As others have said, the enactment of this legislation, which seeks to abolish the Irish Land Commission, is an historic event just as its establishment by Gladstone's second ministry in 1881 was certainly an historic event. That government who, of course, were dependent on the Irish Members for their survival, adopted this radical approach in response to the major social problem in Ireland at the time, the land question. The Irish Land Commission flourished during the remaining 20 years of that century and perhaps the first 40 years or a little longer of this century. While they were subjected to a great deal of criticism there is no doubt that they made a major contribution to social development in rural Ireland in that an enormous amount of Irish land, which had predominantly been in the hands of large estates up to the turn of the century, was redistributed in an orderly way to the Irish tenant farmer. This was a major step, although it was a long and tortuous process. Most people would have criticised the Irish Land Commission for being too slow but nevertheless they attained many of their goals. At the end of the day they made an impact which is imprinted in the history, in particular the social history of this country.
Deputy Kavanagh quoted from the White Paper on land policy which was published by the Government in 1980. I would like to quote from that document the first paragraph of the introduction. It is interesting to note that a great gap now exists between the aspiration expressed in that document and the reality of having no land policy today. Incidentally, that White Paper was laid before the House in December 1980 by the then Minister for Agriculture, the present European Community Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Mr. Ray MacSharry. I presume that this was the Government's and I presume, his policy at the time. That paragraph reads:
In Ireland, agriculture is of fundamental importance to the national economy. Therefore an effective land policy must take account of the country's economic aims by ensuring the highest possible return from the use of the land. Such a policy must, however, also concern itself with the national social principles as enshrined in our Constitution. These principles dictate that as many families as practicable be established, in economic security, on the land. In effect, this has meant that the family farm is afforded a special importance, not alone as the basic unit of agricultural production but also as a fundamental part of the structure of rural society. The reality of the land holding pattern and traditional attitudes to the possession of land are further factors which must be taken into consideration in the formulation of land policy.
I am sure the House will agree that that was a good beginning to the document published way back in 1980, 12 years ago. While there have been changes of Government in the interim we have to admit that no initiatives have been taken in relation to a land policy. Literally, it was taken off the agenda following the publication of that policy document. While we are all to some extent to blame I would apportion most of the blame to Fianna Fáil Governments because they wrote this White Paper on land policy and made many specific promises in subsequent general election campaigns to introduce a land policy along the lines enunciated in that policy document. As I said at the outset, we are a long way from what is contained in that policy document.
It is amazing that we pay so little attention to the need for a land policy given its fundamental importance to people. Last year exports of agricultural produce amounted to some £3 billion. Approximately 16 or 17 per cent of the labour force is employed directly in agriculture while 30 per cent of the labour force is employed in agriculture when we take allied industries such as food processing into account. For some strange reason and against that background, we still do not have a land policy. I often wonder if we have an agricultural policy which refers to production and to what we will be doing in ten years time in this sector which forms a major part of the economy. We do not have a policy which addresses this major national resource which is still in many minds our only national resource.
Some amazing things have happened in the meantime. We do not have a proper analysis of the 1991 census, which I am sure will raise our eyebrows, but the findings of the 1986 census, which covered the period from 1981 to 1986, showed that 32 per cent of our farmers disappeared from the land during that five-year period. Strangely enough, the number of landholdings decreased by only 5 per cent. On the census form, completed on 6 April 1986, 120,847 people declared themselves to be full-time farmers who depended solely on the land for their livelihoods, whereas five years earlier the figure was 32 per cent greater. Therefore there is an astonishing development in relation to the profile of rural society. I am sure that an analysis of the 1991 census figures will show that a further 30 per cent or perhaps more will have disappeared from the land. Mr. de Valera and others of his era often quoted the words of the Constitution, in particular as regards the need to maintain as many families as possible in secure employment down on the farm but this is what is happening all around us.
Apart from the need for a land policy we have never addressed the age structure of our farmers. It is interesting to note that in 1986 there were only 14,400 farmers aged between 25 and 34 out of a total of almost 121,000 full-time farmers; there were 23,000 farmers aged between 35 and 44, while 50 per cent of all landholdings and farms were held by people aged 50 and over, and that trend is continuing. We will therefore have to look at the 1991 census figures to discover what happened in the following five-year period but I predict here in this House this evening that we will find that the figure has accelerated with the result that the basic structural problem in agriculture is being exacerbated. If we do not have enough young people with initiative and innovativeness, agriculture cannot survive, and therefore, the land must be retained by these people.
