Priority Questions

Food Safety Standards Inspections

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

115. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if any complaints were made to his Department in 2011 and 2012 in relation to non-compliance with the highest standards of traceability and standards in the slaughter of horses in licensed slaughterhouses; if so, the number of such complaints and their nature; the action taken by his Department to deal with these complaints; the irregularities found; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7271/13]

Under EU law, responsibility for compliance with food safety and traceability requirements rests, in the first instance, with food business operators. This is augmented by official controls, applied at different stages in the food supply chain.

My Department implements official controls in regard to horse identification at marts and other sales venues, abattoirs and points of entry to the country. All equines, which include horses, ponies and donkeys, are required to be identified in accordance with EU and national legislation. Equines issued with a passport after 1 July 2009 must have a corresponding microchip implanted by a veterinarian. It is recorded in the passport and creates a link between the passport and the animal. The passport includes information on any veterinary medicines administered to equines. An equine for slaughter for human consumption must be accompanied to the slaughterhouse by its passport, and the information on the passport determines whether the animal can be slaughtered for human consumption. Horses treated with certain veterinary medicines such as phenylbutazone, known in the industry as "bute", are permanently excluded from the human food chain in order to protect human health, and the passport of the horse in question is endorsed by the prescribing veterinary practitioner to this effect.

My Department has detailed procedures for the slaughter of horses in abattoirs under its supervision and has communicated these and the checks required both to its staff and the business operators. It has liaised with passport-issuing agencies in Ireland and has developed protocols to allow abattoir operators to check the details of passports with these agencies to seek to ensure that they are valid and that only those horses eligible for slaughter are slaughtered. Where forged or tampered passports accompanying horses to slaughter are detected, it is the policy that such animals are destroyed and removed from the food chain.

I can confirm that my Department has received a small number of complaints in this area. While the Department does not comment on ongoing investigations, appropriate corrective action is taken if non-compliance is detected. I can advise that during 2011-12 my Department issued two compliance notices to horse slaughter plants; the approval of one slaughter plant was temporarily suspended and the approval of another was voluntarily suspended. The approval of one organisation, the Irish Cob Society, to maintain a stud book and issue horse passports was revoked last autumn.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Ongoing vigilance is maintained regarding official controls in this area. In that connection, the European Communities (Equine) (Amendment) Regulations, S.I. No. 371/2012, introduced recently, provide for the updating of S.I. No. 357/2011, European Communities (Equine) Regulations 2011, to strengthen the powers of the Minister relating to approval of an issuing body for equine passports, authorised officers and prosecutions relating to equine identification. My Department is developing a central database of horses which will involve migration of selected data from passport-issuing organisations to the Department. The database will be populated with information provided from the databases maintained by the passport-issuing organisations, by the Department from records obtained from sources such as slaughter plants and knackeries; and by local authority veterinary inspectors in respect of records maintained at appropriate slaughter plants.

It took the Minister a long time to come to the point. The question asked if complaints had been made and what action had been taken. The Minister might give further information about how many complaints have been made, when they were made and what action was taken. Was the suspension of one of the organisations from issuing passports related to the issue of traceability of horsemeat or were there other reasons? Regarding the two factories that are no longer allowed to slaughter, will the Minister give an outline of the broad reasons for that and whether it was related to traceability? Can the Minister further confirm that he is 100% satisfied there is no possibility of microchips and passports not matching? Even where they are matching, I am told that the microchips can be bought quite easily and it is easy enough to ensure the passport is amended to match the microchip. Is the Minister absolutely satisfied that the system dealing with horsemeat for the food chain is as secure as that for cattle or sheep?

They are fair questions. First, with regard to the removal of the issuing agency, there are about seven bodies that can issue equine passports in Ireland. They are in different areas, such as sports horses and warmbloods. Horse Sport Ireland is the main one along with Weatherbys, but there are others in specialist areas. We removed the Irish Cob Society from that approved list because the Department was not happy that the procedures we expect of those organisations would be followed. We are making changes in this area at present because concerns have been expressed and there is anecdotal evidence that passports for horses are too freely available. We now require all the agencies to provide all their data to a centralised database to which the Department will have access, to ensure we know exactly who is issuing what and to whom. That is necessary.

