First, I wish to thank Deputies, particularly Deputy Deenihan, for their congratulations and good wishes on my appointment. I want to assure him and Deputies on all sides of the House of my availability to assist in any way I can in relation to the portfolio I now hold.
I also wish to avail of this opportunity to thank the many Deputies who made a very significant contribution to the debate on this Bill. I am glad to see that the reaction from the House has been one of general, if reluctant, acceptance that the time has come to wind up the Irish Land Commission and in so doing to close an important chapter in our social history. I join with all of my colleagues who expressed their thanks and gratitude to the very many dedicated officials who served this country so well in the Land Commission. In reality the main work of the commission, that of executing land settlement policy, came to an end in 1983 when land acquisitions ceased. The effect of the passage of this Bill will be to formalise the situation which has existed on the ground for some time.
I am sorry that some Deputies took out of context my reference to land policy in my opening speech. That reference was in the context of land acquisition policy, which is what is being dealt with in this Bill and for which there is perhaps reluctant but general agreement both inside and outside the House. There is, in my view, particularly in the context of the effects of European policy on Irish agriculture, a need for greater co-ordination of measures in relation to land use with a view to maximising the utilisation of our greatest national resource. In this connection I would welcome the views of Deputies on all sides of the House. I welcome the very constructive views expressed by Deputy Deenihan and other Deputies who spoke earlier. I will deal with some of their points later.
It is well to recall that the main purpose of the Land Commission policy over the years was the acquisition and redistribution of land for the purpose of creating economic agricultural holdings and the retention of the maximum number of farm families on the land of Ireland. The Land Commission, broadly speaking, achieved that objective. Deputies will agree that the term "economic holding" has changed significantly over the years, and even if we were to continue with a policy of land acquisition and redistribution we would in fact be seriously undermining our own stated social policy in this area, resulting in an increasing reduction in the number of family farms. There is obviously a conflict of interest between our aspirations to retain the maximum number of farm families on the land of Ireland and at the same time trying to retain a structure which would involve land acquisition.
Following the termination of acquisition the whole question of controlling land sales with a view to channelling land into the hands of smallholders was examined in detail. The outcome of this examination was that any proposal for such control would raise considerable constitutional and practical difficulties — constitutional because of implications for citizens' right to sell and acquire property and practical because of the problems inherent in deciding how to share out land coming onto the market among competing smallholders. I am sure that Deputy Deenihan would recognise the difficulties which would arise in the context of land distribution if we were to continue with that policy. In this country land is a highly emotive issue and the majority of our farmers would not like to see curtailed their freedom to dispose of their property as they see fit. Deputy Connaughton has said as much in his intervention and I bow to his experience in this area.
In the end it was decided that the best way of preserving the family farm in the context of current Community policy on agriculture was not through the acquisition of additional land but by availing of one or more of the various EC backed measures that are in operation to assist farmers. I will list some of these measures. There is, first of all, the farm improvement programme. Under this programme generous grants are available to farmers who under take planned investment in their enterprises. Among the types of investment for which grants are available are land improvement, the erection of modern farm buildings and the provision of mobile equipment. Grant aid under this programme is now running at over £20 million per year.
Allied to the farm improvement programme is the scheme for the control of farmyard pollution. This is aimed at the smaller farmer who wants to undertake basic investment to prevent pollution from farm waste. Grants of between 50 per cent and 55 per cent are available for buildings and storage facilities for fodder and slury. Since this scheme was introduced in 1989, 25,000 projects have been approved with a grant aid of £94 million.
Under the young farmers installation scheme, young farmers who are being installed on a farm for the first time and who meet certain conditions are entitled to a special grant of £5,600. Nearly 2,000 farmers have availed of this grant since 1986 at a cost of over £11 million to the Exchequer. In addition they are entitled to an extra 25 per cent on investment grants under the various farm improvement schemes. We will continue to keep this scheme under review to ensure that it is making the maximum contribution to expediting land transfer.
Yesterday I met with the president and other representatives of Macra na Feirme, an organisation for whom I have tremendous respect, and I shared with them, and they with me, views in relation to the problem of land transfer and how best we can expedite the transfer of land from older to younger farmers. They had some very interesting views to put before me and I will take these views into consideration in formulating new policy in this area.
Deputies will be aware of what the headage payments mean to farm incomes in the disadvantaged areas. These areas now comprise 72 per cent of the country and the amount to be paid out this year is close on £100 million. That is big money by any standard.