In reply to a Dáil question recently the Minister informed me that the number of young farmers entering education and training is declining at a time when we are withdrawing finances from that area and from research and development in agriculture. It is amazing that we allow this to happen out of neglect when we depend so much on this industry. We have policies written down on paper and there are plenty of ideas; every second day we read good articles in our agricultural newspapers and our national daily newspapers about land policy and structures, but there is no will on the Government side to do anything about it. There are good articles in agricultural newspapers and in our daily newspapers about land structures. However, there is no will to do anything about it.
It was said a few years ago that the food industry would be the motor of our economy and that from it nearly everything else in the economy would grow. It was said it would be one of the areas of greatest expansion in terms of output, employment and exports. However, to implement a policy of that kind we must have a correct land structure and land must be in the hands of people who will be able to make a success of that kind of policy. Over 50 per cent of farms are in the hands of people aged 55 years and over and 10 per cent are held by farmers between the ages of 25 and 35 years. That terrible imbalance needs to be addressed.
There are now new requirements under EC laws about nationals buying land here and it is not easy to put an agency in place to regulate the land market. However, something should be done to improve access to land for young people who cannot afford to buy it. Financial incentives should be given to young trained, educated people in agricultural disciplines or practices to enable them to acquire land. The number of new people entering agriculture has declined from 6,000 a few years ago to fewer than 2,000 per year at present; more than nine-tenths come into agriculture as a result of family farm transfer. Somebody who does not have land and takes an agricultural education to work in that area finds that the whole system shuts them out, primarily because of our land-owning problems but also because farms are passed on as part of the inheritance system and because there is not a pool of land for enthusiastic, trained young people who want to make a career in agriculture. There is something wrong with our structures when a land pool is not an inbuilt part of our land-owning, land-working system.
The age profile of new entrants to agriculture as a result of succession is very high. I know a person who became an owner of land at 65 years of age, his father owned it until he was 90. A very high proportion — not as bad as the example I have given — of people enter agriculture at an age when they are closer to retirement than to the years when one is innovative and ambitious regarding a new career. It does not augur well for the industry.
There are about 170,000 farm holdings, 40,000 of which are held by people who declare themselves as having off-farm employment. The figures for 1986 are the last we have in this regard, of the 120,847 full-time farmers only about one-third are commercially viable. In other words, two thirds are either non-commercial, transitional, marginal or uneconomic. There is no policy to address the problem of a whole pool of land, a potentially wealth creating national resource, in the hands of people who do not have an incentive to give it up. There is also no incentive for people who have the ability, training or education to work it properly for the wider good of the country.
I should like to refer to what is happening on the rural scene in the absence of land policy; I am thinking in terms of integrated rural EC development policies. Some of them certainly touch on land policy, use and holding but they all lack a certain vision. In spite of all that has been said about it, it is merely anad hoc system. For instance, all the money allocated to the agri-tourism programme had been spent before the Department could process about one-tenth of the applications. It was amazing to see the number of people interested in agri-tourism. It was trumpeted in this House how great a scheme it was and the tremendous potential it had in offering alternative employment to people in agriculture who were not farming viably at present. However, it lacked vision and after eight months in operation there is no money left. If my information is correct we will have to wait for two years before the fund is replenished. The Department of Agriculture and Food or any other Department, should be planning for the future to see how many non-viable farms could be made viable with the alternative enterprise of agri-tourism. However, it was a piecemeal system.
It is the same in regard to all the other programmes which will be introduced, there will be no long term commitment and nobody to say that in five years they will have preserved a certain sector of the rural population or contributed to preserving it. We must tackle this fundamental point. When we put in place new sets of proposals which are fundamental to the future of the industry we must have proper planning. I know there are faults in the market supports but, at the same time, it meant the transfer of about £1.2 billion to this economy. While 80 per cent went to the largest and most successful farmers — I do not know whether that is true — 20 per cent went to poorer farmers. There is some truth in that because the average family farm income in the west was only two-fifths of the average family farm income on the east coast in 1987. Nevertheless, it was money coming into our economy and being distributed — however unevenly — through the economy. Teagasc estimate that we will lose perhaps £450 million to £500 million of that transfer within the next couple of years as the Common Agricultural Policy "reforms" are put in place. I do not consider them reforms. To compensate us for that loss of transfer there will be transfer through the rural development programmes which, of course, in money terms will amount to about half the loss on the market intervention side. To make matters worse — I hate repeating the point — when they are implemented it will be in a piecemeal fashion. The Government have no plans. They cannot say what impact the proposals will have on rural development in terms of maintaining the rural population, maintaining viable farms or giving people new livelihoods in enterprises and activities which are allied to agriculture but which are fundamental to owning land. While the word "integrated" sounds good, there is very little integration.
