The Minister of State was in possession when we reported progress. I observe that Deputy Yates is anxious to resume. Is that satisfactory? Agreed.
Irish Land Commission (Dissolution) Bill, 1989: Committee Stage (Resumed).
The musical chairs' nature of politics has meant that I am now dealing with this matter. Given the constraints which are obvious on Committee Stage and the remaining Stages of a Bill. I hope the Chair will allow me some latitude, which I certainly will not abuse. Some elements of the Bill have been dealt with.
Have I not always been generous?
Absolutely, I would not deny that for one second. Amendment No. 4 deals with one of the central points to which I would like to refer. This amendment proposes the insertion of a new section in the Bill which would give responsibility to staff employed in the Farm Development Service to carry out some of the functions carried out by the Land Commission. A difficulty arises here in relation to the staff. If the Land Commission are abolished will there be adequate staff to carry out their land related functions?
I wish to make it clear that I am not opposed to the dissolution of the Land Commission. During the 111 or 112 years of their existence they carried out an historic job here. However, the issues with which they dealt are no longer relevant. I do not believe any tears should be shed about the dissolution of the Land Commission in so far as their performance over the last decade has been pretty abysmal, for example, no land has been acquired since 1983 and 2,500 hectares and 5,000 acres of bogland still have to be allocated. This raises major question marks about the performance of the Land Commission. Their procedures were often slow, tedious, inefficient, cumbersome and even costly.
During the lengthy Second Stage debate reference was made to the scandal of the £1.6 million paid to people to do nothing. It is clear that the purchase and resale of land as carried out by the Land Commission would now perhaps be unconstitutional and would clearly be impractical given the way land is allocated. Political charges have been made over the years about the way land was allocated.
I am concerned that there has been such a delay in dealing with this Bill. The decision to abolish the Land Commission was taken in October 1984. My main concern is that the baby is being thrown out with the bath water. Hence the reason for the amendments in my name. In future there will be no State organisation with responsibility for the functions previously carried out by the Land Commission. I am mainly referring to their executive functions, for example, control of purchases of land and the sub-division of commonages.
I ask the Minister, from a practical point of view and to ensure that their work is continued — there are pressures on staff and there is a recruitment embargo generally in the public service — to accept amendment No. 4. This would ensure that there would be a continuity of service after this Bill is enacted and Farm Development Service workers, who are represented in every county, could continue to carry out the day-to-day executive work previously carried out by the Land Commission, for example, sub-division, folio consent, commonage division and so on.
I agree in principle with the thrust of this amendment. The Land Commission have not acquired land for a long period — the death knell of this very useful agency, who carried out some excellent work in the past, had been sounded by various Governments. A previous amendment of mine which proposed that another agency should be given responsibility for the functions carried out by the Land Commission was ruled out of order on the grounds that it would place a demand on public funds. Some of these responsibilities should rest with the Minister; somebody has to have control of the vast tracts of land throughout the country, particularly commonages, an issues which was not addressed fully by the Government before the introduction of this Bill.
This amendment proposes that responsibility for the division of commonages be vested in the Minister. Recently the Ceann Comhairle's office rightly ruled out of order a question I put down in regard to Coillte on the basis that the Minister has no responsibility in the House for that body. This body, who have acquired lands under various Acts, have made extraordinary demands on people in regard to the fencing of commonages, the subject matter of this section.
Coillte Teo have assumed unto themselves responsibility for sending bills to sheep farmers in disadvantaged areas who had been using commonages, necessitating colossal expense to fence off property for the protection of young trees. The provisions of the Forestry Act, however, place the responsibility on Forestry of protecting new plantations for a period of up to ten years. For some reason — perhaps under the provisions of the Control of Dogs Act — a decision has been taken to charge people for trespassing commonage into forest areas. There is a fundamental principle involved as to whom should be responsible in this area if the Minister is not. If the Minister is to be responsible then the provisions of this amendment suggest that the Minister's Department be adequately staffed and identify experts involved already in the farm development service and/or a number of officers in the Land Commission who have given tremendous professional advice over the years. If they cannot be absorbed elsewhere this would be indeed a useful role for them. Rather than waste taxpayers' money paying people to do nothing I contend this would be a useful role for them, one the Minister might gainfully review.
The amendment is a good one in that the matter of commonage, responsibility for it, its usage, how it should be paid for, are matters which need to be addressed. We must remember that one of these days the farm development service and farm modernisation section of the Department, along with the payments section of the Departmentvis-à-vis disadvantaged areas, will be endeavouring to ascertain who are the owners of commonage, who are the owners of the relevant folio numbers and people will be floundering around local authority and old rates offices in order to ascertain how their grandfather, or great grandfather, had acquired grazing rights on commonages.
I should like the Minister to address all of those problems when replying.
This amendment suggests that the former functions of the Land Commission be transferred to the farm development service of the Department. I contend that that function should rest with the officials of the Land Commission since they are conversant with the task involved. They may have to be employed by some other body — on the dissolution of the Land Commission — but it is my view that these officials should continue to have that responsibility as they are well conversant with such functions. They are the most suitable people to deal with the task. Rather than have that function undertaken by the farm development service it should be undertaken by people who were employed in the Land Commission.
I thank Deputy Yates for the amendments he has tabled, for the thought portrayed in them. I might also welcome him on this occasion, his first as spokesperson, for his party, on agriculture. I might say to him and to the other two Deputies who have spoken that we are all here to ensure that, at the end of the day, we put together the best possible package to deal with the many problems facing our agricultural industry at present, particularlyvis-à-vis reform of our overall land structure.
This amendment deals with the division of commonages, the suggestion being that the work involved be transferred to the farm development service of my Department. There is absolutely no doubt that the farm development service is a very effective arm of my Department, all of its officers being excellent, dedicated and committed people. Of course, it is also a well known fact that, in many instances, they are over-worked in terms of the demands being made on their services.
I am extremely anxious to ensure that the division of commonages be dealt with as effectively and efficiently as possible. In this respect I might inform the House, and those Deputies present, it is my intention that a special unit be established within my Department to deal with the overall matter of the division of commonages and with the allocation of the national land pool remaining undivided. Deputy Yates can take it that I am most anxious that we adopt a co-ordinated approach in tackling this problem. It is my honest belief that the only effective manner to deal with it in a co-ordinated way would be to have such division of commonages administered within my Department by a specialised group of people.
Deputy Ferris referred to the existing Land Commission staff. I am not in a position to comment one way or another on the extent to which some members of the former Land Commission staff could or should be deployed on this work. I can assure Deputies, including Deputy Foxe, that I am taking steps that such specialised group be established to deal with all the remaining functions of the Land Commission.
It is important to remember that this Bill was designed to give statutory effect to the position which has obtained since 1983, a period of almost ten years, during which the Land Commission, as a body, have not been as active or effective as they had been formerly. Therefore, it is only right to place on record — as we did on the last occasion on which this matter was debated — that the Land Commission and their officials have served this country extremely well. I might add that the policies pursued by successive Governments and their implementation led to the creation of the maximum number of farm families on our land. They were in a position to do so by the acquisition of large holdings and estates, redistributing such land among many smallholders. It must be said that what would have been regarded as an economic farm say, 25 or 30 years ago would require to be doubled today to enable people glean a decent livelihood from it.
Therefore, it was inevitable that the scope of the operations of the Land Commission would diminish. Even if we could have continued indefinitely with the policy of land acquisition, very quickly we would have found ourselves in conflict with our social policy, which is to retain the maximum number of farm families on our land. We reached a stage at which the opportunity for the acquisition of land no longer obtained. It is generally agreed in the House that for that reason eventually we would reach a stage at which that aspect of the operations of our land policy would be terminated, which is precisely what we are endeavouring to do under the provisions of this Bill.
It is important to note that, apart from the overall matter of land acquisition and distribution, along with the function of the commissioners, a considerable quantity of other work remains to be done and will be tackled by the committee for which I suggest Deputies should opt.
I do not want to be seen as unnecessarily opposing amendments which have been well thought out and tabled for a specific reason. I might add I gave much serious thought to their wording and to seeing if the proposals therein would do a better job than what I am proposing. I am satisfied that putting together a professional group of experienced people within the Department will effectively deal with the remaining responsibilities which are being retained within the Department of Agriculture and Food. I will be extremely anxious and will convey to my officials that in the process of administering these remaining functions, including the division of commonages and the distribution of the remaining undivided land, there should be consultation with the Farm Development Service and with Teagasc. The kind of information which they could provide at local level would be of immense value and benefit to the expert group within the Department.
Deputy Yates might consider withdrawing his amendment. I do not want unnecessarily to twist his arm, but I am convinced that what I am proposing is a more effective, professional and coherent way of addressing an extremely important problem. There is considerable interest in the division of commonage and it is very much in the interest of agriculture that the remaining undivided commonages should be dealt with as quickly as possible. I am a believer in dialogue and discussion and I hope the remaining problems will be sorted out at local community level, with farmers agreeing among themselves as to what should be done to get the best results from this undivided land. In view of the current restrictions and the need to make the maximum use of every acre, especially on the small family farm, there should be a better community response to the overall question of land division.
I hope Deputies opposite will identify with what I have said. I take the point made by Deputy Yates in relation to the Farm Development Service. There must be dialogue, consultation and working co-operation with the Farm Development Service and Teagasc. These are all components of the overall administrative team for agriculture.
