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

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

Before I moved the adjournment of the debate on the last occasion I said I was opposed to the abolition of the Land Commission unless they are replaced by a land authority. I fully recognise and appreciate the difficult work the Land Commission carried out. There is a land bank awaiting to be divided and farmers would like to know if this will take place before the Land Commission are abolished. It is important we get an answer to that question. There is still a great interest in the division of land. The importance of this cannot be overstated. The fragmentation of small farms is still a major problem and it will be necessary to give farmers more land if their holdings are to become viable.

The Land Commission officials were very knowledgeable in the division of land and nobody was better placed to handle this work. Very few land transfers took place over the past 12 to 18 months. The reasons include the decline in farm incomes and the reluctance of people to acquire more land because of the tax implications. Nobody was in a better position to advise people on land acquisition than the Land Commission officials. It would be wrong if the knowledge they gained from their experience was not available to some other authority. That knowledge should be passed on to young officials.

People from Germany and France who buy up parcels of land adjacent to our lakes or rivers became quite arrogant. They fence off the land and do not allow others pass through it. It has been the tradition that farmers allowed people to cross their land to rivers and lakes. Farmers are to be admired for permitting this. The foreigners see the potential when they visit the country as tourists but when they buy the land they fence it off with barbed wire to prevent people trespassing. The public have the right of way through land adjacent to our rivers and lakes but I do not know if that has any standing in law.

If we are to arrest the decline in population in rural areas we must do so on the basis of agricultural enterprises. There is no point in codding ourselves that a fairy godmother will bring major industries that will provide employment. We have to generate employment from our own resources, from our "green gold". There is no question but that we can generate wealth from alternative farm enterprise and agri-tourism. We are only scratching the surface in regard to agri-tourism but if we are to be successful in that regard farmers must have viable holdings that will enable them provide proper accommodation for tourists.

I should like to give some startling statistics in regard to population trends in some counties from 1926 to 1991. In 1926 the population of County Cavan was 82,452 but in 1991 it was 52,756, a decline of 36 per cent in the intervening 65 years. That decline has to be arrested. In the neighbouring county of Monaghan, which is in the same constituency, the population stood at 65,131 in 1926 and in 1991 it was 51,262, a drop of 21.1 per cent. While the population decline is not as dramatic as in my county it was, nevertheless, a serious decline in population. The population of County Leitrim in 1926 was 55,907 and in 1991 it was down to 25,297, a decline of 54 per cent. This is frightening. The decline is continuing and this is very sad. People can enjoy a very healthy life in rural Ireland, and we can create prosperity but they must be directed. We need people with ability to encourage others and to reassure them that it is not all doom and gloom.

Recently the Minister for Energy issued a very glossy brochure from the EC on afforestation. The whole drive in the EC is towards afforestation. Trees will not sustain a farmer on the land. I am totally opposed, as I am sure is the Minister to arable land being bought up by insurance companies and other private investors for tree planting. This should not be allowed. The available grants should be confined to marginal land because this should be planted and I have always held that view. It is a step in the wrong direction to plant trees on arable land. This will drive people from their homes. The outlook becomes bleaker the closer the forest comes to people's homes. This spoils the countryside and the potential for tourism.

I am not opposed to afforestation because there is a role in certain areas but its potential is overstated. I can talk from experience. My father planted a forest of four acres 45 years ago but it has not generated as much as one penny of income. It is a mature forest but if I go to the mill and discuss the sale of the timber, they make all sorts of excuses. They say it would be hardly worth their time setting up the machinery to harvest timber. There is a great deal of talk about the wealth that can come from afforestation, but I wonder if this is true. I accept that the thinnings of our national forest are transported via Butlersbridge to Northern Ireland for processing but I would like to know how much we get for that timber. Would the millers and processors in Northern Ireland be keen to cut and draw the timber if there was not good profit in it for them? How much do the owners of the forests get for the timber?

