there should be development of our present resources, a role which can be played directly by the Department of Agriculture. We must also look at the need for a mechanism which will deal with some of the existing problems in regard to land acquisition. Since the Land Commission are now being abolished, it is fair to ask why it has taken them in some cases six or seven years to give people title documentation in regard to allotments which they received and paid for. I had a case this week of a farmer who had been given an allotment of land seven years ago but who still has not received the title deeds despite the fact that he paid cash for the allotment. That cannot be justified. When he made representations to the Land Commission on a number of occasions, he was told that the matter had been referred to Dublin and that he would receive the deeds in due course. That is unfair. If somebody buys a motor car they expect to receive the tax book forthwith. The same applies to land and title deeds. Will the Minister of State ask his officials in the Department to arrange for a speedy conclusion of all cases involving title deeds?

We must also look at the future of land policy without a Land Commission or regulatory authority. I have fears regarding development, especially in the west, in relation to land acquisition mainly for private afforestation. It frightens me and many farmers. Because of the enormous grants available from Europe for afforestation people who wish to remain in agriculture are not able to buy land when they are bidding against a private company. Not alone is this causing serious social problems, but it is also questionable what the value of those forests will be when they mature. Thinnings from land which was planted 25 or 30 years ago do not even pay the cost of taking them out, never mind the damage done to roads in the process of this work. It is a matter which must be reassessed. The Minister of State has responsibility for rural development and he should carry out a full assessment of the position with regard to the acquisition of large tracts of land by private companies for their own gain to the detriment of rural society. This is what is happening at present. Not alone are they acquiring land which is partially suitable for forestry but they are acquiring entire farms for planting even though 50 per cent of the land is suitable for agriculture. Local small farmers are not able to compete with them. The Department should examine the possibility of introducing some form of assessment for all land being taken out of agricultural production and put into forestry prior to the payment of grant aid by the Department of Energy. The reason I say this is simple. In many cases 20 acres or 30 acres of a 60 acre farm sold for forestry is of reasonable quality and could be sold to local farmers who want to buy it but who may not have the resources to buy the entire farm. If something is not done about this, rural society will fall asunder and farmers will be forced off the land. There is only one way farmers, especially those in the west, will stay on the land in the future, that is through expansion. If farmers cannot get increased market prices they have to produce more to have a viable income. We have to look seriously at this issue.

Reference has been made by previous speakers to people who will be displaced, so to speak, following the abolition of the Land Commission. These people have a major role to play in the areas in which they now live as development officers and co-ordinators for the rural development programmes proposed under the recent EC initiatives. Instead of putting these people back into offices in Dublin I ask the Minister to leave them in the areas in which they now live and use them to promote the various programmes which are coming on stream. These people have a role to play in their areas, having lived there for 20 or 25 years and gained much knowledge of what is required. Why should we throw out the baby with the bath water in this case? These people have a contribution to make and there is an opening there for them. I ask the Minister to use these people as sales persons for the proposed rural initiatives. This function is of major importance.

People talk about the difference between urban and rural areas but we should all remember that, when the farming community are doing well our small towns and villages and cities do well and when agriculture goes into recession the whole country goes into recession. We must use every power available to us to prevent a recession in rural areas. If farmers have money they will reinvest it in their farms and houses. This generates employment and revenue for the State. However, if farmers do not have confidence in their industry they will not reinvest their money. This means there is no spin-off to the rest of the community.

This Bill has been hanging around since 1989. We all knew it was coming. The Land Commission need to be replaced by some mechanism which will control land distribution. With the advent of the Single Market we will not be able to prevent an EC national from acquiring land in this country. However, there is still a major role to be played in regard to the acquisition, division and allotment of land to farmers. There is still an amount of commonage, especially in the west, which needs to be divided. This is an issue which should be looked at. In cases where there is agreement by a majority of commonage holders, commonages should be divided and brought into full production. As they say, what is everyone's business is nobody's business and commonages are everyone's business. The only question which arises in many cases is whether Jack can get three more sheep on the commonage than Joe even though their allotments are the same size. This is the type of thing which happens. It is time this issue was addressed.

The Minister hopes to complete the sale of the remaining estates before the end of this year. I ask the Minister to ensure that the cheque book is not used as the mechanism for these sales. I know a small farmer who was recently prevented from acquiring land because of his lack of cash resources. Because the Land Commission officer was making a cash sale only a large farmer was able to prevent the small farmer from acquiring ten acres of land. This land did not matter to the large farmer but it mattered greatly to the small farmer. It meant the difference between his ability to make his farm viable some day or his having to depend on social welfare to make up his income with no possibility of someone being able to take over his holding in the future and making it viable. We should ensure that the criteria used in the distribution of the remaining allotments of land are the same as those used previously, that is, those most entitled are given the allotments.