I thank the Minister for his kind remarks. I hope that my contribution will be constructive. Deputy Foxe said he would rather have specialised, experienced Land Commission staff doing this work than laymen in the Farm Development Service. The Minister laid great stress on the special unit which is being established in the Department. Whether we are talking about commonage, sub-division control, controls on EC nationals buying land or the promotion of group purchase, the question arises as to how many people will be in this unit. That is the kernel. How many people are working in the Land Commission? How many will work in the special unit? If there is a genuine commitment to absorb into the Department the work that was done by the Land Commission, that is reasonable. My fear is that this will not happen, that there will not be a clear, definable budget and that the people in this unit will be submerged among the thousands of people working for the Department of Agriculture and Food. I fear that this unit will be lost sight of and that the whole question of land policy will become a nothing.
We are talking at present about the abolition of the Land Commission and the sale of ACC. There will be no State intrument left to deal with land policy, land mobility and structural reform. We agree that the old Land Commission acquisition methods are gone but we need new methods. We need incentives for young farmers, the promotion of group purchase and so on.
Will the Minister outline the staff of this special unit and how it will work? Will it be headed by a principal officer or somebody at assistant secretary level? Let us take the Minister at his word and put flesh on the bones of what he is proposing.
Because the Land Commission has not been officially dissolved and because this proposed unit is not operational, I cannot answer specifically the question as to the size of the proposed unit or how it is to be administered. I have had discussions with senior officials in the Department and I have expressed my concern to them, as Deputy Yates has conveyed his concern to me. I am satisfied from my discussions at senior level in the Department that an effective unit will be put in place to continue to administer not only the division of commonages but also the allocation of the remaining small amount of undivided land. There are a number of other very specific functions transferring to the Department. Members will have the opportunity of monitoring the effectiveness of the proposed new structure within the Department. Deputy Yates, Deputy Ferris and Deputy Foxe will be the first people to raise with me, if I am still around, the effectiveness of the structure I am promising today. There will be ongoing review of how this new unit is operating.
In fairness to the officials of the Department of Agriculture and Food and those within it who have been responsible for Land Commission administration, it would be wrong to suggest that they would not have the same commitment to the implementation of the remaining functions which now transfer to the Department as they had to administering a national land restructuring policy. Generous comments and tributes have been paid to the officials of the Land Commission. They had their feet on the ground and knew exactly the requirements of rural areas and individual farmers. There is a professional ethos, a commitment and dedication which might not be found in other services, to ensuring that the work which the Land Commission embarked on so many years ago is brought to a successful conclusion.
In fairness to Deputy Yates, he has tabled some well thought out amendments to other sections of the Bill and I do not wish to steal his thunder at this stage. I agree with the point made by the Deputy that there is a need for an overall approach to the co-ordination of agricultural matters, but I will let him raise that matter in his amendments. I am convinced that the unit which we propose to establish in the Department will be made up of people who have the knowledge to administer the new functions they will be taking on. Deputy Yates should accept that and he should also be mindful of the fact that he is welcome to come into the House at any time and query or criticise, if necessary, the ineffectiveness — although I do not believe that will be the case — of this proposed unit.
I appeal to Deputy Yates not to pursue this matter. I am not fearful of division or anything like that but I believe consensus is the best way to approach a matter on which there are no real divisions. The views of Members of the House do not differ to any great extent on this issue. In fact, I would go so far as to say there is overall consensus in regard to what, collectively, we want to achieve from the transfer of the functions of the Land Commission to the Minister and the Department.
Having regard to the assurances I have given, I ask the Deputy to withdraw his amendment. He will be aware from assurances I have given in the past on some aspects of this legislation that I have not been found wanting in terms of living up to commitments I make. The same applies to the commitment I give here today in relation to the continuing administration of the functions of the Land Commission in the Department until a more effective way may be found to approaching the entire land structure problem here.
The Minister has given a reasonable response to a reasonable amendment. I understand that this special unit will be identifiable for questioning by Members of the Oireachtas and many questions will arise in this regard. If this special unit can resolve problems in regard to commonage and ownership rights — by the end of the year the Minister proposes to have dealt with the 2,500 hectares he acquired — they will be a very effective unit. That will be a major task and nobody has any doubts in that regard.
Not alone is there a problem in regard to commonage but there are problems in regard to land owned by non-nationals in mountain areas of my constituency on which grazing rights have been established for centuries. Those people have not got clear title or occupation rights to that land and the people using that land, who are beneficiaries of grants from the Department of Agriculture and Food, occupy it and some of them make no payments. This is a major problem and, therefore, we need to be able to question this special unit.
I welcome the provision that the unit must consult the Farm Development Service and Teagasc, but they should also be open to consultation with farming organisations and others who have an interest in what is a very thorny subject, namely, the question of commonage or land usage by occupation, squatters' rights or whatever legal terminology is applied to it.
Will the Minister clarify the real functions of this special unit, apart from those relating to commonage? Under existing legislation lands were acquired for sub-division with a specific purpose in mind regarding restructuring of holdings, the improvement of fragmented holdings and so on. What are the Minister's intentions in regard to the balance of that land? He has stated he intends to dispose of this land, sell it to the highest bidder or return it to the person from whom it was acquired. The Minister acquired this land with a specific purpose in mind and under specific legislation enshrined in the constitution. Therefore, if he does anything with that land, apart from the use for which it was acquired, we could be treading on dangerous ground. If the Minister acquired those lands for a specific purpose he should use them for that purpose in line with the regulations under which he acquired the lands. It required a strong constitutional power to take land from people for the benefit of the common good and redistribute it to those in need. I will deal later with the question of how great that need was and, indeed, how much it cost people in relation to not being able to repay Land Commission annuities and so on. In winding up the Land Commission there should be an opportunity for people to reclaim total ownership of such lands by forward purchasing or by other means so that people may get full title to land which was given to them on an annuity basis, similar to any property acquired from a local authority and so on.
The Minister replied to some of the queries raised by Deputy Yates, but this special unit must be answerable to this House and they must consult experts in farming organisations if we are to achieve the consensus the Minister talked about.
I do not wish to labour this point, but it is central to amendments which may be ruled out of order in regard to the type of unit which will exist at the end of the day.
The Minister's heart is in the right place, but that does not apply to the Department of Finance.
They do not have a heart.
That is correct. This is a pig in a poke. I should like the Minister to tell me the number of people who are working in the Land Commission at present. Will those employed in the special unit be working in the Department of Social Welfare or the Department of Agriculture and Food? Of course, the Minister must negotiate with trade unions and so on and I do not expect him to have all the answers. However, I would expect him to have a rough idea about whether it costs £1.5 million or £2 million a year to run the Land Commission because it is important that this special unit would be allocated a similar budget. The blunt reality is that this unit will exist in name only and will not have the staff or financial resources which the Land Commission have at present. All those matters need to be dealt with. I should like a specific answer from the Minister in regard to the number of people working in the Land Commission at present and his intention regarding the number which will be employed in this special unit.
The special unit will be set up and the Minister is committed to this; but that is not what is at issue here. I am not questioning the Minister's integrity or bona fides in this matter. I am aware that his intentions are good but I do not believe that the outcome of this unit will be satisfactory. Will the Minister state the annual budget allocation to the Land Commission at present, the staff numbers and their grades and whether it is his intention to retain half or all of them?
I will be happy to respond to the queries raised by Deputies Ferris and Yates. First, in regard to the unit and its accountability, the unit will be accountable to the Minister and the Minister will be accountable to this House.
Deputy Yates suggested that farming organisations and others who might like to meet with the head of the unit would not have that facility available to them. The tradition of the Department of Agriculture and Food has been and will continue to be that senior officials are ready and willing to meet interested parties at all times. It would not be reasonable to suggest that the unit should be exposed to the House in terms of accountability. The Minister of the day will be responsible to the House and will have to answer questions in relation to the unit. We are labouring this point. Because we are winding down the Land Commission we propose to put in place an effective unit in the Department to deal with the matters which will be transferred. I know the officials will do the job extremely well.
Deputy Yates wanted to know how many people were employed by the Land Commission and I am advised that it is somewhere in the region of 100. Reference was also made to funding. We must seriously consider the return we get from the Vote for the Department of Agriculture and Food and other Government Departments. We have a serious obligation to ensure the maximum level of cost effectiveness in Government Departments. I am committed to that. That does not mean that close monetary control in the Department will lead to an ineffective operation. If Deputies cannot take my word for it now I will have to try to convince them again that the unit will deal effectively with these issues.
In the debate we seem to be talking just about the division of commonage. For the benefit of Deputies I will give a brief outline of the functions we are now transferring from the Land Commission. I know Deputies are anxious that the matter of the disposal of the small area on hands should be expedited. I can assure Deputies that this matter will be dealt with quickly.
In what manner?
The matter which the Deputy raised will come under another section. I presume that at that stage the Deputy will address the question of land division, the sale of land and the proposal to offer it again to the person from which it has been acquired. That is a very sensitive area which will be dealt with under another section. Another function relates to revesting of land in the names of people to whom land has already been allocated and so on. This function will be taken over by the people in the new unit in the Department. The Department will also deal with the exercise of statutory control over the subdivision of farms and the purchase of land by unqualified persons, namely, companies and non-EC nationals.