There is a role and a place for afforestation but I think we are being carried away. I can imagine a farmer over 55 years of age who, because of the grants available, would say: "That is a handy way out for me. I will plant a few acres and I will get a few pounds in headage grants". I would prefer to see the green fields left there for a younger generation to develop. We can still produce the best foodstuffs in Europe, there is still a demand for quality food. We have that end of our business totally wrong as inquiries have now shown. I hope, when they are sorted out, we will get back on the rails and create a good Irish image and a brand name like "Kerrygold" for dairy products. There is a market of 320 million people in Europe, a large percentage of whom would pay a premium price for quality food. The amount we are producing is neither here nor there in the context of the food mountains in Europe. These are just a few brief comments in support of what the Land Commission did when so many people were critical of them. They had a difficult and trying job and I would like to see a land authority replace them.

I spoke at length on this Bill two years ago and I do not intend to repeat what I said then. At that time I spoke for over an hour. I had done a lot of research into the dissolution of the Land Commission at that time. It would be futile if I were to repeat what I said then. I hope my remarks were considered by the Minister when he was preparing his speech.

The Deputy made a very interesting contribution which I have read in great detail.

Thank you. Today I hope to ask a few further questions and to make a few points. On the last occasion when this Bill was before the House I made a lengthy contribution to the debate outlining the various developments and reports leading up to the decision to abolish the Land Commission. On this occasion I will confine my remarks to those aspects of the Bill which will cause problems in the area of land use and land structure unless they are considered in greater detail than appears to be the case at present.

I am starting from the base that compulsory and voluntary acquisition of land by the Land Commission is now at an end. The only land divisions taking place are in respect of small remnants of properties in the hands of the Land Commission at present. There are, of course, substantial areas of bog and rough grazing that remain to be disposed of. The intention presumably is that under the powers contained in the Bill these will be sold publicly to the highest bidder. The end of acquisition and division of land by the Land Commission coincides with the official line that nowadays there is no need for State intervention in the land market and that structural changes can best be left to the free play of market forces.

It is a fair estimate that there are still between 50,000 to 70,000 uneconomic smallholders in the country who must look to their own resources to get that valuable bit of extra land that would help them become viable. These people will no longer have the opportunity to purchase extra land that would sustain a normal family on the land now that the Land Commission are gone. This was one of the great successes of the Land Commission. They provided extra land to provide a family with a reasonable income. This is no longer the case and it would seem that small farmers are now left to the free play of market forces. I wonder how many will be able to compete in the open market for that extra land. They have no prospect of obtaining land from the Land Commission and there are no loans available on favourable terms to buy land. Banks are putting pressure on all farmers and certainly they will not entertain loans for small farmers because they have no collateral. The small farmer cannot compete with the farmer who has bigger milk quotas, bank reserves built up over many years and a long family tradition in farming. We are condemning at least 50,000 of our farmers to a life off the land and to a life, in some cases, of unemployment. What is happening in this country — I am not blaming the Minister, it seems to be EC policy also — is that we are removing the heart and soul of rural Ireland from the land by having no structural policy or no land use policy.

It has been pointed out by the Minister that the following jobs are still left for the Land Commission to carry out: helping tenants to rearrange their farms; helping group purchases of land; encouraging leasing; controlling the sub-division of farms and the purchase of land by non-nationals and the division of commonage.

I should like to comment on these items. In regard to rearrangement, the great inducement which the Land Commission was able to offer in the past to those whose lands were being rearranged was some extra land to round off their holdings and make them more compact. This was the sweetner, the carrot, that often persuaded the difficult and uncooperative farmer to join in a rearrangement. That sweetener no longer exists. How then can rearrangement be encouraged and promoted by simply giving technical advice on layout and mapping details? I would like to be informed of the number of farmers who have availed of this encouragement and advice over the past year or so and who have carried through a rearrangement of their farms. How many holdings were rearranged and what areas were involved? How significant was the rearrangement in terms of reducing the number of scattered parcels and achieving compact units? The same remarks apply to group purchases.