I welcome the Bill because it is time to put old ghosts to rest. This Bill has been hanging around since 1989 and it is time it was completed. I appeal to the Minister to look at the mechanisms available to him to deal with the problems being caused in rural Ireland, especially in the west and the north west, by the uncontrolled acquisition by private groups and companies — mainly funded by Irish banks — of land which has a bigger contribution to make to the economy if left in agricultural production instead of being planted. At a time when we are all talking about quotas it is important that as much land as possible is retained for agricultural production. Nobody can say that 100 acres of plantation is of more benefit to our economy than 100 acres of land which is farmed for agricultural purposes. It is not, and we have to accept that. The myth has been created by well financed people in the media business that forestry is good for the west of Ireland. This is not the case. At present meetings are being held about the depopulation of rural Ireland, something which has been happening for the past 50 years. It is up to us politicians to try to address the problem and ensure that farming communities are allowed to become viable by removing the mechanisms which prevent them from becoming viable at present.

As I said, I welcome the Bill. I hope the Minister and his officials will take into consideration the points I have made. I again wish the Minister of State well during his tenure of office. He is an able man who understands the needs of the people he represents, the people of rural Ireland. He has an enormous contribution to make to the Department of Agriculture and Food, especially in the area of rural development, which is his primary responsibility.

This Bill has been an extraordinarily long time coming before the House. The decision to abolish the Land Commission was announced in 1984 and all lands were to have been disposed of by 1986. The Bill was not published until March 1989 and it has taken a further three years for it to come before the House. One of the results of this has been the strange arrangement highlighted in the recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General whereby over £1.6 million was paid out in salaries to former Land Commission staff while they were not engaged in any productive work. This was clearly unsatisfactory. On the other hand, those who worked for the Land Commission have certain rights as public servants. They should be entitled to transfer to other Departments under similar terms and conditions. I note that this Bill makes no provision for the former staff and I would ask the Minister to outline in detail what exactly is the position.

It is more than 100 years since the Land Commission were established. It goes without saying that the structures and the problems of Irish agriculture have changed dramatically since then. The Land Commission were part of Irish rural history. They played a central role in the transfer of land from landlord to tenant and in the breaking up of old estates. As a result the phenomenon of the tenant farmer, still quite common in many EC countries, is very rarely found in Ireland. The basic element of the social structure of Irish agriculture is the owner occupied family farm where most of the work is done by the farm family.

It has been said many times but it needs to be said again that land is our greatest natural resource. We have an ideal climate and potentially some of the most productive land in Europe, but our agricultural methods are still quite primitive and our productivity far below the levels of that in many other European countries. We certainly have not made the best possible use of this resource. Much Irish land is poorly farmed. At least part of the reason for this is the structure of Irish agriculture. Despite calls for land redistribution in the early part of the century the Land Acts essentially gave each tenant the holding already occupied and, hence, preserved the existing uneven structure of land holdings. Attempts by the Land Commission to improve this uneven structure since the establishment of the State have been largely ineffective. Therefore today great inequalities persist, with the bulk of farms consisting of less than 50 acres and only a small minority in excess of 100 acres. The fact that the smaller farms are concentrated in those regions, especially in the west, where land is poorest means that farm incomes in these areas tend to be below the national average. However, farm size and poor land are not the only reasons for low incomes; poor technical ability is a major factor.

While the Land Commission have served their purpose there is still need for some sort of agency, perhaps a national land authority, to ensure that Irish society as a whole and not just those in occupation of land will get the best possible output from this natural resource. The immediate aim should be to devise a policy to maximise usable output from our national land resource and to provide the materials for an expanded processing sector. In the case of small farms this requires an energetic programme of consolidation of holdings in order to create new farm units capable of providing a family with a reasonable standard of living. Research has shown that medium sized farms of this kind tend to be the most efficient. I would appeal to the Minister to perhaps consider the idea of co-operative farming. Taking into account the high unemployment rate, we must realise that there is no alternative employment for people who are forced off the land.

One of the major problems in regard to land use is that unless a person is in a position to inherit land there is virtually no way into farming. In a recent very good submission by Macra na Feirme, which is referred to very infrequently, they call for the establishment of a national land authority as a matter of urgency and suggest that such a land authority must have special responsibility and power for monitoring and controlling land purchase, for development and for implementing farm mobility measures such as retirement, partnerships, leasing and young farmer installation schemes. These are very laudable suggestions but no effort was made to follow them up. Consequently there is no policy to enable people to invest in land.