I have a personal interest in the availability of land particularly for young farmers. A scheme which has not been as successful as we would have wished it to be deals with group purchase and leasing of land as well as the provision of assistance for schemes for rearrangement and commonage division. I am disappointed with that scheme. The problem relates to the high cost of land which in many instances exceeds the potential farming profitability to be gained. The high price of land creates problems for young farmers who want to take part in group purchase schemes. I will be meeting with the banks shortly on other matters relating to agriculture and I propose to raise with them the possibility of providing serviceable funding to farmers, particularly young farmers who wish to acquire land through group purchase schemes.
Statutory and other obligations, such as the collection of annuities, are dealt with in another section of the Bill and I hope to deal with this later in the afternoon. The custody of title documents is an extremely important function, one which in the short-term has been creating some problems for us. Later I hope to explain the present position. The transfer of documentation to a new centralised Department is well advanced and it should lead to the better protection of very significant documents. On the last day on which we were discussing this Bill in this House, my senior man, Mr. Tom Duggan, who many would regard as a father figure of the Land Commission, brought into the House a very ancient charter relating to land structures and I had hoped at some stage to be able to place it before the Ceann Comhairle or to put it on display. Unfortunately, we do not have that document today. Deputies will realise that the safe custody of documents which have a significant bearing on the lives and property of hundreds of thousands of farmers is very important. This matter will be dealt with by the people to whom this new responsibility is being given.
There is nothing more that I can effectively say. I believe what we are doing is correct and will, at the end of the day, give the best possible service to farmers and will lead to a more cost-effective approach to overall administration within the Department.
I do not want to be unduly critical. However, on the one hand we are told we are paying people for doing very little and on the other we are asked why we are taking approaches that will result in a greater degree of cost effectiveness. It is difficult to reconcile both of those points but what I am saying is that we must be cost effective in terms of our approach to national administration, and that cost effectiveness must be applied to the Department of Agriculture. Deputy Yates, more than any other Deputy, would look for the best return for the money being spent on public administration and, without wishing to put undue pressure on the Deputy to withdraw his amendment, I am absolutely convinced that we are doing the right thing in terms of the management of the functions that we are transferring to the Department now.
I have a strong interest in the affairs of the Land Commission. I was rather surprised to hear the Minister conclude his remarks by saying that he did not want to pay people to do nothing.
I did not say that.
The Minister indicated that he would have grave reservations about any structure about which it would be alleged by some people that staff were being employed to do very little.
On a point of order.
The Minister may reply in a moment. Deputy Hogan should continue to make his point and the Minister will have an opportunity to reply.
I agree with the Minister. Perhaps I phrased it badly. The Minister indicated that he did not want a situation to arise where he would not be getting the best value for money in the Department of Agriculture. That has not happened in the past in the case of the Land Commission. The way estate officers were dealt with by the Department during their terms of office and in terms of their retirement package in 1988 left a lot to be desired. Deputy Yates's amendment seeks to establish an autonomous land use authority because of the changes that are taking place in land mobility throughout the country as a result of the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, the changing patterns of agriculture and the inability of many farmers to rear their families totally on the land. There is a huge move now towards part-time farming as a result of the changes that have taken place in Europe.
Land mobility is a key issue which has been long neglected by successive Governments. To demonstrate the commitment of the Government to land mobility an autonomous structure should be established to home in on the greater uses we could make of our land. I find it very strange that any Government would set up An Bord Glas to oversee developments in horticulture which, in total agricultural and horticultural terms, are small. Nevertheless they are important. We need to find ways of displacing imported goods from abroad, to reduce our dependence on products coming into the country and grow them here. Yet the Minister fails to set up a separate authority that could include all those areas whether in agriculture, horticulture or forestry. That would be much more important to the development of agriculture and the economy. There would be nothing wrong with subsuming many of the services that exist at present, such as An Bord Glas, the farm development service and Teagasc, under an umbrella body that would cover all the activities the Minister must cater for at the moment in the case of rural development.
There is much more that could be done besides setting up a faceless bureaucracy in the Department of Agriculture. Something that is more user friendly should be set up. There is an impression abroad among consumers that services linked specifically to central Government and located in places like Dublin and Castlebar are not accessible to the general body of farmers or to the general public. A separate unit with proper structures is necessary to ensure that we get greater returns in terms of food purchase, division of commonages etc. Also there is much more activity in the land area now than there was a few years ago, particularly under the Leader programme.
I see a great role for a dynamic rural authority incorporating a land use authority to further the interests of rural Ireland. A hands-on approach is needed now more than ever. The Land Commission estate officers had a great knowledge of rural Ireland. The carried out a very important service for Ireland and were very often starved of resources to do more, particularly in the area of buying up land and redistributing it.
We hear all this talk about the need to give more land to young farmers and to give more land to existing farmers to make their holdings viable. This is all pie in the sky. We have been listening to Ministers for Agriculture talking about that for generations and nothing has happened. It is market forces that are dictating what is happening and not the direct intervention of the State. There were experienced staff in the Land Commission in 1988 and 1989 who could have been redeployed to do much of the work the Minister speaks of. Instead they were moved into other Departments to collect fines for the Department of Justice and do other menial tasks that they had no experience of and had no interest in and many of them retired under the voluntary retirement scheme out of frustration. This is probably a thorny issue but the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture even said that he had no work for them. Now there is a recruitment drive for the employment of more agricultural officers. That is what is called wastage of resources. That is not being cost effective. When the Minister speaks about proper budgetary procedures and cost effectiveness he would need to examine the experience of the Land Commission iself in that regard to make sure that this does not happen again.
There is a danger of becoming repetitive here but this is in relation to the special unit to deal with the work remaining to be done on the dissolution of the Land Commission. I am reading from the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General in which there were comments made about staffing which I do not agree with. There is 100,000 acres of bogland in the western and midland counties which will take about five years to dispose of. The Secretary of the Department told the Comptroller and Auditor General last year, too, that it would take up to two years to allocate the remaining pool of land. I take it that we are talking about arable farming land.
While it is necessary to carry out schemes involving the rearrangement of land and the division of commonages, surveys of disadvantaged areas and inspections relating to set-aside schemes, it is a great pity — we made this point before — that the work of the Land Classification Office, where the Land Commission inspectors were employed for about a year and a half in 1986 and 1987, was not continued. They carried out some badly needed work to update our knowledge and information relating to the land. We should remember that our records date from the Griffiths Valuation in the middle of the 19th century. While some of its commentary still rings true 140 years on, we need to update this information. It is a great pity therefore that this will not form part of the work of this new unit.
The Minister of State commented that he is interested in controlling the purchase of our land by non-EC nationals and companies. I would like him to elaborate on this and to let us know what policy he intends to introduce whereby the purchase of land by non-EC nationals and companies can be controlled. How does he propose to do this?
The Minister of State also made some very good points about the records of the Land Commission. I think the records office closed in either the middle of July or August and the Minister of State proposed that it would remain closed for three months. This has proved inconvenient for people seeking records and documents for various reasons. I urge the Minister of State to ensure that this office does not remain closed for longer than the period mentioned in the press advertisements at the time because there is an inclination to postpone these matters. I would like the Minister of State to indicate today if the transfer of these records is on schedule; in other words, does he propose to re-open the records office on the date set down?
I am also interested in the Land Commission archives. They are tremendous historical archives which provide a social commentary on the position in Ireland in the 19th century. Unlike our nearest neighbour, if there was social change or unrest in Ireland it had to do with the question of land rather than with the question of industry. It is very important that these documents be preserved and located in museums such as the new Famine Museum at Strokestown which is an extension of the National Museum. By and large, this museum will deal with the land question in the 19th century. One would hope that documents which would be suitable for display in that museum would be made available to it.
These documents are at present in the hands of the Land Commission and not with the National Archive. Very few of them are located in the National Museum and very few of those of historical importance are in private hands. The records of the old congested district boards and the Irish Land Commission amount to treasure trove. I urge that those records which are of historical importance should be made available to local museums, including the one I have mentioned, and to scholars who may wish to study them. They should not be transferred or stored, as happened in the case of the other records some of which had not been looked at for 50 to 60 years, at 23 Merrion Square. Those records were not well coded or indexed which made it difficult to gain access to them. One would hope under the new arrangements that it would be easy to gain access to the Land Commission archives and, above all else, that they would be made available.
I will return to the question of staffing later as it is not appropriate to deal with it on this section. I will beg your permission to return to it at a later stage.
To facilitate progress, I will be happy to withdraw amendment No. 4 after the Minister of State has had a chance to reply to the points raised by my colleagues. The Minister of State kindly gave me the information that there are 100 people working in the Land Commission today. However can he give me any indication of the number of staff that will be necessary to run this unit? Will it be 20 people or 100 people? I am not asking him to indicate a precise figure but the number of staff that he thinks would be appropriate?
I am pleased that Deputy Hogan clarified the position in relation to my statement on the question of employment within the public service. I wish to make the point briefly that it is not the fault of any individual within the public service that they have not been productively employed for whatever reason; in fact, it is the fault of the system. One has to be realistic — I do not want to be repetitive — but if we are to get the maximum results in terms of the amount of money available there will have to be an ongoing review of staffing levels within every Government Department. That is not an implied criticism or condemnation of any of the people employed. It is in that context that I would like to reply to the question raised by Deputy Yates. He asked if I could indicate the number of people that will be employed——
Roughly how many?
——but I regret to say that I am not in a position to do so; that will be a matter for the personnel section within the Department. My sole function is to take steps to ensure that there will be a unit in place which will be both capable and effective in carrying out the task we are talking about here today. It would be both foolish and irresponsible to start speculating about the number of people needed in any particular section. Within the Department we have a personnel section which is headed by an assistant secretary and I have no doubt, following consultations with the various sections within the Department, that an adequately staffed unit will be established.