In the absence of any monetary inducements it must be very hard for Land Commission inspectors to persuade a group of small farmers to band together to buy a particular property and then divide it among themselves. I would appreciate full details of the number and type of such transactions in which the Land Commission have been involved over the past year or two, together with an assessment of whether the Land Commission input has been particularly helpful in this respect. Perhaps the Minister would answer those questions in his reply.

On the subject of leasing, we all know that land mobility is very limited and that leasing on a medium or long term basis could help some small farmers to get extra land. Some years ago a Bill was enacted which set out to make leasing more acceptable to the farming community by getting rid of those provisions in the early Land Acts which might confer ownership rights on lessees. I would be surprised to learn if this measure has had any success. Perhaps the Minister would give us some statistics on an annual basis over, say, the past five years of long term leases that have been negotiated and the areas involved. I was in the Seanad when that Bill was put through by former Minister of State, Deputy Connaughton. We had great hope and we welcomed the Bill and acknowledged the great effort that Deputy Connaughton was making to get rid of the bottlenecks involved in the provisions of previous Land Acts. We even referred the Bill to the social welfare code and removed blockages and disencouragement for farmers to lease their land. We all thought this would be the answer but I am afraid I have not seen it operate to any significant effect.

The sub-division of land is another matter that requires the attention of the Land Commission. My experience is that some years ago it was very hard to obtain the consent of the Land Commission to split up a farm if that resulted in the creation of an uneconomic holding. I have the impression now that the only control on sub-division is a paper one and that consents, regardless of the type of sub-division involved, are automatic. If this is the case we are going from one extreme to another. While my misgivings may be unfounded, I would like to know whether control is exercised over sub-division at present. As I said, in the past the Land Commission ensured that sub-division without a purpose did not take place. However, after they have been abolished there will be nobody with a responsibility to control subdivision and it will be a free for all.

Commonage division has always been regarded as an important function of the Land Commission. The Land Acts contain elaborate provisions which set out the way in which commonages should be partitioned and that opposing parties can object and have their case heard by the commissioners in court. If the commissioners dismiss the objection an appeal can be heard in the High Court. This happened recently when the High Court delivered a judgement in relation to a County Mayo commonage. Some of the tenants concerned wanted the commonage to be divided but others wanted it to be retained as an open range. These are complicated issues which require an intimate knowledge of law and involve court hearings where the parties can state whether they are for or against division. Commonage division will become an even more important function following the introduction of sheep quotas.

I am not sure how all the matters I have mentioned will be handled after the Land Commission have been abolished. The intention is to transfer these functions to the Minister, who, I presume, would then delegate them to his officials. For the first time since the Land Commission were established therefore we will then have administrative officers whose function will be to deal with these matters, which at present are regarded as judicial or semi-judicial functions. In relation to commonage cases, will the Minister have to appoint a new body which will be the equivalent of the Land Commission, either in the form of a board or an agency with the power to hear and dispose of objections, or does he propose to retain control over commonage division and delegate this function to his officials?

It should be remembered that other duties and functions are performed by the commissioners and that these will have to be performed, once the Bill has been passed, by someone acting in a judicial or a semi-judicial capacity. I seek clarification on this matter, because it does not make sense to abolish one body if it will have to be replaced by another. Are there legal and constitutional issues which need to be thrashed out? After all, one of the Articles of our Constitution speaks about the need to establish on the land, in economic security, as many families as is practicable. The Minister's proposal that he should take over the functions and duties which are carried out at present by an independent body is questionable. It has always been argued in the past that there are matters which are best kept out of the political arena.

This is not a full and exhaustive list of the matters which will continue to be dealt with after the Land Commission have been abolished. For example, there is the problem of high land annuities and the abnormal level of arrears, which are at present being considered by a departmental working party. It seems that far reaching decisions will have to be taken in due course once the working party have concluded their deliberations. Will land annuities be reduced or written off, or will the repayment period be extended, or will special arrangements be made to deal with arrears? Other matters that will have to be settled include rights of way, turbary and grazing rights. Will all these matters be taken under the Minister's wing?

