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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 9 Dec 1999

Vol. 512 No. 5

Ceisteanna–Questions. Priority Questions. - Grant Payments.

Paul Connaughton


1 Mr. Connaughton asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development the proposals, if any, he has to have structural changes made in the payment of the ewe premium scheme; if he will negotiate with the European Commission to have sheep removed from the calculation for extensification; if he will raise the matter at the Council of Ministers' meeting in December 1999; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26464/99]

I have on a number of occasions over recent years pointed out to the EU both within the Council of Ministers and in bilateral discussions with the Commissioner the deficiencies in the sheepmeat regime. At the recent meeting of the Agriculture Council last month, I outlined the serious income situation facing sheep producers and the failure of the ewe premium system to properly compensate Irish producers because of the lack of convergence of prices across the European Union. In particular, I requested the Commissioner to take urgent action to address these issues, including by way of the temporary suspension of the stabiliser or through the payment of a supplementary premium in member states where prices are significantly below the EU average. Apart from the United Kingdom, there was no support for these suggestions from other member states.

I have also raised the extensification premium with the Commission on a number of occasions in recent years. The Commission has refused to exclude sheep from the calculation of stocking density for the extensification premium because it claims that to do so would introduce a new inequity between beef producers who also raise sheep and beef producers who rear cattle only. I again raised the sheepmeat regime anomalies at the November Council of Agriculture Ministers meeting and Commissioner Fischler indicated that he intends to review the current sheepmeat regime next year which I regard as a significant development. I intend to continue to pursue this matter with the Commissioner, and as appropriate with the EU Agriculture Council.

It is worthwhile to remember that, in spite of all its defects, the ewe premium system provides income support for Irish producers amounting to approximately £110 million per annum with a further £22 million coming from headage payments under Structural Funds. Sheep producers also derive considerable benefits from the REPS and I ask sheep producers not yet in REPS to give serious consideration to joining the scheme, which has conferred considerable benefits on those producers who are already participants. The amount of money contributed by the EU and indeed the Exchequer to the sector is quite substantial and, while I am fully committed to securing improvements in the system, we have to acknowledge that the regime per kilo of sheepmeat produced is seen to be relatively expensive by the Commission and other member states.

Every time we speak about sheep the Minister starts on the wrong foot. On this occasion he tried to defend the indefensible. We are talking about 45,000 Irish farmers who are getting less by way of premium for their sheep even though they receive less for their lambs than anywhere else in the EU. We are either a member of the EU or we are not. What is the Minister doing for the 45,000 sheep farmers? What happened on the night of the Agenda 2000 discussions when he turned his back on them? Ireland and the UK are the only countries which practice mixed grazing, and the Minister did not raise a murmur on that occasion. Following a bad year for sheep farming, will the Minister outline the future he expects for sheep farmers next year and what proposals he is putting to the EU?

As I have repeatedly said, I have raised the sheepmeat regime at the Council of Ministers and bilaterally with Commissioner Fischler on numerous occasions. Inequity exists, and until the November Council when the UK rowed in behind us, no other member state supported my position. There is inequity in three areas. It is patently inequitable that French farmers get the same ewe premium as Irish farmers while they get at least one third more in price – they get between £1 and £1.30 per lb whereas Irish prices range from 80p to £1.05 per lb. Second, there is an obvious inequity in the stabiliser which should be abolished. A third patent inequity concerns extensification whereby sheep are included for stocking density but excluded for payment. At the last meeting, with the support of Nick Brown, the UK Minister, the Commissioner acceded to our request to have the sheepmeat regime reviewed. He will return early in the new year with the outcome of that review and I hope these inequities are addressed on that occasion.

Is there any reason the others on the Council of Ministers should take any notice of the Minister given that only six months ago he appeared to say that everything was all right on the night the Agenda 2000 negotiations were finalised? That was the night to think of Irish sheep farmers. The Minister is now returning to the Commissioner with a huge problem which six months ago he said did not exist. The Minister has done a horrendous job in terms of sheep farmers.

That is the greatest red herring of all time, because sheep were not on the agenda of Agenda 2000.