Priority Questions

Departmental Expenditure

Michael Moynihan


1Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Agriculture; Food and the Marine if he will outline any underspend from his 2011 budget allocation in 2011; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7539/12]

If the House will permit, and while this portfolio is often dominated by agriculture, I wish to mention the extraordinary response to what has been an unfolding tragedy in Union Hall during the past month or so. There was some success yesterday in the finding of another body.

The response of the fishing community, in particular the Deasy family in Union Hall, the Coast Guard, the Garda, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, RNLI, Civil Defence and the hundreds of volunteers who have participated in an extraordinary outpouring of support and organisation following the tragic events that saw the Tit Bonhomme crash into Adam’s Rock and sink is an inspiration to many people. We are thinking of the families that have lost loved ones and recovered bodies and we hope that, during the coming days, we will be able to bring some peace to the family of Said Mohammed, whose body has still not been found.

Does Deputy Moynihan wish to contribute? We can start the clock afterwards.

I would appreciate that, as a number of Deputies probably know some of the people concerned.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for this opportunity. We extend our deepest sympathies to the families of the fishermen. We must thank the people of Union Hall for their good will and camaraderie, in that they built a community almost instantaneously, and commend them on showing the best of Irishness.

Our deepest sympathies go to the families of the fishermen who were lost in the tragedy of four weeks ago. Fishing is a precarious livelihood. We would like to be associated with the Minister's words of sympathy, as well as his words of gratitude for those who gathered around, including the State's services and the community as a whole.

On behalf of Sinn Féin, I echo the Minister's words regarding this tragedy and extend our solidarity with all of those who have lost loved ones. It was striking that, out of the darkness of this awful tragedy, we saw a beautiful beacon of community spirit and co-operation. The care, concern and efforts of the State agencies and volunteers were striking and lifted the hearts of everyone affected by the tragedy.

It was Synge's play "Riders to the Sea" that encapsulated the sacrifices made by fishing communities and the number of people they have given to the sea. I appreciate the Minister's comments. West County Cork is a place I know very well. Its community spirit is always present at times such as this.

I appreciate the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's indulgence. Sometimes, it is only in tragedy that we see how fantastic Irish people can be.

There was a gross underspend of €226 million in the Department's budget allocation of €1.647 billion in 2011. The expenditure on the EU-funded single payment amounted to a further €1.316 million above this. The underspend of Exchequer funding arose as a result of the fact that the original programme allocations were not drawn down or because there were savings due to improved efficiencies during the year. The underspend arose despite the fact that every effort was made to make prudent provision for liabilities at the beginning of the year. Subject to administrative checking procedures having been completed, claims being verified and necessary inspections carried out in line with departmental and EU audit requirements, all liabilities were met and the underspend did not arise as a result of a decision by the Department to withhold payments.

I will outline the main areas of underspend. Some €10 million was underspent on the administration budget. Some €18.7 million was underspent in respect of the eradication programme, ERAD, which relates to bovine TB and brucellosis schemes, and other miscellaneous animal health schemes. Primary among these is BSE, which reflects the ongoing welcome reduction in the incidence of that disease. Some €30.6 million was underspent on the suckler cow welfare scheme. The original plan was to pay the premia due in respect of 2010 and 2011 in 2011. Due to the pattern of claims, however, doing so was not possible. The underspend will fall to be paid in 2012 and there is no reduction in the overall payments to farmers.

Some €23.2 million was underspent in respect of the clearance of EU accounts. This funding is provided to meet the cost of potential disallowances following European Commission audits of EU-funded or co-funded schemes and was not required in 2011. Some €40 million was underspent on the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, and €19.9 million on the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS. This is attributable to the fact that, under EU regulations, full and comprehensive administrative checks, including cross checks with the land parcel identification system, must be completed before any payment is made.