Deputy Kenny made a very interesting point which again goes back to our dearth of a land policy, that is, the need for a new soil classification office. The previous soil classification office was the first attempt to assess the land since Mr. Griffiths concluded his famous valuation of Ireland in 1847. All our information on the size of farms and fields and the type of land we have — the term "we had" is probably more appropriate as it is very much in the past tense — is all based on the survey carried out by Mr. Griffiths and the slightly earlier ordnance survey of Ireland.
During the early eighties the the Coalition Government set up a soil classification office to reclassify all of the land of Ireland, tell us what the land was worth, how much was primary agricultural land, how much was appropriate to forestry, how much should be designated and environmentally sensitive and how much should be used for recreation. However, in one of our greatest pieces of policy madness we closed that office in 1987. We were using Land Commission inspectors, who have since been made redundant, to carry out that work for us. This office did not cost any additional money to what the Land Commission cost the country at that time.
There was great opposition to this office because it was believed that the results would be the basis of a new land tax. However, this was only part of what they were going to tell us. They were going to tell us what we do not know about the land. How can we have a land policy when we do not know the real valuation of our land in present day terms? Instead, we have to refer to a valuation which is almost 150 years old. It is extraordinary that this can happen in a country which depends both directly and indirectly on agriculture. If the Government want to do one thing which will be of benefit, they should reopen the land classification office. I am not saying it should be opened as the basis for a land tax, but to glean information which we badly need. I hope the Minister takes this proposal into account.
I wish to refer to the farm retirement scheme. I see in this additional measure — this is more EC jargon — a proposal for a new farm retirement scheme which provides financial incentives for a farmer over 55 years to hand over his land to a younger member of his family or to someone who has been properly trained. I sincerely hope the Government implement this scheme, which is one of the better parts of the Common Agricultural Policy reforms. However, I question whether it will be like the last farm retirement scheme which was a disaster and in many ways was tailored to be a disincentive to people to hand over their land — and the results are there to prove it. Only a few hundred people availed of the scheme and every one of them regretted it.
An old friend of mine who died recently availed of the scheme in the early seventies after its introduction. It was one of the greatest regrets of his life because for the next 20 years he had to live on a small fixed pension. It was only two years ago under the revised rate of means for qualification of an old age pension that he was able to get the minimum amount in a non-contributory old age pension of about £5 per week — and he was in his eighties at that stage.
The Government should implement this new farm retirement scheme. I understand it will be up to the member states to implement this scheme which will be co-financed — I think we will only have to put up 25 per cent of the finance. The scheme should be implemented in an imaginative way so that it will be a real incentive and give proper compensation to people who ought to retire. It should also be implemented in such a way that it will make a contribution to the well being of the country and to economic growth. I plead with the Government to ensure that the scheme is comprehensive, contains enough vision and is sensitive to the needs of people who want to retire. If the scheme is successful it will make a major contribution to economic growth and the national income in the long term which will far outweigh the 25 per cent contribution this country will have to make initially. We need to think in the longer term when we are dealing with such matters.
If we accept the logic of the Common Agricultural Policy reforms we will be shutting out the contribution Irish agriculture can make to economic growth. During the ten year period 1980-90 the Irish economy grew by 22 per cent or 23 per cent in GDP terms. I estimate that Irish agriculture — many people would argue that it made a greater contribution — accounted for 8 per cent of that growth by increased output. However, as a result of the quotas which have been placed on virtually every product, we will shut out for the next decade, or even in perpetuity, the contribution agriculture, perhaps our single greatest industry, can make to economic growth. That is the reality, and no agricultural expert will dispute it. Because production will be frozen agriculture will not be able to make even a 1 per cent contribution to economic growth over the next ten years. The contribution made by Irish agriculture to the economy over the past ten years — they were not good years for agriculture; they were not nearly as good as the seventies — was probably 8 or 9 per cent. This shows how badly askew our thinking and policies are in regard to land and agriculture.