I have highlighted a sufficient number of problems and it is reasonable to ask whether there will be enough suitably qualified personnel around to deal with these matters after the Land Commission have been abolished. Experience shows that the job of adjudicating on these issues is one for the experts, in this case the commissioners. I presume after the Land Commission have been abolished the commissioners will have to pack their bags and accept whatever other assignment is given to them.

I do not envy the administrative officers, who will substitute for the commissioners, as they will have a very difficult task and they do not have the knowledge that the commissioners have acquired during the years. I believe that we will face major problems after the Land Commission have been abolished if we do not take steps to deal with the problems that I have highlighted in my contribution so far.

It has been suggested that, even though we do not have a worthwhile land structure policy, we should seriously consider introducing a land use policy, to which Deputy Boylan referred. We have detailed planning provisions relating to urban development, but scarcely any relating to rural development. This is significant in the context of forestry. As Deputy Boylan mentioned, this is a major problem in rural areas. It is estimated that between 500,000 and 600,000 acres of marginal agricultural land will be set aside for forestry during the next ten years or so. This makes a massive change in relation to land use. As pointed out in The Farmers Journal some months ago, this change has been made in the absence of any clear overall strategy.

The question that needs to be answered is what way do we want to see the countryside look in, say, 30 to 40 years time. Some local people are angry at the way in which forestry has been introduced in a townland. They are concerned because they do not become aware that trees are going to be planted on a neighbouring farm until the machinery moves in. I am aware of farmers who were leasing land and who suddenly discovered to their dismay that the land was to be planted without any offer being made to them to buy the land. As I said at the outset, if they were able to buy this land they could make their holding more economic and so provide a living for the farmer and perhaps one of his sons.

This problem will have to be addressed. Because this marks a change in relation to land use they believe that they should be informed sooner so that they would be able to assess the impact on their livelihoods. For example, a farm purchased for the purpose of planting trees may contain a certain amount of good arable land which a neighbouring farmer would like to buy to enlarge his own holding. Another problem is that trees are planted is such a way that they isolate nearby houses by blocking the view.

The argument has been made that there is a clear need for a land use policy in this area. In a recent article in The Irish Times the president of Macra na Feirme was quoted as saying in referring to the high cost involved in transferring land between members of the family:

What we need is a land policy, an overall approach to the whole issue of land and land use in this country. Land is our greatest asset, yet we have no overall policy for it.

I have raised a number of important issues which need to be addressed. I have also asked for information on a number of points which I hope will be provided when the Minister comes to reply. I should say that I was impressed by his speech. Having listened to him in the House on a number of occasions in the past, I am aware that he has a good grasp and understanding of the problems facing small farmers in rural Ireland. For years people were crying out for the abolition of the Land Commission, but those same people are now asking what will we replace it with. Many of the cynics are not around now to answer the question, but the small farmers and rural communities need something to replace it. There is a need for State intervention. While I am all in favour of private enterprise and allowing the forces of the free market to take their course, in regard to land there must be control and intervention. The small farmer with a small milk quota has no hope of competing for a patch of land with the farmer who has a substantial quota and has had money since the time of his grandfather. The bigger farmers will gradually take over any land that comes on offer. I hope the Minister will address this issue in detail when replying.

I am also concerned at the number of non-nationals coming into this country and taking over vast acres of Ireland in a totally uncontrolled way. Nobody seems to worry about it. I can point to large tracts of land between Kenmare, Sneem and Waterville in County Kerry that are now owned by non-nationals, people who come here for holidays, who give nothing to this country, who do not support local business and do not support the local schools. These people come in undetected, with no restrictions on them, and acquire whatever land they wish. These are matters we must address.

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.

Hear, hear.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Next Tuesday, subject to the agreement of the Whips.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 7 April 1992.