Notwithstanding these requirements, 22,000 REPS 4 farmers were paid in 2011, compared with 14,000 in 2010, and payments under the agri-environment options scheme are well advanced. There was an underspend of €24.2 million under marketing and processing schemes, reflecting the slower than expected capital investment in projects by food companies. An underspend of €20.4 million arose in the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, which was closed temporarily in 2011 and is now reopened. The underspend in this instance arose from the fact that approved projects did not mature in the form of claims for payment.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The balance of savings is attributable to a large number of other headings under the Department's Vote. On the other hand, there was an additional spend of €13 million on the less favoured areas scheme over and above the Vote allocation in 2011. In addition, under public financial procedures, my Department has carried forward the maximum permitted carryover savings, totalling €29.834 million, which have been added to the 2012 budget. These carryover savings are reflected in the 2012 budget allocations announced last December. The figures do not take account of the payments by the Department under the single payment scheme, which amounted to €1,316 million in 2011.

Overall, much of the Department's Vote comprises schemes and measures that are subject to external factors such as demand from beneficiaries, market and economic factors, animal disease incidence and the pace of completion of capital investment and research projects, as well as the need to adhere to important issues of governance and, where relevant, compliance with EU operational rules and requirements. While every effort is made to forecast expenditure as accurately as possible each year, there is, inevitably, some degree of uncertainty in determining the appropriate level of budget to be assigned to various schemes and programmes. The Department is obliged to ensure, in so far as possible, that adequate resources are in place to deal with all manner of eventualities and possible unforeseen occurrences. Full details of the 2011 outturn will be available in the Revised Estimates to be published later this month by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and greater detail will subsequently be made available on my Department's website.

I wish we had time to go through each of the subheads. In regard to REPS and the agri-environment options scheme, there was an underspend of €40 million and €19 million, respectively. Of that total underspend of €59 million, how much is due to be paid in 2012, based on figures for 2011, and how much is an actual saving?

There is no actual saving in terms of reduced payments to farmers. The issue here is the year in which the payments are made. There have been no cuts in the agri-environment options scheme, and cuts in REPS only come into force this year, following the most recent budget. The payments that have carried over from one year into the next arose primarily because of mapping issues and those payments must be still made to farmers. As I said, we are rolling out the payments quicker than at any time in the past, but that does not mean there is no carryover between years.

My Department is very different from other Departments in that we have to put an Estimate together based on the best case scenario in terms of making all of the payments that could be possibly made in the next 12 months. Sometimes those payments cannot be made because of issues such as auditing, checks, inspections or blockages around mapping, as happened in this case. We will have an opportunity to go through each of the subheads in detail when the Estimates are brought before the Oireachtas committee. I look forward to that opportunity.

When the Minister reopened the 2011 agri-environment options scheme he was rather sceptical about the money that was available given the underspend of €19 million in 2011. Would it not have been possible for him, on the basis of the figures he had and in the context of the overall savings of some €220 million budgeted for in the Department, to allow for a maximum grant under the agri-environment options scheme of €5,000 rather than €4,000?

There was never a problem with funding the agri-environment options scheme last year, even for a larger scheme. The problem is that the scheme carries over year on year. Last year's budget was never a problem and there was always money available for it. The problem is next year and the year after. I could not put together a scheme to commit €40 million or €50 million, as the previous Government had, without knowing whether there would be funds available for it next year and the year after. As it turns out, that funding is not available, which is why we had to run a less costly scheme.

Did the Minister say the funding was not in place in 2011?

I said at the time that a scheme was promised for which the funding was not in place. One must have multi-annual funding in place for a multi-annual scheme.

Funding is done on an annual basis.

Schemes are operated on a multi-annual basis.

Common Agricultural Policy

Michael Colreavy


2Deputy Michael Colreavy asked the Minister for Agriculture; Food and the Marine the measures he will take to ensure regionalisation does not adversely impact on farmers in the more disadvantaged areas of the west and north west; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7541/12]

I take it the Deputy is referring to the Commission's proposals for the Common Agricultural Policy for the period 2014 to 2020, which include a gradual move away from payments based on historical production towards a system of uniform national or regional payment rates by 2019, and whether they will adversely affect certain parts of the country relative to others. I have repeatedly made known to the Commission my view that its approach to the introduction of flat-rate, area-based payments on a regionalised model will not work for Ireland. We should not break up the country into different regions and apply different payments to those regions on a flat-rate basis unless we have no alternative. Such alternatives are available, as I outlined to the Commissioner when he visited Ireland.