Can I be 100% sure that no horse has a false passport? No, I cannot be 100% sure of that. However, we are putting as many checks in place as possible and if anybody has any evidence of horses with false passports we will follow up on it immediately. When concerns have been expressed, we have followed up on them. In the last two years I have done that personally with my veterinarians. Most recently, when the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals made a series of statements which resulted in understandable concern, on the following day I asked one of my advisers to meet the individual concerned, Mr. Stephen Philpott.

The special investigations unit of my Department has subsequently followed the matter up with Mr. Philpott to establish if he has any proof to back up his accusations. We are determined to ensure that the abandonment of a great many horses by people who can no longer afford to keep them as a result of the recession does not result in any fraudulent or criminal activity. If people have evidence that concerns them, I ask that they bring it forward and we will investigate.

The microchip and passports arrangement was introduced in 2009 but there are a great many horses in the system which predate that year. When horses are brought to slaughter, is every carcass checked for the presence of bute to ensure that no carcass containing that substance, which is very dangerous to humans, gets into the food chain? Does the Minister propose to introduce a centralised system as exists for cattle to issue identification to all equines in the State to ensure there is no fudging or uncertainty? The public would like to be absolutely reassured, not only because of the horsemeat scandal but so that all horses can be tracked and identified. As the Minister said, there are a great many issues around horses.

It is important to separate the issues of the horsemeat scandal we are currently investigating and the question of whether we have appropriate checks in place to ensure that any horse slaughtered for human consumption has a valid passport and microchip. There is no evidence at the moment to suggest that there is any connection between horses that have been slaughtered in Ireland and the finding of horsemeat in Irish meat products. Nevertheless, the Deputy's question on what we are doing to ensure that horses are slaughtered properly, professionally and have appropriate passports and microchips is a perfectly valid one. Horses that do not have passports and microchips and which were not required to have them before 2009 cannot enter the food chain under the current rules. We carry out checks on a random basis in factories where we test meat for the presence of bute. We have asked local authorities to increase checks for bute in the facilities supervised by them and we have increased checks in facilities supervised by the Department for the very reasons outlined by Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív.

Only two factories continue to slaughter horses in Ireland as a number of factories decided to move away from that business. The boning hall which had been boning out horses has ceased to do so in recent weeks. Both slaughter houses which continue to slaughter horses have been under local authority supervision but the Department is taking over their supervision now. The larger exporting factories involved in the slaughter of horses had been supervised by the Department in the same way that beef factories were, while smaller operations were under local authority supervision. I am now insisting that all slaughtering of horses is directly under my Department's supervision. That will mean a permanent veterinary presence, which is required to be there anyway, for all horses being slaughtered. Obviously, the necessary checks and balances must be in place to ensure that no horse which lacks proper identification and paperwork enters the human food chain.

Sugar Industry

Martin Ferris

Question:

116. Deputy Martin Ferris asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on the prospects for the reopening of the Irish sugar beet sector. [7360/13]

As Deputy Martin Ferris will know, there are a number of interest groups in the State which would like to see the return of a sugar refining industry, not least farmers who want to grow sugar beet both as a valuable cash crop and as a valuable break crop in arable farming.

That is even more important, given the potential for new greening measures in the Common Agricultural Policy reform process. I am very supportive of these efforts, but two things need to happen before we see a new beet factory built in Ireland. First, Ireland needs to have a quota to produce sugar or else we need to have no quotas in the European Union.