Much of what has been said relates to another section or sections which we will deal with later. I have indicated already that I do not want to cut across some of the amendments which have been tabled by Deputy Yates——
Some have been ruled out of order.
Having regard to the fact that he gave this matter considerable thought when preparing the amendments, even if they have been ruled out of order, I take it that he will refer to them during the course of the debate and I would like to respond to them.
Deputies will recall that when I spoke on the last occasion on which we debated the Land Commission Bill I conveyed my thoughts to the House and assurances were sought from me that I would examine the need for a national body to co-ordinate what is happening in the agricultural sector and the national land scene in general. I gave an assurance that I would pursue this matter. That is what I have done and I am continuing to pursue it along with the committee who are dealing with the national programme for the development of agriculture. That is all that I will say about the matter for the moment because I do not want to cut across some of the points that Deputy Yates may like to make.
In relation to the disposal of land, there are about 1,300 hectares of agricultural land remaining in the hands of the Land Commission. Proposals for the allotment of about 90 per cent of this land have been approved. It is expected that the disposal will be completed during the coming year — that question was raised by a number of Deputies. In the event of agricultural land remaining on hands on the dissolution of the Land Commission it will be disposed of by tender or auction as provided for in section 8 of the Bill. That section provides that the Department of Agriculture and Food will deal with the remaining undivided land. There remain on hands also about 5,000 hectares of inferior land or bog. That point was raised by Deputy Connor and I know from listening to him in the House that it is a matter in which he has a particular interest.
Disposal of this land will be considered when the agricultural land has been alloted. In other words, we are operating a scheme of priorities, dealing first with viable agricultural land and its allocation to people who have been waiting for it. That matter will be dealt with very quickly. Inferior land can be disposed of as provided for in section 8 of the Bill. What we are doing today is, on the one hand, winding down the Land Commission for the obvious reasons with which everybody agrees and giving the new unit responsibility for administration of all the remaining functions. I have an interest in this matter and have responsibility for it and I can assure the Deputies that it will be expedited.
In reply to Deputy Connor's queries in relation to the records office, every effort is being made to have the new office opened in accordance with the announcement made by the Department. This turned out to be a much more difficult task than we originally anticipated. Because of the unsatisfactory accommodation in Merrion Street it was not possible for officials of the Department to maintain the desired level of recording. Therefore much thought and care has to go into the refiling of all these records, their preservation, storage and display. It is our intention, following completion of that transfer, that the records will be available to the public generally and to the legal profession who have made some complaints, and justifiably so, in the past few months that they did not have free access, to which they are entitled, to official Land Commission documentation. These people have been very reasonable in their understanding of the problems we faced. All of us can take satisfaction from the fact that when the transfer is completed — as close as possible, one would hope, to the announced deadline — we will have an adequate records section in relation of Land Commission documentation.
Even historians can have access to these ancient charters. Like Deputy Connor and Deputy Yates I have an interest in the historical background of the Land Commission and the whole land structure problem. When you examine some of these documents you get a great feel for the traditions of our forefathers. Therefore it is very important not only that these documents be carefully preserved and protected but that they be available to all of us. As I said earlier, it is my regret that my senior man, Tom Duggan, is unable to bring into the House today the old charter which we had here the last day. It is a very interesting charter and it would have been significant to put it on display on the day we are finally officially winding up this great national body.
We now come to amendment No. 4a in the name of Deputy Ivan Yates. Amendments Nos. 4b and 4c have been ruled out of order.
I move amendment No. 4a:
In page 3, before section 6, to insert the following new section:
6.—The Minister may authorise that a monitoring unit be established within his Department to report annually on land mobility including—
(a) subdivision controls of land,
(b) group purchases of land,
(c) long term leasing of land, and
(d) the re-arrangement of commonage divisions.".
I got the bad news earlier this morning about my amendments Nos. 4b and 4c being ruled out of order. The Minister alluded to these amendments which contain the meat of what I am trying to get at. I do not think we need to repeat the debate which is concentrated on amendment No. 4a, that is, that we should set up a land authority or special unit in the Department to carry out the functions outlined in this amendment. These include sub-division controls of land and group purchases of land, which need to be promoted in order to be successful. For example, a group of farmers could acquire land which any one of them could not afford to buy without borrowing money from a financial institution. Resources should be directed to that area. Another function would be the long term leasing of land and its promotion in terms of ensuring that young farmers who cannot buy land could lease it. It would also guarantee the owner of the land a long term income. The opportunity to avail of long term leasing of land is under-utilised. Another function of the new unit would be the re-arrangement of commonage divisions, about which we have spoken at length.
I would like to take this one step further. I read very carefully the Second Stage debate — it took me a long time to read it all — including the Minister's reply. I hope I am paraphrasing the Minister correctly when he said that he remained to be convinced of the need for a land authority, although he did not rule out the setting up of such an authority. What I am trying to do on Committee Stage is to make the case for a land authority and I have set out three areas for which they should have responsibility. First is the day to day executive land-related functions that were carried out by the Land Commission — they are listed in amendment No. 4a — the day to day decisions that have to be made about the normal routine business of land in Ireland.
Their second role would be land usage for which no State authority have responsibility at present. I have outlined the specific functions that would be appropriate in this regard. For example, as regards the question of afforestation, I am told that there are one million marginal acres of land that could be considered for afforestation. Therefore should there be a code of practice or sub-controls in relation to afforestation and, if so, who would have responsibility for that? I suggest that a special unit in the Department or a land authority would deal with that matter. Similarly, there are mountain ranges that are barely grazed by sheep. Could these areas be developed in terms of agri-tourism, as wild fowl shooting reserves, or as recognised areas for such activities as hill climbing, etc. Would that be the best way to use that land in terms of employment and national income or who should decide on that matter? I suggest that the land authority have that responsibility.
At EC level there have been two important developments: the designation of environmentally sensitive areas and the EC habitats directive. In both cases a State body is needed to rationally consider the matter. I hope the Minister will accept amendment No. 4a which simply states quite clearly the functions of the special unit referred to by the Minister. It does not interfere with new powers but sets out the functions in legislative form. I would not see any difficulty as regards acceptance of this amendment.
In relation to amendments Nos. 4b and 4c, while it is, technically speaking, out of order for me to move these amendments, it would not be out of order for the Minister to set out on Report Stage the functions in question. These points were brought to the Minister's attention on Second Stage. The first area of responsibility for the land authority would be the day-to-day executive land-related functions and the second would be land usage, including the subheadings outlined in amendment No. 4a.
Finally, in relation to amendment No. 4c, and this is an important point of substance in relation to agriculture, given the Common Agricultural Policy reforms and given that a young farmer who wishes to get into farming has every door firmly shut in his face — he cannot get into milk production because of the milk quota, he cannot get into ewes or lamb production because of the ewe premium quota and he cannot get into suckler cows because of the quota there — and regardless of which way he turns, there is no new entrant factor. Also, young farmers cannot get money from the banks to buy land because the cost is prohibitive. What is to happen to these young farmers?
There are approximately 20,000 farms owned by people over 65 years of age, principally in disadvantaged areas with very low productivity. We need a new package of policies to assist in allocating land to young farmers. It could be a package of incentives relating to long term leasing, but the principle needs to be established that rural society in general, and agriculture in particular, require these young, qualified farmers to have access to agriculture.
I am sure the Minister has attended many presentations of the green certificate and is aware of the quality of this certificate which is one of the best in Europe encompassing five years training in some cases, agricultural college in other cases. What are the opportunities for these people? I understand that 84 per cent of all land transfers take place within a family farm context; therefore our tax code could make it easier for young people to inherit family farms.
I believe this special unit should prepare a report on the measures that need to be taken to ensure that there is land mobility because the Land Commission will not be there to do this work. I say to the Minister that, first, the executive functions of the Land Commission need to be incorporated into the special unit. Second, there should be a land use authority and a sub-division of that and third, there should be a yearly statistical analysis of land mobility and a policy unit. I am specifically asking that within a period of one year a report will be presented to Government by this special unit in the Department indicating the steps that are necessary to ensure this mobility. This is a reasonable and specific amendment and I ask the Minister to accept it.
I support the amendment put forward by Deputy Yates. As one can see it is divided into a number of sections. The unit for instance, would deal with the provisions of EC Habitat Directives. As the Minister knows, this country has not fulfilled its obligations under EC Habitat Directives. In recent years several areas have been designated in the directives as "preserved", which is welcome, but there are probably 50 or more sites that remain unattended because the expertise is not available. It is a great pity that we remain in contravention of important EC Directives because of a lack of personnel or expertise to do this work.
This amendment affords an opportunity to get over that shortcoming. In a world that is becoming more and more environmentally aware, it is not good enough that a Department responsible for the preservation of wetlands and certain habitats cannot carry out its work for the reasons I have set out. I hope the Minister will find in this amendment a way in which this issue could be addressed.
Paragraph 6 (b) of amendment No. 4b deals with the promotion of agri-tourism. Last year we adopted the grant regime for agri-tourism under the EC Structural Funds. It was very slow to get off the ground; almost a year and a half after the directive could have been applied in Ireland we actually dealt with potential applicants. A very small number of the applicants qualified for the agri-tourism grants although many worthwhile projects were put forward, and many of them have, unfortunately, been put on the long finger — into 1993 and beyond.