Moving to a flat-rate, area-based payment ignores the fact that direct payments to farmers are calculated on the basis of historical productivity going back to 2002 or 2003. The notion that we should just ignore all of those historical data and simply apply a new regime would mean that more than 50,000 farmers would lose one third of their direct payments, while more than 70,000 others would gain between 70% and 80% on their payments. This would totally ignore the productivity of certain farmers and the lesser productivity of others. That is not how we should proceed. There is no doubt that a new system is required, but we must have a tailored approach, in agreement with the Commission, that will allow for some redistribution of funds within the State but will not result in a massive transfer of funds away from the productive sector to the less productive sector.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The mechanism proposed by the Commission raises serious concerns for Ireland. It would result in very significant transfers from more productive farms to more marginal and less productive land. Analysis carried out by my Department indicates that, under a national flat-rate model, the most productive farmers would lose, on average, about one third of their current payments, while the least productive farmers would see their payments rise by an average of 86%. Alternative redistributions based on a two-region model, or even an eight-region model, would have similar outcomes. These proposals are not compatible with my commitment to sustainable intensification of production, the maintenance of a vibrant rural economy and the achievement of the objectives of the Food Harvest 2020 strategy.

I have been relaying these concerns very strongly at every opportunity in recent months, most recently in the course of discussions with the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Dacian Cioloş, during his visit to Dublin three weeks ago. I pressed for the maximum possible flexibility to be given to member states to design payment models that suit their own farming conditions and to include the possibility of lengthy transition periods. The so-called approximation approach, by which all payments would gradually move towards the average, and which the Commission itself has adopted in the distribution of funds between member states, is one alternative that is currently being examined. I will continue to work intensively with the Commissioner and with my counterparts at the Council of Ministers, to achieve the required flexibility and to arrive at an acceptable solution that does not have the dramatic redistributive effects inherent in the current proposals.

I thank the Minister for his reply. There are serious concerns in the area I represent, Sligo-Leitrim, with people already pointing out that there are great imbalances between the north west and other parts of the country. The key point here is the incentive for farmers to be as productive as possible. To a certain extent, the particularly disadvantaged areas have brought a benefit to those areas which are less disadvantaged. If regionalisation takes place and if there is scope for the Government to tailor it to suit our particular requirements, will the Minister bring his draft proposals in this regard to the Oireachtas committee before they are signed off in Europe?

We already have some regionalisation in terms of how rural development funds are distributed in that we have a designated disadvantaged area which encompasses more than 100,000, or 75%, of farmers. We agree with regionalisation when it comes to rural development funds because, in that case, one is supporting people who cannot support themselves. However, direct payments are another matter in that they are about supporting sustainable food production.

In regard to draft proposals, I look forward to full, frank and detailed discussions on a range of options which I will potentially bring back to the Commission. As far as I am concerned, there is no place for party politics when it comes to discussions on the Common Agricultural Policy. I genuinely want to hear what Deputies have to say and to thrash out those ideas. I will be open in my approach, as I trust I have been thus far, and I hope the Oireachtas committee will allocate a substantial timeframe to allow detailed discussions. I will certainly take on board the views of Deputies.

Tuberculosis Incidence

Maureen O'Sullivan


3Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Agriculture; Food and the Marine the current badger population in Ireland; and if he can provide independent peer reviewed evidence that supports badger culling as a proven successful strategy in the eradication of bovine TB. [7543/12]

There are no accurate statistics available on the current badger population in Ireland. However, based on the results of the four-area project, the best estimate available to my Department is that there are approximately 80,000 to 90,000 badgers in the country.

There is considerable peer-reviewed research showing that the removal of badgers results in a reduction in the incidence of tuberculosis in cattle. In Ireland the first major research project took place in east Offaly between 1989 and 1995. This study demonstrated that, following the removal of badgers, the risk of herd breakdowns in the removal area was significantly reduced, the risk of a TB breakdown in a herd being 14 times higher in the control area compared with the removal area. The next significant study, known as the four-area project, was conducted from 1997 to 2002 in four different areas of the country. This project demonstrated that the total number of herd restrictions in the removal areas during the study period was almost 60% lower than in the pre-study period. A further study showed that targeted badger removal in County Laois between 1989 and 2005 had a significant beneficial impact on the risk of future breakdowns.

