Grant Payments

Michael Colreavy

Question:

25 Deputy Michael Colreavy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will reverse the recently announced rowback in agri environmental options scheme Natura payments from an expected €150 to €75 per hectare. [17912/11]

I will dispense with my notes on this as I know the issue backwards. The Deputy has asked whether I will reconsider a decision I made previously not to advocate an increase in payments for Natura qualifying land under the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, from €75 to €150 per hectare. I have had much discussion with farmers and farming organisations on this issue and I understand their issues. When the previous AEOS was put in place, the sum of €75 per hectare was agreed with the European Commission, but a political promise was made that the Government would consider and advocate an increase in that payment from €75 to €150 per hectare. Therefore, there was an expectation among many farmers that would be achieved.

Even if I wanted to grant that increase in the morning, I could not do it without approval from the European Commission. The Commission was not forthcoming when we sought the increase up to a number of weeks ago. Therefore, even if I decided politically that we want to prioritise expenditure in this area and to try and increase payments from €75 to €150 for qualifying applicants, which would involve a cost, I would need to go back to the European Commission and get approval to do it, which would take some time. People need to understand there is a process involved in this regard.

Some 75% of the funding for the AEO schemes is from the European Union. The reason I wanted to stick with the sum of €75 per hectare, rather than €150, is that I wanted as many farmers as possible to qualify for AEOS 2, which I launched. Therefore, I had to make some choices. This is why I was prioritising the inclusion of the maximum number of farmers possible given the limited budget available to me.

I recently met farm organisations and stated I will re-examine this issue in the context of the overall risk expenditure review in my Department. If we decide the best way to obtain value for money is to seek from the European Commission an increase from €75 to €150, we will pursue that route. This could only happen in the context of the review.

I am heartened to hear the Minister will review this matter. The promise of a certain sum of money, to which my question refers, is not the only one farmers were given that was subsequently withdrawn. Many farmers made their financial plans based on the promises made but now find themselves in a very bad place. It was not the hard-working small farmers who caused the economic problems in this country, yet they seem to be punished all the time for it.

With regard to the commonage framework plans, there has been a fair amount of destocking of land already. Some might argue destocking contributed to the recent upland fires. Is it possible to consider the possibility of returning stock to the affected lands? There are questions asked over whether the land could be better managed by farmers if the destocking rule were relaxed. Are other payments promised to and expected by farmers to be reduced?

I agree with the Deputy on the stocking rate. Ireland has a problem with understocking in some commonages and mountainous areas. People need to realise that the sensitive biodiversity of the hillsides in question relies on stock keeping certain grasses and plants down by grazing. Understocking is often as dangerous to biodiversity and the protection of the landscape as we know it as overstocking. There is much evidence to suggest we need to increase stocking rates. My Department is pursuing this. In the not-too-distant future, we will see a relaxation of the stocking rates within certain areas. We want to encourage farmers to increase stocking rates to try to support the active farmer concept, and perhaps link this to some payments.

The Deputy's second question may touch upon the Estimates process and the expenditure review. I have tried to be as up-front with farmers as I can be in this regard. My Department is being asked to make significant savings next year and will have to do so. I will be prioritising the limited amount of money we have to spend for key areas, including supporting the strategy in Food Harvest 2020 and supporting farmers so as to keep them on the land in the first place. Many farm families could not stay farming if they did not have a certain amount of subsidy and support. The two key areas, therefore, concern increased productivity and efficiency, as referred to in the Food Harvest 2020 document, and the type of farmer who needs the financial support of the State and European Union. Even in the midst of making significant cutbacks and savings, we will be trying to support as best we can the agribusiness sector and rural communities that rely on farming.