It is very important that this unit will be able to deal in an advisory capacity with people who wish to take the alternative step into agri-tourism. This is vital because a transfer to this country in terms of (a) grant assistance and (b) the spinoff from tourism to the national economy is great. We now find that the projected growth in tourism which was to double by 1993 — a projection made in 1988 or 1989 — will not now be realised; we probably will not reach 60 per cent of that target. If we set a target for 1993 to 1997 we must do everything possible to see that that target is realised.
In this amendment we are setting down areas where we can work towards that realisation because if there is any area which has growth potential it is agri-tourism. In an increasingly urbanised society, there is the huge, untapped potential to use the Irish countryside and not just our scenic sites, etc. for recreational purposes. I hope the Minister will take on board our suggestions.
Paragraph 6 (c) of amendment No. 4b deals with the preservation of environmentally sensitive areas. I believe we have not done enough in this area. I do not know how many ESAs we have declared in this country but I represent a part of the country where a major area of great environmental sensitivity is located, namely, the Shannon Valley, the Shannon callows. To preserve that area certain measures will have to be put in place; many of which may not be popular, such as farmers having to go into extensification of present farming practices in that area. Here again, for one reason or another, we have not put the terms of these directives into place and these environmentally sensitive areas are being progressively damaged and for a relatively small amount of money we could preserve these unique areas.
Areas of unspoiled wetlands and wild countryside are more widespread on this island than in most parts of the Continent because we have not had an assault of industrialisation on these areas. Deputy Yates very eloquently made the point regarding the need to control afforestation. I have made this point in a number of debates: something must be done urgently in that area. In theory it is all right to say that the appropriate use for thousands of hectares of land is afforestation — this can be said about County Leitrim. A couple of years ago I heard David Bellamy giving a lecture in the National Library. He made a sweeping statement when he said that the west should be under afforestation. This was said from his own environmental protection preservation point of view. That is all very well but for every 10,000 trees planted, one person is being displaced. This issue must be addressed. There is a considerable amount of land the appropriate use of which would be afforestation.
Increasingly, in the constituency I represent, agricultural land of good quality, which would improve the livelihood of many young farmers, is being given over to afforestation purely and simply because the only customer for this land when it comes on the market — sometimes in quite large tracts — are the finance and other companies who operate in afforestation. Some of this is excellent agricultural land and, near where I live, almost two acres have been planted with trees, which was not an appropriate use for it. Sometimes this is the only option open to farmers as they will not be given money by the lending institutions; the general attitude towards the economic condition of agriculture at present means that it is not a good time to be looking for money to engage in conventional agriculture. The Government need to intervene in this regard. I think the Minister of State agrees because when we were debating Second Stage he made that point. Let us have afforestation where it is appropriate — we must be careful about what we mean by "appropriate"— but there should not be afforestation on fertile agricultural land. I say that although I am in support of the need to increase afforestation because we have the lowest afforestation — at least we had five years ago — of any country in Europe. I do not believe the glowing figures in regard to a timber shortage in 30 years' time, its price and its value. We do not know what new product may come on the market which might replace timber. There is hardly any timber used in new houses for windows and doors, synthetic material or aluminium are used; 40 years ago Members speaking in the House might have heard about bakelite but they certainly did not know about the use and versatility of plastic. That is why we must be careful about talking in glowing terms about the need for afforestation.
Deputy Yates referred to the accessibility of land for young farmers and I cannot add much to his remarks. He made the point about the age profile of our farmers. It depends on how you look at the contribution of agriculture to our economy, 19 per cent of the total workforce is involved directly, if you exclude manufacturing, as a direct result of agriculture but if you include the industrial-manufacturing side which is allied directly to agriculture you will find that 30 per cent of the total workforce is involved. The age profile of farmers is extremely worrying; in County Roscommon — a western disadvantaged county — 80 per cent of farmers are over 50 years of age, 45 per cent are over 65 years of age, indeed many of them are 80 years of age. Something must be done to encourage these farmers to transfer their land to younger people. Alas, emigration has taken its toll of young farmers who do not see any hope for farming in future. They know that they cannot farm economically the land on which their parents survived and there is no accessibility to additional land. The definition of an economic farm has changed dramatically in a decade; in 1981 a person with 60 adjusted acres of good land had an income equivalent to the average industrial wage in that year. If you had the same number of acres today the income from it would be, at best, 65 per cent of the average industrial wage. Indeed that figure would apply to intensive farmers who worked very hard.
I hope the Minister will take on board the detailed remarks which my colleague and I made.
I thank both Deputies for their constructive comments in relation to these amendments which were ruled out of order. I was particularly impressed by the thought which went into their formulation and, for that reason, I said it should like to deal with them. I do not want to be seen as someone who opposes amendments regularly.
The amendment tabled by Deputy Yates referred to subdivision controls of land, group purchases of land, long term leasing of land and the rearrangement of commonage divisions, the control and purchase of land by non-EC nationals and the non-agricultural corporate sector. He asked me to set up a unit within the Department to monitor all these activities. Of course that is exactly what I have already announced here today in terms of the establishment of a special unit within the Department. It is my intention that this unit will deal with each of the very important headings which Deputy Yates identified. They are all significantly important to farming and to land mobility. Deputy Yates also wanted the Minister to authorise a unit to be established within his Department to make recommendations in relation to optimum land usage. The question of optimum land usage is at the very heart of everything to which Deputy Connor and other Members referred. I have given serious thought to the need to have some form of body which would co-ordinate everything on the rural landscape. For example, Deputy Connor referred to forestry; it is not within my area of responsibility, Coillte do an excellent job in promoting forestry development and we have also benefited to a very large extent from funding from the European Community for a national forestry development programme.
I agree with Deputy Connor that there is a need for an overall national co-ordinated approach and to strike a reasonable balance between land which will be used for forestry and land which has potential for agricultural purposes. While, at present, the opportunities for expanding agricultural production — because of the Common Agricultural Policy reforms — has necessarily been limited, nevertheless in ten or 20 years' time there may again be the opportunity to expand some of the core agricultural products here. For that reason, at this crucial stage we need to think ahead and to plan and examine all the activities.
Deputies Yates and Connor referred to agri-tourism and alternative farm enterprises. In rural Ireland a new range of activities are taking place. We would all prefer if farmers could earn their livelihood through the production of food, that being the profession of Irish farmers.
Deputy Yates mentioned the policy of set aside. While the provision for set aside is a necessary part of the overall package negotiated under Common Agricultural Policy reform, and I have no doubt that our Minister endeavoured to minimise the impact of set aside on Ireland, it is a policy that I do not like. It is alien to the culture, the training and the professional ethos of any farmer, whose qualification is to grow food and assist in the development of our national land resource. It is my sincere hope that the policy of set aside will not be a permanent feature of European agriculture or our national agriculture. We have a problem with accepting such a policy particularly at a time when on our televisions we view the appalling sight of world hunger almost every night.
It makes no sense that those who manage agriculture at international and European level have not been more successful in implementing international policies for the development of agriculture. I realise that much of the over-production in Europe consists of food that is not suitable for those who are suffering in the Third World countries. However, much suitable food could be produced and an international approach to agricultural production would more effectively address the problem of world hunger.
I am sure Deputies would not disagree that the long term answer to Third World hunger lies in allowing and assisting Third World countries implement their own development and food production programmes. We cannot walk away from our responsibilities in that regard.
Irish farmers have been contributing in a very generous way to the development of agricultural production programmes in many Third World countries. I was pleased in the past few weeks to be able to accept an invitation from one organisation to see the effectiveness of the programmes being implemented with the assistance of Irish farmers. We all need to be interested in and concerned about the development of such programmes.
Deputy Connor made an indirect reference to an issue I should like to bring to the attention of the House; it is a reflection on European Governments that they were not in a position to more carefully monitor the international agricultural development programme. We seem to be bedevilled with a cycle of peaks and troughs in production, with no co-ordinated approach to development areas. If in the past ten years the European Community had more effectively monitored agricultural development the level of Common Agricultural Policy reform referred to today may not have been necessary. That is a matter in which we all have to be interested and it is something that must be examined in the long term.
Agri-tourism, referred to, correctly, by Deputy Connor, is part of the operational programme for rural development and although growing in importance, is under-funded. As the Deputy correctly stated, the amount of money available has not been adequate to meet demand. I am pleased to be able to inform the Deputy that the Government hope shortly to gain additional funding to give a further stimulus to agri-tourism.
The Deputy made reference to environmentally sensitive areas. I remind him that we have in place two pilot projects, one is the Sliabh Bloom project in my area and the other is the Slyne Head Project in County Galway. Both schemes were launched about six months ago. The Sliabh Bloom scheme is well established and it appears that the results should be extremely promising. I am not so familiar with the Slyne Head project but replies to inquiries I made indicate that it is not so advanced. Those projects are extremely important in terms of a further expansion of the environmentally sensitive areas scheme. I have studied the application of the scheme in Great Britain and in other European countries and I recognise that it does have an important role to play in relation to land not directly involved in agricultural production. It is important for our national environment that the pilot schemes are successful and that we will subsequently be in a position to negotiate with the European Community a further extension of the scheme.
There is a capacity to achieve a reasonable balance between the core industry of agriculture, the production of food and the raising of livestock, and the need for an acceptable and pleasing environment. In that regard, I noted the comments made this morning by Deputy Yates about wildlife. There is much work to be done in relation to our environment but we are moving in the right direction in the operational programme for rural development.