The United Kingdom has also conducted significant research into the role of badgers in the spread of TB and the impact of the removal of badgers on the incidence of TB in cattle. The most recent research was conducted by the Independent Scientific Group, which directed the randomised badger culling trial, RCBT. The initial findings of the trial showed a 19% reduction in the incidence of TB in cattle in the removal areas but a 29% increase in the areas surrounding the removal area. However, the effects of the cull continued to be monitored after the cessation of culling and a recent report by the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, DEFRA, concluded that, overall, from the beginning of the cull, there was a 28% reduction in confirmed incidences of TB in the cattle herd in the culled areas when compared with the survey-only areas. In addition, confirmed TB herd incidence on the land 2 km outside the culling area was comparable with that in the survey-only areas.

I am satisfied that the badger culling strategy, which is an important element of my Department's bovine TB eradication programme, has contributed to a significant reduction in the incidence of bovine tuberculosis here. Since 2000 the number of reactors has declined from 40,000 to 18,500, the lowest recorded since the commencement of the eradication programme in the 1950s. It is interesting to note that the incidence of TB in Britain, which does not implement a badger removal programme, has increased substantially from 6,000 reactors in 1999 to 33,000 in 2010. I understand, however, that DEFRA intends to implement a pilot badger cull in the autumn.

My Department intends, in the coming years, gradually to replace badger culling with badger vaccination and, with this in mind, we have been funding research in UCD and collaborating with DEFRA on research into a vaccine to control tuberculosis in badgers. Research to date has demonstrated that oral vaccination of badgers in a captive environment with the BCG vaccine generates high levels of protective immunity against challenge with bovine TB. However, field trials are also being undertaken to assess the impact of the vaccine on the incidence of disease in field conditions. If these trials are successful, badger vaccination will be incorporated into the eradication programme. However, it will be some years before the trials are completed and targeted badger removals will continue in the medium term. While no one likes badger culling, we have a responsibility to protect our beef herds, in particular, and our dairy herds. We have historically had a problem with TB. We are making phenomenal progress in reducing the incidence of TB, as reflected in the figures provider earlier. We now have a lower level of TB in Ireland than at any time since the 1950s. The targeted badger culling programme has played a significant and positive role in this. Badger culling only takes places in areas where it is perceived that there is a problem.

It is estimated that there are between 80,000 and 90,000 badgers in the country.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I acknowledge the problem of bovine TB and do not want to take from that particularly serious issue for Irish farming. However, there is a divergence between the research mentioned by the Minister and research which I received from the Irish Wildlife Trust, namely, independent peer reviewed scientific research which shows that culling of badgers has little or no effect on the eradication of TB and that it increased infection levels. It also states that even if all badgers were removed the same levels of TB would remain.

Is it true that 75 staff are engaged in work on badger culling? Also, is a review of this practice due in the coming months?

It is probably appropriate to compare two different strategies, namely, what is happening in Ireland in terms of TB and what is happening in the UK. The UK has tried to treat badgers for TB rather than cull them. In Great Britain, which does not implement the badger removal programme, incidences of TB have increased substantially from 6,000 reactors in 1999 to 33,000 in 2010. I am not suggesting this is purely because of badgers but there are many studies to show that badgers are a major contributory factor in the spread of TB.

I will continue to review our TB eradication programme. However, what we are currently doing is working. It is hoped we will reach a point whereby TB will be entirely eradicated from herds in Ireland, at which time - perhaps long before then - our approach towards badger removal will be reviewed.

The use of the snare involves extended periods of suffering for badgers, leaving the young unattended. I do not understand how we, as a humane country, can justify the use of such a cruel instrument. A recent newspaper article reported that people engaged in badger baiting in the North of Ireland had been arrested. We need to ensure much more humane treatment of animals. The Minister and I will have to agree to disagree about whether badger culling is effective in eradicating TB.