There is a European sugar quota regime in place. As Ireland was compensated to get out of sugar production a few years ago, under EU rules, we cannot produce sugar, even if we wanted to and had the capacity to do so. That sugar regime is due to end in 2015. My position is that we should do away with sugar quotas post-2015 and that countries such as Ireland should be able to produce sugar if they can put together a business case to do so and get investors to support it. That is unlikely, however, because there are strong vested interests who want to see a sugar quota regime continue in place. Sugar quotas will end at some stage between 2015 and 2020. I have repeatedly asked that if the sugar quota regime continues after 2015, countries such as Ireland which have been compensated to get out of sugar production but only until 2015 should be given a limited sugar quota for their own domestic use in order that they can get back into producing sugar.

The second point is that there needs to be a business case made, backed by investors and, presumably, banks, to make it possible to spend the €200 million required to build a sugar factory and an ethanol plant. Two very credible feasibility studies were published last summer and my job is to meet the first challenge to try to get a quota or secure the absence of quota to allow these proposals to press ahead if it is economically viable to do so. That will be determined by the price of sugar internationally.

The Minister is as aware as I am and many other Deputies of the dishonest grounds on which the quota was abolished in 2006 when Greencore and the then Minister for Agriculture, Mary Coughlan, claimed the European Union was forcing the closure. The European Court of Auditors subsequently rubbished this claim. The Minister has mentioned the value of growing sugar as a break crop and its value as a cash crop, particularly for small farmers. He has indicated that he supports the effort to procure a quota from 2015 onwards if the European Union will not abolish the quota regime. Is he prepared to put his full weight behind this effort to try to get a quota for producers who are intent on growing beet again? Will he indicate the size of quota for which he would be looking amd how many jobs this would create and the knock-on value to the economy in general?

They are all valid questions, but I have made the case to the Commission, formally and informally. I have speaking notes to show that I have raised this issue at Council meetings. There are one or two other countries in a similar position, Slovenia probably being the best example. Countries that continue to have large sugar quotas and industries are anxious to protect the status quo because last summer the value of sugar reached new highs, with processed sugar reaching a figure of over €700 a tonne.

A rule of thumb would be that as long as the price of processed sugar stays above €500 per tonne, the feasibility studies I saw last summer stack up in terms of the viability of building a plant to produce sugar and ethanol for over €200 million and actually being able to pay that money back. We are two stages away from that, however. My job is to focus on getting a compromise agreed between those countries - some of which are powerful - that want to see sugar quotas retained because it protects the EU sugar industry, and other countries that, because of the global shortage of sugar, want a free market on the world stage so that the EU can trade in the market. I want the industry to press ahead with this proposal, if it is feasible, and I do not want quotas inhibiting that. We will try to achieve this in the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, negotiations. That is not going to be easy, however. It is difficult to put an exact figure on the number of jobs that could be created but it would be a significant industry.

The Minister said there was a global shortage of sugar. This would be a persuasive argument in getting the EU to tap into that market. The fact that we hold the EU Presidency gives us an ideal opportunity to push this forward and a quota will be made available to Ireland and other member states seeking one. The Minister believes the quota will be gone before 2020. How confident of that is he?

This issue is one of many that are being debated as we draw to a conclusion in the Council of Ministers on a negotiating position on CAP reform. Then we can go into a trialogue process to agree in co-decision with the European Parliament what the CAP will look like for the next seven years. Hopefully, the Irish Presidency will be able to conclude all of that before the end of June. Sugar is one of the items under discussion and it is one of the four regulations on which we must achieve a common position. My view is clear on this. During our Presidency of the Council of the European Union, my job is to get a compromise with which everyone can live. Everyone knows the Irish perspective on this. We will see a compromise whereby there will be a midpoint between 2015 and 2020 - it will probably be closer to 2020 - for ending sugar quotas. My view is that they should be stopped after 2015, letting the free market take effect. If there is to be an increase in quota - which there needs to be - we would be looking for a quota sufficient for the Irish market for three or four years, namely between 180,000 and 200,000 tonnes. One needs such amounts to achieve economies of scale to produce sugar efficiently.