I do not intend to bore the House by going into detail about rural development schemes for which I have responsibility but I should like to comment on the Leader programme. Under that programme 16 rural development schemes are being carried out in 16 areas of the country. For the first time rural communities, and individuals within communities, are being given the opportunity to implement their own development programmes. That is an interesting experiment. It is too soon for anyone to judge the likely outcome of those programmes, but it is my hope that they will be successful. I assure the House that I shall be working extremely hard to assist communities to make a success of the programmes. It would be very unfortunate if the new community development programmes failed to encourage local communities or to assist them get projects off the ground.
The bottom line in all these instances has to be employment. In the Department of Agriculture and Food we attach much importance to the job potential of these programmes and for that reason we want to see them succeed. The Leader programme, which is relevant to what we are talking about today in terms of the rural countryside, is also a pilot project. There is a considerable onus on the people who are managing the 16 Leader groups to ensure their success because Leader II cannot be negotiated until the end of the current programme, which is in 1993.
I have dealt with most of the issues raised by Deputies opposite except, perhaps, the transfer of land. I do not have to remind Deputies opposite that the main deterrent to early transfer of land is the lack of a pre-retirement scheme for farmers. I have always held the view that if we could introduce an acceptable and attractive retirement scheme for farmers it would contribute more than anything else to land mobility in Ireland. An early retirement scheme is necessary now more than ever before because we do not have a land pool available to us to enable us increase our holding or to make land available to young people who want to go into farming for the first time. Deputy Yates indicated to the House the percentage of farms which are family managed. Therefore, the opportunity for transfer to a large extent is confined to family farm units throughout the country. Farm families have a strong attachment to land and because of that attachment they have a great sense of security. If we are to make progress in terms of worth-while land mobility for young farmers then we must provide an attractive pre-retirement scheme for farmers.
Another problem relates to the absence of leasing as a normal form of land tenure. We do not have a very strong tradition of leasing on a long term basis, although schemes were introduced which received Government backing. It may be that the amount of land available was not sufficient to enable that scheme to be as effective as intended. The Deputy referred to the fact that stamp duty, tax and capital gains are also deterrents — I am prepared to admit that in the House — to land mobility and land transfer. I should like to say it is the intention to introduce a pre-retirement scheme for farmers over 55 years of age towards the end of this year. This scheme will provide a pension to a farmer who sells or leases his farm. That should help to increase land mobility. An incentive for early transfer of land is the young farmers' installation aid scheme which provides a premium of £5,600 to young farmers taking over a farm for the first time. Under the provisions of a recent amendment leased land is now eligible to qualify for this premium. I was pleased to have been associated with that new regulation. I hope the extension of the young farmers' installation aid scheme will encourage more leasing of land in Ireland and allow more young farmers into the system.
Reservations have been expressed in regard to the attractiveness of the retirement scheme. I hope the scheme, when introduced, will provide a worth-while incentive to parents who, for whatever reason, wish to retire and would like to see their sons or daughters take over the farm. I have discussed this matter with my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, who would like to see an improvement in the proposed retirement scheme. I can assure this House the Minister will be negotiating in Brussels to have the scheme made more attractive so far as farmers are concerned; the same will apply to the young farmers' installation aid scheme.
This brings me to the final point I wish to make on this section. Reference has been made to statements I made in the House on the last occasion on which we debated this matter, which deal with what Deputy Yates had in mind. I have already indicated to Deputy Yates, in relation to amendment No. 4a, that the unit being set up in the Department will do all the things he wishes to have done. On the other hand, there is a need for a broader authority as far as land use in Ireland is concerned. I favour a body which would monitor overall developments of land use in Ireland with particular attention to agricultural and rural development aspects. The point was well developed by the Deputies who contributed in the House this morning. The body could formulate ideas on the subject to be conveyed to Ministers and various Departments, including the Department of Agriculture and Food. I have asked that this idea be examined by the committee set up under theProgramme for Economic and Social Progress and that they draw up a national programme for agricultural development.
Following the debate on the previous day I immediately forwarded, as promised, the views expressed here concerning the need for some kind of a monitoring national committee to deal with every aspect of land development. This morning I checked with my senior colleague, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, who informed me that this committee will be reporting to the Department and to this House by the end of the year.
It would be advisable for us not to set up a short term structure which would undermine the establishment of a broader based committee. For that reason I assure Deputy Yates and other Deputies — I admire their sincerity so far as agriculture is concerned — that I am not opposing the amendments for the sake of opposing them or trying to score political points, I am merely doing it because of my conviction of the long term need to co-ordinate all activities in rural areas.
I expect the committee, which comprises representatives from the Department of Agriculture and Food and all the farm organisations, all of whom are participating in theProgramme for Economic and Social Progress, to report within the next few months. I have no doubt they will have given careful consideration to the point I have asked them to examine. For that reason I again say to Deputy Yates that everything he has asked me to do in the amendments tabled is of extreme importance. I should say that I have not received approval for the formula I am suggesting.
I am satisfied that the departmental review group will give very careful consideration to this proposal. We will then have to await the Government's response to it. I do not want anyone to think that I am making a nice cosy statement so that we can get away from the contents of Deputy Yates's amendment. In the meantime Deputy Yates and other Deputies can be satisfied that their proposals will be dealt with in the short term by the departmental sub-committee. It is with some degree of reluctance that I ask Deputy Yates to allow this alternative proposal to run its course and to see what can be done after that.
I will be brief as I am anxious to make more progress. At the outset the Minister of State said that his throat was not the best today. I do not want to be seen to be going for his throat but we need to look at the situation realistically. I found the Minister of State's Second Stage debate about world hunger, Common Agricultural Policy reform, etc. interesting but the fact is that we are dealing with specific legislation. What we are saying is that a proper autonomous land usage authority and the land executive functions should be put into one building to ensure that there is a proper policy unit and an effective executive unit to deal with land mobility and land structural reform.
The Minister said, and I listened attentively to him, that he agrees with what we say——
——but at the end of the day our proposal will be dealt with by aProgramme for Economic and Social Progress committee. When Deputy Paul Connaughton was in the Department of Agriculture and Food he had lots of ideas about land reform but nothing ever happened; they were wasted on the desert air because either the Cabinet of the day or the Department of Finance did not support them. I am not reassured by the Minister of State's well meaning rhetoric, if I may call it that, because it does not count for anything. At the end of the day what we are doing is dissolving one body and not replacing them with anything of substance. The Minister cannot say what the budget, staff numbers and functions of any new body will be. All he has is noble and good intentions that all these substantive and specific points will be dealt with in some way.
It is time we reflected on the extent to which we have become totally irrelevant. It is an abdication of responsibility if the Minister of State is of the view — perhaps the Minister is of the same view — that we should depend on someProgramme for Economic and Social Progress committee outside this House, whose members have not been elected by the people, to decide this issue. I will not labour this point; all I am saying is that this is no way for the Government to run the country. If the Minister of State was doing his job properly he would say to the Minister, “I have been given responsibility for land policy, I will decide land policy and this is what it should be”. The Minister would then make a submission to Cabinet who would either agree or disagree with it. Of course, all the farm organisations could give their points of view on the submission — I would not be against them doing so. What I do not like are namby-pamby statements such as, “We are one committee away from a decision,” or, “we need more analysis”. The Minister of State is long enough in the Department of Agriculture and Food to know what needs to be done. This is quite clear. Having seen what happened to Deputy Connaughton when he was in the Department of Agriculture and Food during the eighties, I believe the same thing will happen to the Minister of State in this instance. This is very frustrating; it is merely going around in a circle.
I was interested in the Minister's comments about the need to encourage more young farmers. My party favour the introduction of a proper retirement scheme for farmers and the setting of the threshold for the capital acquisitions tax at the 1976 level. The addition of quotes has meant that farmers who want to transfer land to young farmers face a bill of £20,000. This is not very fair. The intention behind this tax was that bona fide family farm transfers would go through with the minimum of tax. As the Minister rightly said in the case of a farmer who dies at 60 years of age there is no stamp duty on the land transferred to the next generation but in the case of a farmer who transfers his land while he is alive there is stamp duty. That is a direct penalty on the transfer of land during the lifetime of farmers. I ask that the first £2,000 of stamp duty liability would be exempt in such family farm cases. This would be very simple; it is merely a case of making a decision and adhering to it. It is the large wealthy farmers who will still have to pay.
The Minister referred to the farmers installation premium. The problem here relates to flexibility in the labour units which need to be adjusted to half a labour unit and perhaps up to two and a half labour units. I do not know what powers the Minister of State has in this area but the Minister could make the decision at the stroke of a pen. I understand there is no EC restriction on this issue but there is flexibility at national level, and the Minister should make the decision. In national terms, out of a total of 150,000 farmers only a few hundred would avail of the premium which amounts to only £5,500 every year. I am happy to withdraw amendment No. 4a. At the end of the day the buck must stop somewhere; it does not stop with someProgramme for Economic and Social Progress committee, it stops with the Minister.
I wish to respond briefly to Deputy Yates. I am sorry if the Deputy is frustrated at my replies. Nonetheless I have to say to him that even if the proposed new structure does not emerge, and I will encourage it to emerge, the setting up of a specialist unit within the Department will meet the proposals in the Deputy's amendments.