I agree with the Deputy on the boarder issue of badger baiting and the need for a new approach towards animal welfare. I will soon publish a new animal welfare Bill. I know the Deputy's concern in this matter is genuine and hope she will participate in the debate on the forthcoming Bill. I have strong views on animal welfare, which will be evident from the new animal welfare Bill. The Deputy and I might perhaps have a more detailed debate on the boarder issues of animal welfare during debate on that Bill.

Departmental Funding

John Browne


4Deputy John Browne asked the Minister for Agriculture; Food and the Marine if he will acknowledge that the Irish salmon farming industry has made significant improvements in lice management control through large investments in well-boats, good husbandry practices, in single-site generations and the use of treatments which dissolve harmlessly into pure oxygen and water; his views that the report issued in 2010 on his review of the national strategy on pest control highlighted significant improvements in control and management and reductions in sea lice on sea farms; and in view of this overwhelming evidence and continuing improvements, if he will immediately remove the logjam caused by a State agency (details supplied) under a different Department which prevents marine finfish farmers from accessing capital grant aid to which they are entitled. [7540/12]

Financial supports to the aquaculture sector, as part of the Irish National Seafood Programme 2007-2013, are currently provided by BIM.

In the course of the public and statutory consultation process of the strategic environmental assessment of that programme, concerns were raised by the Central and Regional Fisheries Boards, now Inland Fisheries Ireland, and the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources regarding the potential negative impact on migratory wild salmonids from sea lice emanating from salmon farms.

The Minister at the time agreed with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources that until such time as the sea lice issue was satisfactorily resolved, no financial assistance would be given to marine salmon aquaculture licence holders during the course of that programme, on a precautionary basis.

A policy document entitled, A Strategy for Improved Pest Control on Irish Salmon Farms, was developed by my Department in 2008, in consultation with the Marine Institute and BIM. The strategy included several recommendations to provide for enhanced sea lice control, including the establishment of a national implementation group to oversee the implementation of the Strategy and its recommendations. This group was established in December 2008 and included representatives of the aquaculture industry and experts from BIM, the Marine Institute and my Department. The purpose of the implementation group was to progress a programme of work and plans for setting up, on a trial basis, real-time single bay management pilot programmes to implement the management cell approach, as outlined in the 2008 strategy. An intensive consultation was undertaken with the industry on the proposed programme, which led to the setting up of two pilot trial areas tackling high lice levels detected during the course of the Marine Institute-run national sea lice monitoring programme.

The implementation group's report was published by my Department in December 2010. The report concluded that over the course of its work, the vast majority of salmon aquaculture sites maintained sea lice levels below treatment trigger levels and, in all instances when notices to treat were issued, effective treatment plans were put into practice. The pest control arrangements put in place by the implementation group continue to operate effectively and Ireland's management of sea-lice infestation on salmon farms is now the most comprehensive and transparent in operation in any of the salmon producing countries. I understand that the European Commission has also indicated that it regards the protocols implemented by Ireland for the control of sea lice as representing best practice internationally.

I am currently reviewing the constraint on grant aiding the salmon farming sector and in that regard I propose to fully consult with the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.

Departmental Agencies

Clare Daly


5Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Agriculture; Food and the Marine the costs associated with the plans to move the Teagasc facility to Ashtown from Kinsealy, County Dublin; and if he will ensure that these moves are halted in view of the fact that the site is unsuitable and too small. [7006/12]

This is an operational matter for the Teagasc authority. Teagasc has statutory responsibility for the delivery of education, advisory and research services to the agriculture sector. It is a matter for Teagasc and its board to prioritise activities in the delivery of these services and to allocate its resources in accordance with these priorities. Ministerial responsibility is confined to matters of policy in accordance with the Act and the Minister does not interfere in the day-to-day operations of Teagasc. Accordingly, the future of the Kinsealy Research Centre is an operational matter for the Teagasc authority. It would not be appropriate to interfere in decisions made by the Teagasc authority in regard to the centre.

I am aware that the Teagasc authority approved a major change programme in 2009 to reorganise and refocus the organisation to meet the significant challenges that lie ahead. This required Teagasc to implement a credible rationalisation plan to enable the organisation adapt to medium-term budgetary constraints. The programme provides for rationalisation measures across the organisation, including the advisory office network, research lands, staff reductions and prioritisation of programme activities.