At the outset I praised the Land Commission and the historic role they played in the social revolution in Ireland and I do not take back what I said. However, there was an enormous number of irritants and vexatious problems associated with the commission and one of these related to vesting. In some cases land which had been redistributed by the Land Commission was not vested in the new owner for 20 years. If the new owner wanted to sublet some of the land he could not do so because the vesting had not been carried out and the examiner of title in the Land Registry had not completed his work on it. As a result, the person who had been allocated the land seven or 20 years previously was not the registered owner. I believe the average delay in vesting land which has been allocated by the Land Commission in the name of the new owner is between seven and ten years. On the dissolution of the Land Commission our priority should be the non-vested allotments made over the last seven to ten years. That would be greatly appreciated by many people who have been allotted land which still has not been properly vested.
There is a problem with regard to land annuities on land purchased by the Land Commission in the seventies and early eighties when land prices were very high. At that time the Land Commission were forced to pay £3,000 or £4,000 per acre, which was uneconomic and unrealistic. That resulted from gross over-optimism about EC membership and gross irresponsibility on the part of financial institutions in giving money to anybody who wanted it to buy land. As a result, a totally inflated land market was created which ruined many farmers. The Land Commission were very active in the early and mid-seventies, at the time of the land boom, and up to 1983. Land was allocated to farmers at annuities of up to £1,000 per acre per annum. So great has been the collapse in prices since then that there are many acres of land that could be sold today for the value of the annuity at that time.
We have asked in this House that land annuities be rescheduled taking account of the fact that they were unrealistic in the first instance and that they no longer reflect the economic return from the land, which in the mid-seventies and early eighties was twice that of today. Something should be done now because tenants are finding it extremely difficult to pay the annuities. I plead with the Minister, in dissolving the Land Commission, to solve that problem. Relatively few people are involved but for them it represents a major problem. The Land Commission have accumulated arrears from these people and there is no way they can recover this money because the economic resources are not there any more.
I would like to make one final point about forestry. Many complaints have been made, about afforestation, particularly in the west and in County Roscommon. I am not against afforestation. It is important that a greater share of the national land be planted with trees. As has often been said, of all the countries in Europe Ireland has the lowest percentage of the national estate under trees. If we are to believe the experts — one has to be careful about these predictions — the developed world will be very short of timber for the next 40 or 50 years. A synthetic substitution for timber may be found with the result that no economic value will be placed on trees, but trees are environmentally important and enhance the visual beauty of an area. The problem in Ireland is that there has been a great deal of forestry on unsuitable land. There are too many conifers on unsuitable lands. In my county there are many raised and blanket bogs, and people perceive a relationship between raised bogs and poverty. Nowadays this type of land is unique in that it is the last of its kind in Europe. Indeed, all these areas are now the subject of ESAs. The Department planted conifers on thousands of acres of raised bog. That is an example of a totally inappropriate use of land.
Many farmers are angered to see good agricultural land being planted with trees while marginal land that is appropriate only to forestry is not being used for that purpose. There are tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of acres of good agricultural land in this country and our farmers, especially young farmers, would like to buy it. However, they cannot compete for it because the banks are no longer open to farmers who want to buy land. There is a gloomy outlook for farming for the foreseeable future. The banks and financial institutions are buying this land because they are the only customers in the market. They are paying what is generally regarded as the market price, and then they plant trees. Very often they plant broad leaved trees, which is acceptable, but they plant conifers on good agricultural land when everyone knows they would grow on marginal land. That matter needs to be considered.
What is needed is an afforestation policy, but distinctions should be drawn between lands that are appropriate and lands that are inappropriate to forestry. We should not lose the natural resource of productive agricultural land to forestry. One bad harvest in the United States or perhaps in the Ukraine or the great grain growing countries of Asia, could change the food production scene for several years in the developed world. I repeat that we need to consider carefully a policy of afforestation. We need to plant more trees from an economic and an environmental point of view, but we must be careful about the kind of land on which we plant these trees.
I thank you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, for giving me the opportunity of making my contribution. I hope the Minister will take on board some of my suggestions. Our party have no fundamental opposition to the dissolution of a body that have been redundant for ten years. On Committee Stage we will have a good deal more to say about a replacement for the Land Commission when they are finally abolished.