My experience of the Land Commission in the early eighties is that they carried out very good work, but some people got so wealthy that they could pay double the price of the agricultural value of the land. Consequently the Land Commission had to pay the going rate, and thus holdings were not viable. I support the plea made by previous speakers in relation to the payment of their demand annuities because people's lives have changed and they can no longer afford to pay them. The inflationary price of land upset the whole structure of the scheme for the Land Commission and the farmers who were relying on them.

What is needed is a structure which will enable those who will use the land to most effect to acquire it. This would require the payment of adequate compensation to those who give up their land. Newly created farms could be allocated in single blocks to farmers with specific training qualifications, thus ensuring that land would be properly used. That matter was referred to in the submission of Macra na Feirme. There can be no return to the old Land Commission system whereby political considerations caused acquired land to be frequently allocated in tiny fragments to the farmers in a particular locality. Options need to be considered such as long term leasing of land to young people who want to get into farming but do not have the resources to purchase land.

A proper land use study should be carried out to ensure that land is used in the most effective way possible. Areas which are most suited to traditional farming must be identified as well as those areas suited to non-traditional farming, including forestry. One development that offers the hope of making some land available to those outside the traditional farming sector is the use of cutaway bogs. It is estimated that an area as large as County Louth will become available between now and the end of the century. The matter was considered by an expert committee on cutaway bogs, and I read their report which was published last month. It was reported that about 30 per cent or 40 per cent of the total area of cutaway bogs could be suitable for conversion to grassland.

Reference has been made in the debate to the statement made by the Minister that there is no longer any pressure for an initiative in land policy and that it seems to be generally accepted that, given the range and scale of the structural aid now available, land mobility could be left to market forces. I ask the Minister to take on board the points already made about that by two previous speakers. There must be a policy and there must be an urgency in the provision of that policy. We must keep as many people on the land as we possibly can and there must be a system to accommodate those who are involved and who want to utilise the potential existing under programmes such as the Leader programme. I call on the Minister to set up structures to ensure that local groups will be involved in monitoring the implementation of the plans and the expenditure of money in the regions.

The committee on cutaway bogs to which I referred suggested that some of the new grasslands be made available to groups of aspiring farmers by way of either outright purchase or long term leasing arrangements. I hope that suggestion will be given favourable consideration at the earliest opportunity by the Minister and the Government.

With the days of the Common Agricultural Policy numbered, Irish agriculture faces into a very difficult period. If we ensure that the most effective use possible is made of our land then we will help to minimise the problems to be faced. If we do not do that the problems will be intensified.

I should first like to join other speakers in wishing the Minister of State, Deputy Liam Hyland well in his new appointment. Like other Members, I have no doubt that he, as a very capable, hard-working man, will apply himself to his new job in the way that he has applied himself since coming into the House. I am sure that he will make a success of his appointment.

As the Minister said, we were talking about the Land Commission about two and a half years ago but, with an election approaching, it is only now that the issue has come before the House again. This legislation provides the House with an opportunity to examine recent developments in farming. In the early days of the Land Commission many large estates were divided up. As the years went by, the Land Commission became involved in the division of smaller holdings, which made allotments more expensive for those who received them.

While, as public representatives, we would often be frustrated and concerned about the delays in the division of specific estates and the lack of speed in land allocation generally — and over the years I tabled many questions in that regard — at the end of the day one would have to say that the Land Commission did very good work and improved the farming structure greatly. Many farmers had their holdings made viable and were able to rear their families on what was originally a very small holding.

Again, in common with other Members, I regret the position of the remaining Land Commission staff. Many of those people are fairly young, well suited for many posts and have great experience in rural areas. I join in the appeal to the Department and the Minister concerned that they seriously consider the re-employment of those staff members in other positions. As has been said, those people would be ideally equipped to take part in and administer the programmes for greater rural development. I pay tribute to Commissioner Ray MacSharry, a man who has been much maligned, for his contribution towards the provision of substantial funding in rural development programmes. An issue that is of concern to me and to many other Deputies is whether there has been set up a structure under which we are able to make the best possible use of the funding provided within the time limits imposed on its expenditure.

There is no doubt that farming has undergone a transformation. Thirty years ago the Land Commission had a target size of 40 acres for a viable farm. Farmers would now need twice or two and a half times as much land to have any chance of making a reasonable income from farming. That acreage would apply only if one were involved in fairly intensive production, such as milk production; it would not apply to store cattle management.

The integrated rural development programmes such as the Leader programme and the INTERREG programme provide an opportunity for the re-employment of Land Commission staff. I know several of those staff members from my own constituency and I know that if they are not able to obtain alternative employment within the Civil Service they will be forced to sell their homes, take their children out of local schools and move. The impact on the families concerned should be taken into account. Land Commission staff would be able to identify schemes that would suit particular rural areas.