As part of this programme, the Teagasc authority concluded that the Kinsealy Research Centre is no longer strategically essential to its activities and that it should be closed with staff and activities relocating in the main to the Ashtown Research Centre.

It is the view of the Teagasc authority that it cannot maintain four sites in the greater Dublin area in close proximity to one other and that they are not being used to capacity at present. Teagasc evaluated all four sites relative to one other. It considered the potential savings on overheads and whether programmes currently carried on at the four sites could be streamlined. Following this assessment, it reluctantly concluded the Kinsealy centre should close. The decision was not taken lightly but was driven by the need to review services and rationalise where feasible.

I must interrupt the Minister. The rest of the reply will appear in the Official Report.

It is important to note that Teagasc has committed to spending approximately €4.8 million on the Ashtown site to facilitate the move from Kinsealy.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Teagasc has developed excellent facilities in Ashtown following significant investment in recent years and relocation provides an excellent opportunity to optimise the usage of this valuable centre. Teagasc has carefully assessed the potential investment attributable to relocating from Kinsealy. I understand an investment programme costing an estimated €4.8 million is currently being finalised to provide appropriate facilities at Ashtown to facilitate the movement of activities from Kinsealy over a planned, phased basis. This relates to once-off relocation costs and is constantly being reviewed by Teagasc to reduce actual costs and achieve savings where feasible. In any event, the actual costs will depend on the outcome of competitive tendering processes.

While I thank the Minister, there are a couple of problems with that response. It is not acceptable to have a statement to the effect that it is not appropriate for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to interfere in this area. I do not count it as interference when the State body responsible for horticultural development in the State makes decisions that are, at best, questionable. Moreover, that body already has been brought before, and is at present before, the Committee of Public Accounts because of this very move, which as the Minister has noted involves the expenditure of just short of €5 million of taxpayers' money for a new facility in Ashtown of a far less superior status than the existing facility in Kinsealy. Is the Minister aware the students still will be sent to Kinsealy for training purposes because there is not enough land at Ashtown? Is he aware that more land must be acquired at the latter site because it is not big enough to meet the present needs, including the rent of other premises, even though Kinsealy has 100 acres of the best horticultural land in the State? Does he consider that to be a worthy use of taxpayers' money?

I must take my briefing from Teagasc on this issue. I can understand the importance of Kinsealy, particularly from a horticultural research perspective, but my understanding is the planned move to Ashtown and the consequential investment will be able to maintain the standard of service that already exists. It is possible to rationalise and to move four centres into three, particularly when they are in close proximity to one another. I have received a detailed briefing from Teagasc in this regard on its proposals to maintain services, while simultaneously rationalising. This is not just about Teagasc services in Kinsealy, as it has managed to rationalise all over the country. It must prioritise how it spends money both this year and into the future to ensure it derives the maximum benefit from the resources available to it. That is what this move is about.

How could this be rationalisation if Teagasc is obliged to spend more money to acquire lands when such lands already exist at the Kinsealy facility? Everything it needs already is located there. Can the Minister comment on the fact that a further €2.5 million will be spent by Teagasc on doing up classrooms for the Office of Public Works in the Botanic Gardens to train students, when such facilities already exist in Kinsealy? If, as I firmly believe, what I am saying is true, does the Minister consider that, in the public interest and in the exercise of oversight of taxpayers' money, he has a role in calling in Teagasc and calling it to account somewhat?

There is a role for me to ensure that Teagasc spends its budget properly and gets value for money. I have spoken to the director of Teagasc many times on a series of matters, including how it prioritises and where it spends money and how it envisages its strategic role in respect of developing the agrifood industry. I note it is doing a great deal of good work in this regard. Consequently, I have a role from a policy perspective. Teagasc is a hugely important part of the agrifood story in Ireland from the point of view of horticulture, crops, animal husbandry and research on all areas from developing cheeses to pesticides. However, this is part of a broader rationalisation programme that involves reducing the number of sites from which Teagasc operates and which also involves some expenditure to ensure it can continue to operate at a high level from a research and development perspective. It should be seen from that perspective, rather than pointing to specific expenditure and ignoring the savings that are made as a result of the move from Kinsealy over a longer period.