I welcome the opportunity to speak to this motion. I wish to emphasise the importance of our agriculture industry to our economy. During the Order of Business, the line taken by the Tánaiste was that the Government inherited our serious economic situation. It did, but everyone knew the economy's state long before the last election. The worsening situation is not news to anyone.
I welcome the jobs initiative and other actions taken by the Government in the previous session. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Communication, Natural Resources and Agriculture and am concerned by agriculture's future. At 53 years of age, I can remember two recessions. In both, the agriculture sector took us out of recession. With the onset of the so-called Celtic tiger 15 or 20 years ago, we took our eye off the ball and the sector was neglected. Despite the best efforts of farming organisations and others to retain a focus on agriculture, it was not a trendy subject compared with, for example, the construction industry. Agriculture was neglected and we accepted many bad European deals. None of this helps our current situation.
The number of family farms, in particular small ones, has diminished significantly. I note the Minister's amendment, in which he states the Government "recognises the importance of the agriculture and food sector". The Minister certainly does, as I was a member of the committee alongside him in recent years. Two days before the end of the last term, the House passed a European directive on land reclamation and planning permissions without debate and the Minister signed it into law yesterday. I could not believe that the House would do such in respect of an important directive. We receive all sorts of directives from Europe. We are being directed out of business. Successive Governments and officials have shown Europe the white flag. Each time it says "Jump", we ask "How high?". In many countries, directives and initiatives are not implemented after they are passed by their parliaments despite the threat of fines.
I question the role of the Department's officials. I do not want to knock officials per se, but I question their numbers compared with the diminished number of farmers. Why are so many officials necessary? They are trying to create work to keep themselves busy. That there are fewer farmers is not their fault and many of them do a great deal of good work, but there are too many. There is too much red tape and bureaucracy. It goes without saying that there is more traceability of animals than there is of humans. This is a sad situation. We need traceability and accountability, but the farming sector is being regulated out of existence by red tape. Health and safety regulations are important, but we have gone over the top and stark raving mad with regulations. We are zealous about implementing regulations down to their syllables and commas. We must consider where we are going with this.
While I support the Government's initiatives and the Food Harvest 2020 policy, it has not provided clarity on the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, as it claims. CAP has been a vital resource for farmers and must be maintained. The issue of single farm payments is on the table and must be examined. It is outrageous that big business people who have farms as a hobby are getting up to €500,000 under this payment. Some ordinary farmers are also getting significant amounts of money. The money must be spread more evenly. Small family farms, horticulture farms and organic farms must be supported, as must farms in wetlands and on poor land. When land is reclaimed, a great deal of money is spent in the local economy. We passed the directive on planning permission. I do not recall its name, but everyone knows which one it was. Under it, if one wants to reclaim 30 sq m or a few hectares, one needs to have an environmental assessment conducted. This is a nonsense and an outrage. Even a basic assessment would cost €10,000 to €15,000 and would point out all types of issues to make more work for the officials in the Department.
We have lost our way. We have introduced too much legislation and there are too many directives, thereby affecting the common man on the ground, be he on his tractor or working with his hands. I refer to the farmers, who care for and nurture the land and its crops and animals. Their first love is protecting the environment and the land and they do not need all the regulations, inspection visits or threatening letters. Most of the letters threaten huge fines. Many letters from the Revenue Commissioners threaten imprisonment if one falls behind. We need to support the farming sector just as we support the business sector. We should remove the bureaucracy and let farmers do what they do best, namely, farm and produce food of the best quality. We were treated to the latter by the artisan food producers last week at the British embassy. One would not see this anywhere else in the world. Our produce is sought after and farmers must be allowed to continue farming, producing their crops and saving the land. We must remove the baggage.