It does not meet the proposals in amendments Nos. 4b and 4c.
I will request the new unit to deal not only with the operational matters which are being transferred to them but also to monitor — this is what Deputy Yates is proposing — land movement and activities in rural areas. If they were not to do so we would be left in a total vacuum — we would have no control and would have no idea about what was happening in terms of land mobility, etc.
I admit that I do not have approval for a broader measure. Despite this, I believe the points raised by Deputy Yates will be covered by the committee I am putting in place. If it is any consolation to the Deputy, I will tell the people heading up this committee that they will be required to exercise a monitoring role and to be in a position to tell us and, through us, the people of Ireland, what has been happening in terms of land mobility since the famous Land Commission were disbanded.
Deputy Yates has referred to me as a man of good intentions. On the one hand that could be interpreted as flattery but on the other it could imply that I make pious platitudes and do nothing else.
In regard to the burning question of Land Commission annuities which accounted for two thirds of the debate on this Bill the last time it was before the House, I have given an assurance that I will vigorously pursue that issue. Deputies referred to the problems experienced by farmers who could not pay their annuities, to the need to provide a purchase scheme for farmers and to the high level of interest payments on annuities. I am not standing up here today claiming credit or anything else for what has been done. It was a Government decision. Nevertheless I took the issue on board and delivered on my promise.
The response from the agricultural community has been that while for years the matter was debated in every political circle, at last something worth-while and effective has been done by the Government in relation to it. I had to make that point in response to Deputy Yates's well-intentioned comment in regard to my good intentions. I like to believe that when I make promises I am capable of delivering on them.
Amendments Nos. 4b and 4c have been ruled out of order. Therefore, we move to amendment No. 5 in the names of Deputies Deasy, Connaughton and Yates.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 3, subsection (1), line 28, after "thereof" to insert "and shall, in particular, arrange that such records, deeds and documents shall be retained in one central location and shall be made available for public inspection at all reasonable times".
Section 6 deals with the transfer of records to which Deputy Connor and the Minister of State have already referred. Having listened to Deputy Connor make a case about the need to locate some of the records in museums in Roscommon I am not so sure that the proposal in this amendment — to retain all records in one central location — is such a good one. The principle involved here is that there be access to these records at all times.
If I understood the Minister of State correctly he said that, for a period this year those records were not available, that some offices were closed and physical problems were encountered in rendering them available in a nearby building. There is an historical aspect to this, that these records should be made available and that there be legal obligation — under the provisions of this Bill — to take whatever steps may be necessary to make them so available.
I support Deputy Yates in this respect. In so doing I may be repeating what I said, somewhat out of place, on an earlier section in relation to these records. As somebody who is interested in this matter — and the Minister of State has expressed his interest in it also — I want to place on record that these records or archives are of great national importance. There has been much comment about the social history of Ireland in the 19th century. I had been saying that the social history of our neighbouring island could be written around their industrial society whereas, on this side of the Irish Sea, we did not have those dark, Satanic mills leading to the Luddites and so on. What we did have was what was described by the people who researched the matter, agrarian unrest. The response to this was the establishment of the congested districts boards and the Irish Land Commission. Indeed, that question attracted the attention of one of the greatest Englishmen of the 19th century, William Gladstone. The responses of the people who researched what had to be done about the great estates in Ireland to cure that particular kind of social, agrarian unrest have all been carefully recorded in writing. Many of these matters have not been examined or researched for over half a century.
For that reason I contend we should be very careful that they be made available to the national archives. Deputy Yates's amendment advocates their retention in one central location. I contend they should be made available at least to the National Museum or, say, an extension of it in my county, to the Famine Museum. The National Museum has no specific section dealing with that great seminal event in our history, that is, The Famine. However, a whole new annex is to be built onto Strokestown House to be devoted to that period and the documents in the hands of the National Museum will be transferred there. This will mean it will not be merely a local museum but an extension of the National Museum.
One would hope that in any arrangements to be made in respect of the documents in the Minister's care — we must remember that nationally they are probably the most important documents on the subject that we have — they would be made available to people who wish to interpret or study them or for people like myself who might not be very good either at studying or interpreting them but who would like to see them.
I am delighted to be able to respond to the points raised by Deputies Yates and Connor. I fully agree with them in relation to the importance of these records from the point of view of their historical significance and the records comprised therein in relation to land ownership. Like both Deputies I gave much thought to these records and I had discussions with my senior officials about them. At one stage it was suggested to me that it might be possible to decent-ralise all of these records, perhaps locating them within each local authority area. I pursued that suggestion to the best of my ability but at the conclusion of my inquiries I was convinced this would lead to considerable, excessive fragmentation of those records. The possibility was that, at national level, we might lose some control over their historical significance.
While not knowing how my officials would respond I would agree that, to the extent that we have on record ancient, historical documents, parchments or whatever relating to particular parts of the country, and to various regions I should like to believe it would be possible, backed-up by the necessary safeguards, that they could be put on display in county libraries, on a temporary basis. This would enable local historians who might not have an opportunity to travel to Dublin, to visit the new central archive now being established. It would be my hope that we could devise an arrangement under which a responsible statutory authority, local authority or whoever, would be in a position to have these valuable documents sourced from the central archive and displayed, even for short periods, throughout the length and breadth of the country.
We must endeavour to strike a balance between the importance of maintaining these records in safe custody while acknowledging that there may be no real benefit in having them locked away permanently in a dungeon, not accessible to those people who would benefit from their examination. It is a matter of striking some balance. I notice one of my officials is nodding his head, appearing to give his consent to my suggestion. I am glad to say that, to that extent, we will be able to respond to the suggestions made by Deputies Yates and Connor.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 4, subsection (2), lines 7 to 11, to delete paragraph (d) and substitute the following:
"(d) any sum set aside on the redemption of land bonds issued as a result of the making of the vesting order or declaration the subject of the order and any interest that has accumulated on such bonds by way of dividends together with any deposit interest that has accumulated on such dividends and on any such sum before such commencement shall be paid to the Minister or the Minister for Finance as appropriate.".
This is really a technical amendment as this is an enabling section providing for the revocation of orders vesting land in the Land Commission in cases where the Land Commission never took possession. The original text of section 7 (2) (d) provided for the cancellation of any land bonds issued in respect of the purchase of such land. As the House will be aware, in 1989 all land bonds were redeemed when cash was substituted for land bonds issued in such cases. That cash, plus the net interest which had accrued on those land bonds, was placed on deposit. Section 7 (2) (d), as amended, provides that the cash set aside, together with any accumulated interest thereon, shall be paid to the Minister for Agriculture and Food or, as appropriate, the Minister for Finance.
This is an enabling provision only, if you like, for the purpose of bringing legal order into the Bill. I hope the House will agree to accept it.
Perhaps the Minister would clarify the position in relation to land bonds. Have all land bonds been redeemed for their cash value? Would the Minister say what was the total cost of paying off those land bonds or, if they have not been paid for, what will be their ultimate cost? What is the price of implementing this legislation and wrapping up the Land Commission?
On the question of the redemption of land bonds, all have been redeemed. I do not have the information to answer the other questions but I will have the matter investigated to determine the final estimated cost. I suspect it will be extremely difficult to formulate an accurate estimate. It is a serious question and the Deputy would wish for a serious response. I will provide that information, if it is available to us. This amendment regularises the transfer from the Land Commission to the Department and the Minister.
I thank the Minister. This is a matter of substance. The Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee have made very scathing comments about the Land Commission over the past decade. I know of no State body where they have been more scathing. It is important to know the wind-up costs. Not all the 100 staff of the Land Commission will be retained to deal with land issues. There may be some settlement involved. I understand that about £16 million is the cost of the annuities deal, which I welcome. Then we have the balance of the land. The cost of implementing this legislation could well be in excess of £30 million. It is a very serious issue. The Minister gave us a lecture on cost effectiveness this morning. It is important that these statistics should not only be available to the House but to the public at large. This is taxpayers' money and there must be transparency and accountability. Perhaps the Minister will make a public statement of the total winding-up costs of the Land Commission.
I appreciate the concern expressed by Deputy Yates in seeking information. I do not have it but to whatever extent it can be established, I will endeavour to make that information available to the Deputy as soon as possible.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 4, subsection (2) (a), between lines 40 and 41, to insert the following:
"but, in any event, the Minister shall when disposing of land in accordance with this section, have regard to the objectives and purposes of the former Commission.".
This section deals with the disposal of land that remains and which will be vested in the Minister after the dissolution of the Land Commission. The Minister said there were 1,300 hectares of land, in respect of 90 per cent of which there are allocation proposals this year. There is a further 5,000 hectares of bogland. We need to see how this will be dealt with. It is either to be given to eligible smallholders, returned to its owners or given to the highest bidder. Perhaps the Minister will clarify how it will be done. Giving it to the highest bidder may be the simplest means of disposing of it but the whole purpose of its acquisition was to build up viable holdings. That would not necessarily be the case if the land went to the highest bidder.
Given that this land was acquired in 1983 or before, it is remarkable that it has taken so long to allocate it. It must have been given out each year on 11-month conacre leases. It indicates that the level of activity by the Land Commission over the past decade left a lot to be desired. Straightforward decisions could not be made.
There have been allegations over the years of political patronage in relation to the allocation of land. I welcome the change from that. It is incredible that such politicised activity could be possible in this State. This all lends itself to yesteryear, perhaps before I was born. I do not think anyone would get away with it today, and rightly so.