Under the rural development programme incentives are available for a wide range of projects aimed at stimulating economic activity in rural areas. Among these projects are alternative enterprises such as deer, goats, horses, agri-tourism and, the most recent introduction, the Leader programme. A coordinated approach to rural development is essential if we are to get maximum benefit from this programme. Deputy Deenihan in his contribution acknowledged the need for overall co-ordination of the schemes which apply to the development of agriculture and other areas in rural Ireland. To this end a monitoring committee comprising representatives of the Department, the EC and various interest groups have been set up and given overall responsibility for the implementation of the various schemes.
In terms of agriculture, our priority is and must be, the development and consolidation of the core industry, which is the production and processing of food, including animal husbandry. We would, however, be foolish to close our eyes to the limiting effects of EC policies on this important aspect of the industry and to the possibility of developing alternative enterprises.
Our success will depend on our ability and capacity to develop under every available heading enterprises which will contribute to economic and social development and help to resolve our worrying and unacceptable unemployment level. We are being assisted in this task by the provision of special EC funding under the programme for integrated rural development and other associated schemes.
It is now my responsibility to assist in the implementation of these programmes and to work in close co-operation with local communities in the implementation of their development programmes. In assuring them of my utmost help and support, I appeal to all concerned to assist in maximising to the greatest extent possible, the potential for national development which these funds make possible. The success of these programmes will be a major deciding factor in relation to the availability of further EC funding and with good management will certainly have a tremendous impact on our overall economic development. In the future it will be a question of farming the entire land resource as distinct from traditional farming patterns. It is an interesting challenge which we cannot afford to ignore because, properly developed, these schemes should make a significant contribution to the economic viability of what are once again becoming agriculturally uneconomic holdings.
More than ever, it is a question of integrating our existing network of small farms with a new and, I hope, successful programme for integrated rural development. It is socially desirable to retain the maximum number of farm families on the land. That view has been expressed by almost every Member of the House who contributed to this debate. We tend to talk too much about structures and not enough about people, but structures must be about people. We cannot have a successful rural development programme without people. In terms of agri-tourism we need people to deliver the service. We need them to personalise our special attraction as a tourist nation. The unique charm of our people, combined with our still unspoilt environment, is one of our greatest assets.
Deputy Deasy referred to the provision of grant aid for land drainage. In deciding on grant applications environmental considerations were always taken into account. Where the land involved had an environmental dimension, applications were granted only where the wildlife service gave their approval.
A new scheme has just been launched for the pretection of environmentally sensitive areas. Two areas have been chosen on a pilot basis for the introduction of this scheme, the Slieve Blooms in Laois-Offaly and Slyne Head in County Galway. Under the scheme a farmer can get up to £1,000 for following farm practices that are aimed at protecting and enhancing the environment. Deputy Deasy referred to the policy of the Department in giving grants to farmers who would drain wetland.
These are the main structural measures at present available to assist Irish agriculture. Others are likely to follow from the adoption of the current proposals for the reform of Common Agricultural Policy. I accept that agriculture is going through a somewhat difficult period at the moment. Farmers have had to face similar if not greater difficulties before and have survived. I have no reason to think they will not do the same again. Indeed, with the range of support measures now available they should be able to face the future with greater confidence. I know there is considerable concern about the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and about the ongoing negotiations on GATT, but we as a Government are totally committed to ensuring that we get the best possible deal for Irish farmers and for Ireland generally from the negotiations.
Last week I met Commissioner Ray MacSharry in Brussels and discussed with him the serious difficulties facing Irish farmers in terms of declining income. We discussed the advantages which would emanate from the increasing level of grants which will be available from Europe for structural development. The Commissioner agreed fully with me that our only hope of supplementing declining income for small farmers is to initiate integrated rural development programmes which would support off-farm employment so as to boost the income of farmers who, because of the size of their holdings and restrictions on production, are not able to make a decent living. Our farmers are committed to working. It is in their nature to work their farms. It is alien to the nature of Irish farmers to depend on social support. I hope the new structural programmes we are now putting in place will provide a worthwhile incentive to farmers to supplement their incomes from off-farm employment.
I am not convinced that there is a case for setting up any sort of statutory body in relation to land control. I take the points which Deputy Deenihan made in his contribution. The matter will be kept under review and if in future it emerges that there is a tendency to accumulate too much land in the hands of too few people, the question of some regulatory authority could be considered. There is no evidence of such a development and later I will provide the House with statistics on land transfers.
In discussing the question of a land authority some Deputies are thinking of a body which would have overall control of regulating the use to which land is put, to ensure the best use of our greatest national resource. This is clearly a matter for consideration in the context of a new development programme for agriculture and food which is being negotiated as a result of the Programme for Economic and Social Progress agreement. I take on board the views which have been expressed by Deputies from all sides of the House, that there is a need for some alternative structure to deal with the land problems which remain following the dissolution of the Land Commission. It would be wrong to move hastily towards the establishment of such a body, particularly in view of the fact that all sectors, including the agricultural sector, the Department, EC officials and other people, are all involved in the discussions which are taking place. If they bring forward proposals requiring the establishment of a monitoring authority, that is a matter which can be considered when that report is put before the Government.