Farm Safety

Catherine Murphy

Question:

26 Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food his plans to tackle the high death rate on Irish farms, which hit a 10-year high in 2010; the reason, despite the work of organisations such as Teagasc and the Farm Safety Partnership, the problem has intensified over the past decade; his views on whether legislation is required to bolster the efforts of individual organisations to make farms safer; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17638/11]

I thank Deputy Murphy for raising this issue. Just a week ago, I spoke at the national farm safety conference held in Roscommon. I prepared for the conference by looking at the tragic statistics that comprise the story of farm safety last year and this year. Last year 26 people died on farms. This year so far, ten people have died. Only 25 have died in the workplace this year. Therefore, approximately 40% of fatalities in the workplace occur in the farming sector, which makes up only 6% of the working population. This is a tragedy that must not be allowed to continue.

In the fishing sector, five people tragically lost their lives this year. Therefore, of the 25 or 26 people involved in fatal accidents in the workplace this year, 15 were from the farming and fishing sectors, which account for 7.5% of the working population. These are totally unacceptable figures from the perspective of policymakers, who need to make an impact.

There is a series of initiatives to address the problem. These focus on the 2006 Farm Safety Code of Practice and the work of the Farm Safety Partnership Advisory Committee, which involves a series of farming organisations, some of which are State bodies and farmer representative bodies and others of which are private bodies. We are supporting these initiatives.

The Health and Safety Authority, which has legal responsibility for health and safety in the workplace, is to carry out 3,000 farm inspections this year, which is more than twice the number of inspections last year, to ensure the law is being respected. All this work is irrelevant, however, if we cannot change what is inside the heads of farmers and the views of farming families on farm safety.

Farms are not normal workplaces. A farm is a playground, home and workplace and a range of other things. It is a matter of changing the mindset of farmers, in respect of which we all have great responsibility. I will allocate a certain amount of resources to effect this change. This is how we will solve the problem rather than through introducing new legislation.

Additional information given on the floor of the House

The number of farm fatalities in 2010 was 26, the highest number recorded in any year to date. Tragically, already this year ten more people have died on Irish farms. Two of these have been in the last week, both in County Limerick and both involving farm machinery, one a tractor, the other a quad. The statistics consistently indicate that the highest proportion of farm fatalities involve accidents with tractors and other farm machinery.

Just one week ago, I delivered the opening address at the national farm safety conference held in Roscommon. There was a large attendance and there was recognition of the reality that many farm safety tragedies are preventable. There is legislation in place concerning safety in the workplace under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005. This Act places the same onus on farmers as on other self-employed people to provide a safe place and a safe system of work for their employees. The Act also requires farmers to complete a risk assessment and safety statement for their farm. In 2006, the Farm Safety Code of Practice was introduced for farms with three or fewer employees and requires the completion of a risk-assessment document only.

The Health and Safety Authority is the national body in Ireland with the responsibility for securing safety and health at work and it intends to carry out 3,000 farm safety inspections in 2011, which is double last year's number. There have been considerable efforts made by the Farm Safety Partnership Advisory Committee and the partnership member organisations on the farm safety issue with the development of the Farm Safety Action Plan 2009-2012. However, while these efforts in the context of the legislation are a necessary part of the farm safety strategy, ultimately farm safety is about self-regulation and about farmers imposing an attitudinal change on themselves. The strategy for improving farm safety has to be, therefore, fundamentally about changing attitudes through raising awareness.

Teagasc has been very active to date in providing farm safety training to farmers nationwide and has also delivered farm safety training to more than 100 agricultural consultants. My Department is very strongly committed to promoting farm safety in tandem with the HSA. Health and safety guidelines are included in all building specifications drawn up by the Department. Farm safety is included in all REPS training courses. There is a farm safety element in the dairy efficiency programme for the period 2010 to 2012. This is especially relevant because the dairy sector consistently has the highest number of farm fatalities out of all the farming enterprises. Farm safety is also given a prominent place on my Department's website, which outlines the requirements on farm safety and provides practical advice on safety on farms.

My Department is represented on the Farm Safety Partnership Advisory Committee and will continue to support and work with the HSA and the other partners in achieving the goals of the farm safety action plan, to reduce fatalities and accidents on Irish farms.