Our amendment seeks to ensure that land will be disposed of having regard to the objectives and purposes of the former Land Commission rather than on the basis of who attended the Minister's clinic. It should be done having regard to the proper criteria of smallholders' interests. The land should not necessarily go to the highest bidder. It is the Minister, not the Land Commission, who will allocate the land. That is the purpose of this section. It is appropriate that we should insert this check or balance. Given that the Minister has rejected every previous amendment, it is appropriate that he be seen to act properly by accepting this amendment.
In the disposal of these lands objectivity and absolute fair play should be evident. The person succeeding should be the appropriate person. It is important to accept this amendment. I live in rural Ireland and it is part of the culture that political patronage was involved in the allocation of land. My colleague, Deputy Foxe, who comes from a similar area and has worked with the farming community, would be aware that this is part of the culture. It is a culture of belief, and generally there was good reason to believe it.
The remaining land should be divided properly. Many points have been made about accessibility. People who deserve land and could make good use of it may not have the means to acquire it. There should be an objective assessment of the potential and entitlement of applicants, so that the disposals are fairly made. I would urge that the lands be disposed of using the old resale methods of the Land Commission rather than by sale to the highest bidder. The social and economic concerns of small farmers are disregarded in the case of sale to the highest bidder.
I support the sentiments in this amendment. I am surprised at the amazement of Deputy Yates in regard to political patronage. I would like to see this land being disposed of bearing in mind the objectives of the former Land Commission. It should not be disposed of using the criteria of the fattest purse or the biggest cheque book.
I did not realise, until Deputy Yates informed me, that by the end of the day I will be one of the largest landowners in the country. I do not take any great satisfaction from the thought. However, I take seriously the comments made by the three Deputies, particularly in relation to the criteria for the allocation of the land on hands. I assure Deputies that the land will be allocated on the basis of the criteria the Land Commission operated up to now.
We had to include in the legislation a provision for the disposal of land by auction. This option would only be used as a last resort if there was no interest from neighbouring smallholders or from the former owners. I cannot envisage there not being considerable local interest in the remaining land stock. It would be difficult to envisage a situation in which small farmers would not benefit considerably from this land which will be allocated under strict criteria laid down by the Land Commission. I noted comments on the political allocation of land, but that was very often more imaginary than real.
The Minister would say that.
I bet the Minister took credit for allocating some land.
There is nothing wrong with conveying the good news provided the decision has been soundly based on long-established criteria. I have no doubt that all Land Commission transactions were completely above board and without political influence. There is nothing wrong with people, not only politicians, endeavouring to make a case for a person whom it is felt deserves the land. It is not wrong to ask a democratically elected public representative to present a legitimate case to a respected body. It will be a sad day when public representatives cannot respond to requests from constituents and members of the public. It is often extremely difficult for people to get their entitlements and it sometimes takes a well argued case by a public representative to have the case dealt with properly. This occurs not only in the Land Commission but in every Government Department. Even in the Leader programme, which has a bottom up approach, there are indications that people would like public representatives to make cases for them because they feel that due to our experience we have the necessary expertise to present their case. What is wrong with that?
Far too often it has been suggested that there has been political interference. I do not come from that type of background and I doubt if any Deputy would be associated with that type of thinking. By and large public representatives do a credible job and public officials respond in a credible way in accordance with the regulations they operate. I am glad to be able to assure the House that the auctioning of land will be a last resort. The system will be administered in accordance with Land Commission criteria and the land will be given to people who deserve it in the opinion of the Land Commission. The price will have to be related to the cost of acquiring land in the first instance. Everything will be above board and I have the utmost confidence that the officials in the Department will dispose of the remaining land stock in a credible manner. For that reason I am glad to be able to respond to Deputy Yates by accepting his amendment.
Has the compensation been agreed by the commission?
I am advised that the compensation has not been agreed.
I hope they are being treated fairly.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 5, before section 10, to insert the following new section:
"10.—Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 2 and 9, there shall be retained from within the existing resources of the Minister one lay-Commissioner to oversee the disposal of lands on hand at the time of the dissolution of the Commission and to ensure the proper organisation and control of documents.".
This amendment suggests that for the period necessary for the remaining allocation, one lay commissioner should be retained in order to allow continuity for the period in question. The expertise of lay commissioners is valuable. Deputy Foxe referred to this. The best people to deal with this are people with experience. The amendment requests the retention of one lay commissioner in the new unit. That would not be too big a burden and it would be a common sense approach.
The Deputy can take it that by and large decisions have been reached on the available land stock or, if not reached, investigations have been carried out. The land will be distributed very quickly. If the Deputy's point was taken up, the lay commissioner would only be retained for perhaps a few months. The retention of a lay commissioner for the allocation of the remaining land stock is not absolutely necessary. The commissioner only becomes involved in controversial cases and my understanding is that at this time the Land Commission have a clear vision as to where the remaining land stock will be allocated. There is nothing to be gained by the retention of one lay commissioner. I cannot accept the amendment.
The last part of the amendment refers to ensuring the proper organisation and control of documents. The point I am making is that if the Minister has not reached redundancy golden handshake terms with some of the lay commissioners, it might be a good idea to retain them, or is there an absolute determination to get them out?
There is no absolute determination to do anything in terms of commissioners. The Bill provides for the dissolution of the Land Commission. The question of staffing within the Department of Agriculture and Food is a matter for the personnel section of that Department. If the secretary of the Department decided that it would be a good idea to take on one of the commissioners, there is nothing to prevent him from doing that. However, I cannot give any commitment.
I cannot agree to Deputy Yates's amendment for the specific reason I have already given, that the Land Commission have a vision as to the transfer of the remaining small amount of land. I am sure the point the Deputy made will be noted by my officials here, that if for any reason the retention of a commissioner would be of assistance it would be considered by the personnel section of the Department.
Section 11 deals with transitional provisions. It affords me an opportunity to say something about staff transfers from the Land Commission, particularly Land Commission inspectors. In his report last year the Comptroller and Auditor General expressed some unhappiness about the deployment of Land Commission inspectors who did not have adequate work to do. I am glad to hear the Minister say that he attributes no blame to Land Commission inspectors or to any member of the staff of the Land Commission. It was the fault of the system that this came about. The comments of the Comptroller and Auditor General were the result of a fault in the system rather than any fault in the staff. The work they were carrying out became redundant and the Government did not address the problem until now.
I am a member of the Committee of Public Accounts and I was present at the hearing at which the secretary of the Department of Agriculture and Food was examined on this point. There was a wide consensus among the members attending that the Department must be very careful about the proposed transfer of these officers out of their local offices, to Dublin in many cases. There are 20 inspectors to be transferred and the original proposal was to transfer most of them to Dublin. There was an attempt to find work for these inspectors on headage duties and some of them were sent on temporary transfers to Dublin. That is operating at present. The transfers on headage duties became a complete joke because inspectors were transferred to offices where they found neither chairs, desks, telephones nor any of the wherewithal to carry out any administrative duty. The whole thing became a little bit Gilbertian so these officers transferred themselves back to their old Land Commission offices in Carrick-on-Shannon, Ballina, Longford and so on.
These officers are mostly agricultural graduates and they should not be transferred from rural Ireland to Dublin. I want to make that point very strenuously. Because of the changes that are taking place we need people with the expertise these officers have in rural Ireland. There has been a complete change in the orientation of agricultural policy as a result of the reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy. There has been a move away from funding for marketing intervention and into rural development programmes and "bottom up" projects. This country has been a major beneficiary from market intervention to the tune of about £1.2 billion. Maybe half of that will have disappeared by 1997. The Agricultural Commissioner, Mr. MacSharry, feels that Ireland will suffer no loss, that whatever we lose in market intervention we should be able to compensate for by the operation of rural development programmes, Leader programmes, agri-tourism and so on. If we were getting in 1992 £1.2 billion in market interventions we should, with proper updating of the figures, be able to have an equivalent amount in 1996.
However, we will not get these projects off the ground in a rural area unless we have leadership by properly qualified officials. We must keep these qualified agronomists and agricultural graduates who have worked for 24 or 25 years on the job, who know the countryside, who know farming patterns, who know what is needed. We need these people to get these programmes off the ground. We must not lose them to the Department here in Dublin because here they will be at far too great a remove to have any effective influence on what is taking place in rural Ireland. The economics of it need no proving. These programmes will not work unless there is leadership. In rural Ireland at the moment there is a dearth of leadership to get things off the ground. There is nothing wrong with the idea that from now on people will have to do a little more to help themselves but we must help them too. I say again to the Minister that these officers must be kept where they are. We should put them on the job now and not wait for two or three years. The funding can be drawn down for these projects now. Let us draw down some of that funding to pay salaries to these people to get these programmes off the ground.
Section 11 is obviously a very important section. We would all have considerable sympathy with any officials of the Department who had to leave home because of restructuring within the Department. On the other hand, we have to proceed with the rationalisation we are talking about. I have no doubt that each individual's positionvis-à-vis his family and so forth will be given sympathetic consideration by the officials of the Department who have responsibility for dealing with this matter.
While I agree with the Deputy's sentiments and acknowledge that many of these people would make a very substantial contribution to some of the rural development programmes because of their local knowledge and expertise, this is purely a personnel matter over which I have no control and no jurisdiction. All I can say is that I know the personnel section of the Department of Agriculture and Food will deal with cases as sympathetically as they can within the framework we are talking about here today.