Only recently I tabled a Dáil question asking about the tonnage and value of grass seed imported in the most recent year for which records were held. I was informed that £5 million worth of grass seed was imported. It is a shame that we should be importing so much grass seed when we have areas, such as mine and County Louth, that are noted for high quality grass seed production. That should not happen at a time when people are having to leave the land. For many years we also imported large quantities of potatoes, a position which has now been turned around, principally by the efforts of former Minister of State, Deputy Séamus Kirk. We now export potatoes to countries such as Sweden.

The staff of the Land Commission would be well able to examine and give an up-to-date view on alternative enterprises for the use of land. I agree with other speakers in their request for some alternative structure within the Department of Agriculture when the Land Commission are abolished. The Minister in his speech said that statutory control would be exercised over the subdivision of farms and over the purchase of land by non-qualified persons, namely, companies and non-nationals. Rural Deputies are concerned about the amount of control over companies purchasing land and competing against landowners unable to raise the type of money required to compete with those companies, many of which are purchasing land for forestry with the aid of State grants.

There have been delays in registering title deeds in the Land Registry. The Minister should ensure that the registration of titles is expedited. We could improve on the present situation, although I admit that individuals, perhaps requiring land from the family in order to build a house, for instance, have been facilitated. However, many people who purchased land years ago are still awaiting title deeds.

Prior to Christmas Deputy O'Kennedy, as Minister, following many parliamentary questions and much representation from Deputies, set up a working party to look into land annuity arrears. The problems in this area were created over ten years ago when the Land Commission bought land at a high price and annuities were set at a high rate. Many farmers now find it impossible to pay them. Some farmers are required to pay an annuity of £70 per acre. One would not need to be an agri-economist to know that one would not get £70 per acre in profit from cattle or any other projects at the moment. These annuities are putting a big drain on farm finances. A man with 20 acres could be required to pay something in excess of £1,000 per annum in land annuities. The Minister set up a working party in his Department to look at the problem and propose an effective solution. I hope the working party will soon report and suggest a solution to the problem.

It is regrettable that retirement schemes and other incentives to move the land into younger hands were not really successful. The EC made a big effort in the 1974 scheme but it was not successful. At the time many of us saw this as a great opportunity to encourage farmers to transfer land to younger people.

I compliment the Land Commission officers and staff on the work they have done through the years. I would ask for the establishment of some structure to ensure strict monitoring of land sales in the future.

I conclude by wishing the Minister well.

This is a significant debate. At long last we will see the abolition of the Land Commission. Since 1983 only about 2,500 hectares of land remained available for distribution and no land has been acquired since 1983. It is remarkable that it has taken up to now to arrange for the dissolution of the Land Commission. Questions have to be asked as to what some personnel in the Land Commission are doing. This has been dealt with at length by many speakers. We cannot fault the personnel in the Land Commission. The intentions of the Minister were questioned at the time and the whole thing was handled in a hamfisted manner. I hope the personnel with a lot of experience will be used on other schemes. Many speakers referred to developments in relation to agri-tourism, in relation to the Leader programme and so on. There is obviously a lot of work in which Land Commission personnel can be involved in the future. Deputy Hogan dealt at length with the history of the Land Commission personnel and what has happened to them. It would be wrong of me to go over the same ground again but I would ask the Minister to consider these people in relation to what is to take place in the future.

We must acknowledge the significant achievements of the Land Commission since 1923. They have allocated over one million hectares of land and 2,000 families have migrated to new holdings. New dwellings have been built and a lot of land has been drained, reclaimed and fenced. The Land Commission also provided roads and water supplies. There were difficulties attending the achievement of these targets but in recent times confidence in the Land Commission has eroded. Land was held by them for many years and when it was rented out on an 11 month basis a lot of people were disappointed. The Land Commission were discredited. They ran into many difficulties in the late seventies and early eighties in purchasing land because it was at a high price then. When they were reallocating the land to farmers the land annuities were set at a high price. This has been dealt with by many speakers. I welcome the Minister's decision prior to Christmas to look compassionately at the situation which has evolved in relation to land annuity arrears. It is regrettable that in recent times headage grants were taken by the Department in compensation for land annuities. There is definitely a need for more compassion in this area.

There is much concern over foreigners coming here and buying land and in relation to wealthy people purchasing land. Previous speakers touched on the necessity of replacing the Land Commission with some type of land agency that would monitor and co-ordinate the work involved. This is a good recommendation.

There is scope for some agency to get involved in tidying up the loose ends in land distribution in rural areas.

We all know that land is and has been an emotive issue down the years.

Debate adjourned.