I was shocked when I read the report of the Health and Safety Authority. One assumes the risks are greatest in industrial environments or building sites. I was shocked to see the number of deaths on farms and the increase in that number. One of the senior inspectors predicted last week that a file could be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions after every farm fatality. He also referred to enforcement notices.

Does the Minister believe there is under-reporting of accidents on farms? I read somewhere that the number of farmers who speak of near misses with livestock is extraordinarily high. Livestock and machinery pose the greatest risks. Does the Minister believe legislation is required on quads, which are being used increasingly frequently on farms? There appears to be a difficulty in this regard also.

I totally agree with the Minister that a change in culture is essential. I live in Leixlip just beside the Intel plant. The lengths to which such a company goes to ensure a culture of safety on-site are extraordinary. We need to change the mindset if we are to address the issue substantially.

I agree with everything the Deputy said with perhaps one exception. I do not believe we need to go down the route of sending files to the DPP. I should have stated at the outset that some people listening to this debate may have lost a brother, a father or a child this year or last year and these are scars that will last a lifetime. We need to be conscious of this when we speak about statistics; it is far too crude a way to speak about people's lives and the tragic stories of so many of our farming families who have suffered fatalities. This is about trying to force a change in attitude rather than trying to impose legislation on families after something has occurred.

However, the Deputy is correct that there is under-reporting of accidents in the fishing and farming communities. We know this and it needs to change. Often, people on farms, whether a 16-year-old driving a tractor pulling 30 tonnes of grain through a field or into a yard or someone feeding a suckler herd with a bull in the field, do not consider themselves to be in a workplace as such. Serious dangers are attached to a farming lifestyle and workplace. We are not making an adequate impression on changing attitudes towards this threat to people's health and lives. We need to work much harder on this. The tools the Department is using include introducing a farm safety element to REPS training courses and to the dairy efficiency programme, which involves dairy farmers meeting in groups up to 8 times a year. Most fatalities happen in the dairy sector although there are only 17,000 dairy farms out of 130,000 farm families. We need to target this.

We should not go down the route of trying to introduce more legislation and blunt enforcement through farm inspections. Although this is necessary, ultimately it will not change an attitude which needs to be changed in the farming and fishing communities.

The time for the question has expired.

May I ask a further supplementary question?

There is only six minutes for each question. I ask for co-operation through shorter questions and answers.

I will try to bear this in mind.

Departmental Schemes

Michael Moynihan

Question:

27 Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he has considered the impact of the closure of the targeted agricultural modernisation schemes on pig and poultry producers who are under pressure to meet stringent EU animal welfare standards; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17803/11]

The poultry welfare and sow welfare schemes were suspended for new applications on 8 June 2011 as part of my decision to temporarily close the targeted agricultural modernisation schemes, TAMS, until the position in relation to the availability of funds for next year is clarified. As I indicated at the time, I could not defend a situation in which the Department continued to accept applications under schemes when there was a question over the financing of those grants when they became due for payment. I do not want farmers to put time and money into applications and surveys unless I know I can give them some money.

I also announced at that time that applications received prior to the date of suspension of TAMS would be processed and approved up to the level of the current tranches of funding. As the value, in grant terms, of the 35 applications under the poultry welfare scheme and the 22 applications under the sow welfare scheme which were received by my Department up to close of business on 8 June are within the financial ceilings of the current tranches, I am glad to be able to confirm that all eligible applications received up to that date under these schemes will be processed to approval stage.

I thank the Minister for his reply. The pig and poultry sectors must comply with the looming EU directives and regulations. My information is that applications were made for only €24.7 million of the €90 million envelope available for TAMS. Will the Minister clarify this? Will he ensure the pig and poultry sectors receive priority because of the looming changes in EU legislation and the enforcement coming down the line?