The abolition of the Land Commission will not mean that all the functions performed by that body will disappear. Much of the work carried out by the commission at present will be continued under the power retained and transferred to the Minister for Agriculture and Food.
My Department will continue to promote group purchase and leasing of land, as well as providing assistance in the rearrangement of fragmented holdings and in the division and disposal of commonages. Other continuing functions include the disposal of land on hands, the exercise of control over subdivision of holdings and the purchase of land by non-qualified persons, the collection of annuities and the settling of title.
In view of the level of interest expressed by the Deputies in these activities, a brief comment on them is called for. Some years ago as recalled by Deputy Connaughton and Deputy Deenihan the Department introduced the idea of group purchase of land. This involved encouraging local smallholders to get together to buy land which came on the market in their locality. The Land Commission helped with mapping, sub-division and legal formalities. The practice will be continued by the Department.
Yesterday when I met representatives of Macra na Feirme I suggested that they should give further consideration to promoting the concept of group purchase. When a holding becomes available in a local area, very often it is not financially possible for an individual farmer to acquire that land to increase his holding. The group purchase scheme has merit, and organisations like Macra na Feirme could assist in promoting the concept to enable existing small farmers to increase their holdings. The people to whom I spoke yesterday agreed to consider that view.
Long or medium term leasing has for some time been recognised and promoted as being potentially the most rewarding method of getting land into the hands of those who will use it effectively without the need for the high capital outlay involved in purchasing a farm. With the guaranteed use of the land for a stated number of years, lessees can plan their enterprises in a rational way without uncertainty of renewal from year to year. Lessors, on the other hand, are assured of a guaranteed income and do not run the same risk of having their land exploited, as can happen only too frequently with the traditional 11-month system. Certain exceptions are available in respect of leasing income obtained from leases of at least five years duration by lessors who are aged 55 years or over or who are incapacitated.
The 1984 Social Welfare Act changed the system of assessing income under the Social Welfare code which previously discriminated against leasing. Income from leasing is now assessed in the same way as income from letting land on the 11-month system.
In the review of the installation aid scheme recently announced, young farmers can now qualify for the installation grant in respect of leased land. This should give an added boost to leasing. I discussed this matter with Macra na Feirme.
Commonage division is clearly close to the heart of a number of Deputies, particularly those from the western counties. I am happy to confirm that the commonage division service will continue in one form or another. Land held in common is generally neglected and only realising a fraction of its potential.
The court case mentioned by Deputies refers to an appeal to the judicial commissioner by a group of shareholders in County Mayo against a compulsory scheme of division prepared by the Land Commission. Work on other compulsory division cases was for the most part suspended pending the outcome of this case. The judgment has since been delivered and is now being studied to assess its implications for compulsory commonage division in future. The case has no implications for voluntary divisions and they have continued apace. Between 1988 and 1990 118 commonages, covering almost 8,000 hectares, were divided between 649 shareholders. The suggestion made by Deputy Connaughton that farmers could accelerate the process of division by employing their own engineer is one which merits further consideration.
The important question of annuities is generating much interest among farmers. Nearly all Deputies referred to this matter. I share the concerns expressed. Deputies will be aware that a working group was set up to examine how best to tackle this very important matter. They have reported and their findings are under urgent consideration in the Department. It was one of the first files for which I asked following my appointment. I will do everything possible to ensure a satisfactory resolution of the problems of farmers who are experiencing such great difficulty. As a rural Deputy I am aware of the difficulties of smaller farmers, in particular in paying Land Commission annuities. I am satisfied that the working group put a great deal of effort into analysing the problems faced by these farmers. I will continue to do my best to seek a satisfactory resolution.
Time does not allow me to deal with the other activities of the Land Commission which have been retained within the Department relating to vesting, the sale of land to non-nationals and the disposal of remaining lands. About 2,500 hectares of agricultural land remain to be allocated, together with approximately 5,000 hectares of bog. We are proceeding as fast as we can to dispose of this land and hope to complete the task during the coming year.
I wish once again to pay a well-deserved tribute to the officials of the Land Commission who over the years did such a satisfactory job on behalf of farmers. Farmers in almost every county have benefited from their work. It is against all the rules to this House to refer to civil servants by name, but I want to acknowledge the presence here today of Mr. Dom Duggan, one of the veterans of Land Commission policy, who has made such a very significant contribution as an important member of the Land Commission. The rules should be broken to give well-deserved recognition to a very important man within the overall structure.