This is the House's first opportunity since the recess to debate the crisis affecting the country's biggest industry. Since 20 March last BSE has been the most serious problem facing the Irish economy. It has been serious for all economic sectors, but it has been a catastrophe for farming. In the past six months the problem has worsened rather than diminished.
From the start of the BSE crisis, scientific evidence has been thrown around like snuff at a wake. There is a clear, but as yet unanswered, need to collate the available scientific evidence in one authoritative forum. This offers to the Irish Presidency an issue on which to achieve progress. Inexplicably, the Minister has refused the opportunity. If a credible forum were in session, the Oxford study could not have been used recently as a spanner in the works by the UK.
The Florence Summit of 21 June was the only occasion on which a coherent strategy emerged regarding the BSE crisis. Agreement was reached after months of hesitancy and disagreement. It was followed by a package of measures agreed by the farm Ministers in Luxembourg the next week. In retrospect, the Florence Summit was the high point of the efforts of governments to forge a solution to the BSE crisis.
The package of measures agreed at Luxembourg, worth £70 million in the face of losses approaching £200 million, was inadequate. It has since emerged that its administration has been blatantly unfair. When one considers that farmers were suffering losses of over £200 a head, the suggestion that a top up suckler cow premium of £22.40 or a special beef premium of £15.08 would in some way render viable farmers who were losing their shirts at marts and meat factories throughout the country was just another attempt to turn an abysmal failure in negotiating terms into a success.
When one considers that the £13 million discretionary grant given to the Minister, which was supposed to be targeted at those who suffered most, went to the wrong people, it gives an indication of the type of administrative chaos, political mismanagement and incompetence that lies at the heart of how the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and the Government has handled the issue. While farmers sold cattle at marts, it was to dealers that the Minister, Deputy Yates, chose to direct the discretionary funds. It was always within the capacity of the Department to avoid that scenario and ICOS offered its logistical support to assist in making proper payments.
Commissioner Fischler's proposals were published at the end of July. Apart from an unfulfilled promise to bring forward his own proposals, to date there has been no intelligible response to the proposals by the Minister, Deputy Yates, or the Government. The only quoted response so far has been that the proposals are "not radical enough". The Minister should use this opportunity to state the Government's exact position in relation to the serious measures which emphasise the issue of controlling supply but which do not do enough regarding increasing consumption.
At EU level it is a measure of the Minister's Presidency of the Council that he has proven totally unable to achieve a consensus of views on the action required to deal with BSE. Having in the Presidency achieved the ultimate post of political responsibility, the Minister, Deputy Yates, failed in his fundamental political responsibility to forge a working agenda. This failure was fully evident in Killarney earlier this week. The Fischler proposals demonstrate the extent to which the Government has failed to impress on the Commission the special dependence of Ireland on beef, and the export of beef in particular. The failure to date to make any cogent response to the proposals has allowed what is known as the herd option to gain ground. This option, for the slaughter of calves, is equivalent to eating seed corn. The beef sector would not be the main beneficiaries of compensation under such a policy initiative and it would undermine the cattle industry for years to come, having spent millions building up a suckler cow herd.
There is a good news story about Irish beef which has not been told. Ireland has an extensive grass-based industry, producing quality beef in an environmentally friendly manner. The need to secure recognition of our particular dependence on the beef sector and the extensive nature of that sector is an overriding policy imperative. Some 94,000 Irish farmers qualify for extensification payments. Just as BSE is not a problem of our making, intensive oversupply is not a feature of Irish farming.
Ireland should also exploit the advantages enjoyed as a grass-based industry which produces a quality product in an environmentally friendly manner. In the position paper on the reform of the beef regime, Commissioner Fischler put heavy emphasis on a future link between direct payments and environmental concerns. The Government has failed to exploit Ireland's advantage on the quality environment issue. If consumers are to be assured about the production process, cattle rearing across Europe must move to something closer to the Irish model. Irish style non-intensive cattle production would do more for consumer confidence than the panic reaction control measures being mooted.
The Minister assures farmers that nothing decided by the EU will hurt Irish farmers, yet in the same breath he wants farmers to take a beef price of 82p a pound. If that is to be the price of beef, there must be full compensation measures for farmers. I demand that the Minister spell out his bottom line. If the price of beef is to be permanently positioned downwards, he must produce proposals for compensation. Even the Minister's friends in the media are starting to wonder about the Minister's exact strategy.
It was pointed out that in 1983 beef was £1 a pound. There is no point in the Minister, Deputy Yates, wringing his hands, saying beef producers must learn to live with 82p pound and that nothing can be done about it. They say much can be done about it because, as the Minister said, it is a managed market. If it has been a managed market since our export market was closed because of the bungling of the UK position, why does the beef management committee not appear to favour in any way Ireland's position in relation to price?
As President of the Council of Ministers and the beef management committee, which has effectively decided the price of beef throughout Europe for the last six months, one would have expected some degree of Irish influence in terms of the type of price mechanisms it is suggesting at present. A price of 82p a pound is way below anything suggested in the CAP reforms under the Fianna Fáil Commissioner, Mr. Ray MacSharry. When one takes into account the devaluation which has taken place since 1992, there is no question but that, at a minimum in a managed market, the price of processed beef should not be below 90-92p a pound.
The Minister is representing our national interest at beef management committee meetings, presumably under political direction to fight Ireland's corner on behalf of the Government, but we have ended up with an uneconomic and non-viable price for Irish beef in a managed situation. I call on the Minister, the Taoiseach and the Administration to start influencing what is happening at official level in Europe through the beef management committee. It is deciding the price of beef and putting an increasing number of farmers into a non-viable position to the extent that thousands of farmers and farm livelihoods are at risk as a result of the bureaucratic bungling which is ongoing in the managed market situation.
The political failure of the Minister's Presidency of the Council goes beyond his failure to achieve any worth-while progress on that front. On his watch, the Florence agreement unravelled. Incapable of any positive achievement, his resources were inadequate to shore up existing measures. The failure to uphold, not to speak of enforce, the Florence agreement has ensured that no decisions have been taken to actively tackle the BSE crisis. The Minister's statement that the agreed cull in the UK was a matter for them and that they were entitled to renege on the Florence agreement was appalling political cowardice. When leadership was required all the Minister had to offer was damage limitation.
The unravelling of the Florence agreement must also weigh heavily on the Taoiseach. We were told the EU Presidency would help Irish agriculture, not hinder it. The agreement was reached by the heads of Government and the Taoiseach took his full share of credit at the time. It is extraordinary that the Taoiseach has not been involved in efforts to resolve the crisis. His recent reticence is only the latest in a series of no shows on the BSE crisis from either the Taoiseach or the Tánaiste.