The pig and poultry sectors will be and are being prioritised. Applications opened for pigs and poultry last June, more than a year ago. I suspended applications a week less than a year into the scheme. People had almost a full year to submit their applications. There is an urgency with regard to poultry as by next January the necessary changes need to have been made in poultry units to comply with the new EU legislation on animal husbandry. I do not want to see businesses closing down because of being unable to make the necessary changes to a poultry house or a poultry unit because of not being able to get into TAMS. Under the poultry scheme, payments totalling €11.15 million will be approved shortly and people should make the necessary changes.

With regard to the sow welfare scheme, 22 applications have been made to a total value of approximately €2.4 million. The work involved must be completed by the following January which gives a window of an extra 12 months. That is why poultry is of particular concern at present.

The Deputy is correct to state the overall original estimate for TAMS, which was to run for the next three years, was approximately €90 million. However, this funding must be accounted for by the Department under the expenditure ceilings. Regardless of from where the money comes, I am allowed to spend only a certain amount of money under the expenditure ceilings. This is very restrictive, which is why we must prioritise.

TAMS is very good and I want to prioritise it. I aspire to reopening it for applications in the not too distant future.

Animal Welfare

Michael Colreavy

Question:

28 Deputy Michael Colreavy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the legislation in place to promote, monitor and protect the health and welfare of horses involved in the racing industry here. [17913/11]

My Department's responsibility, which is set down in legislation, extends to the welfare and protection of farm animals only, that is animals normally bred or kept for the production of food or for use in another farming practice. The relevant legislation in this area is the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes Act 1984 and the European Communities (Welfare of Farmed Animals) Regulations 2010, SI 311 of 2010. Animals "used in competitions/shows, cultural or sporting events or activities while so being used" are outside the scope of SI 311 of 2010.

My Department must act at all times in accordance with legislation. The principal statutes governing cruelty to all animals, including horses, in this country are the Protection of Animals Acts 1911 and 1965. Responsibility for pursuing cases under this legislation rests with An Garda Síochána, which may on receipt of a complaint investigate and bring a prosecution against any person alleged to have committed an offence under these Acts.

The Government is mindful of the importance to safeguard animals and their welfare. In this regard the programme for Government 2011 includes a commitment to amend and strengthen animal welfare legislation and a draft animal health and welfare Bill is in the course of preparation. The Bill will consolidate and update existing legislation in the area of animal health and welfare and include non-farmed animals.

The Deputy may be aware that I recently announced funding of €10,000 to the Irish Equine Centre for a demographic study to determine the extent of the unwanted horse population in Ireland. The study, being undertaken by the Irish Equine Centre at the request of the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association will examine a number of factors including capacity of equine sanctuaries operated by welfare groups, the number of interventions by local authorities and usage of equine abattoirs.

This study is timely in that there has been media coverage at home and overseas recently, much of it unsubstantiated, regarding the fate of unwanted horses and this is unhelpful to the image of Ireland as a country that cares for its horse population. The research undertaken will provide guidance for any further policy initiatives and-or legislative measures that may be needed to further advance horse welfare. In addition, my Department provides some €2 million per annum to local authorities in supporting their role in the implementation of the Control of Horses Act.

I congratulate the Minister on providing a reply without using the words "current legislation on sporting and show horses is woefully inadequate". Legislation in this area is almost non-existent and owners do not have any means of following up cases of alleged abuse by trainers with whom their horses are stabled. This is a major gap in the legislation.

The Deputy should ask a question.

When does the Minister expect the welfare of animals Bill to be introduced? Will it cover show horses, draft horses and racing horses?

I expect animal welfare legislation to be introduced before the end of the year, hopefully in the autumn. The Department is working on the Bill and I intend to have it published by the end of the year, although it will require considerable consultation. I understand it is intended to consolidate all animal welfare legislation in one Act. The Deputy is correct that it is not satisfactory to rely on legislation dating back to 1911. If individuals are concerned that their animals have been mistreated or have witnessed animals belonging to someone else being mistreated in a manner that is not consistent with the law, they should contact the Garda Síochána.