Fishing Industry Development

Thomas Pringle

Question:

117. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he has any plans to make the creation of jobs a condition of grant aid under the seafood business development and seafood processing schemes operated by Bord Iascaigh Mhara to ensure that the maximum number of jobs are created and maintained in the seafood processing sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6994/13]

Our food industry is a high-growth area of our economy and the seafood processing sector is no exception. The sector has significant potential to increase revenues and employment in the coming years. I have on previous occasions referred to my commitment to ensure the maximum number of jobs are created and maintained in the seafood industry. Both Food Harvest 2020 and the action plan for jobs recognise that most of the potential for increased employment in the seafood industry is in the areas of processing and aquaculture. Food Harvest 2020 aims to increase employment in the seafood sector from the present total of approximately 11,000 to 14,000 by 2020 and to increase turnover from €700 million to €1 billion. The two targets are part of the same ambition to increase the size of the seafood industry and its contribution to our economy. It was the previous Government that put these targets in place, but this Government is happy to implement them and see them through.

Despite the severe effects throughout the economy of the current economic downturn, the processing sector has fared well in maintaining employment. Many progressive businesses in the processing sector have bucked the general trend in the economy and have been on a sustained growth and expansion path. CSO figures show that seafood exports were valued at €495 million in 2012, an increase of 18% from 2011.

I am advised by Bord Iascaigh Mhara that some 2,870 people are currently employed in the seafood processing sector. Arising specifically from an investment of €12.8 million by 18 seafood processing companies in 2012, with €2.6 million in financial assistance under the seafood processing business investment scheme, 296 additional jobs and increased sales of value-added seafood products of almost €105 million are expected to be created by 2015. This is a significant level of investment by any standards. Together with previous investment of €7 million by 21 companies in 2011 and €2.7 million by eight companies in 2010 with the support of the seafood processing business investment scheme the investment is setting a clear path to growth and expansion. I have recognised the success of the scheme by increasing its capital budget from €1.5 million in previous years to €2.5 million in 2013. I realise Deputy Pringle has a specific question on how we aim to prioritise these allocations and I will come back to the House on that.

I asked this question because, as he will remember, in June 2011 the Minister launched a high level group report in Killybegs which outlined how 250 jobs would be created in the area in the following years in the seafood processing sector. It is remarkably difficult to find out or verify whether and where those jobs are being created. It appears that the grant announcements made are linked to creating a given number of jobs but those jobs are only aspirational and are not really a factor in deciding on grand aid. In fact, it seems more likely to be a nice add-on to any given announcement to say that it will create eight or ten jobs. In truth, that is not the purpose of the grant aid and it has led to a good deal of confusion among the public. There is a significant difficulty in Killybegs, Donegal at the moment because workers there are being paid off in factories and people cannot see where these jobs are being created. There is an issue with transparency and it must be addressed.

The grant aid is given out on the basis of two criteria. We are trying to modernise processing in Ireland to make it more efficient and competitive in order that we can process more fish here and land more fish caught by Irish trawlers and foreign trawlers. These changes are taking place and are evidenced by the increasing export figures.

We are also looking to invest in facilitating the sector that is adding more value to product. This is why I propose to increase the maximum grant rate available under the seafood processing business investment scheme in 2013 from the previous 25% of money spent up to 30%. At the same time, I propose to reduce the grant available to investments in primary processing facilities from the previous 25% to 20%. We are trying to prioritise money into the added-value sector because that is where the jobs are. This will enable us not only to process more seafood product but to add more value to it. This is what we are trying to do in the beef and dairy sectors as well as all the other food sectors and I trust Deputy Pringle will welcome it.

It is difficult to put an exact scheme together based on the number of jobs to be created. From an employment point of view, our figures in terms of growth in Killybegs and elsewhere are based on the projection of the increased number of jobs attached to the investments concerned. That is the only way one can take the matter forward.

I welcome the fact that the grant aid has increased for the added-value aspect of the investment. This is important.

The dilemma we have seen in the fish processing sector, particularly in County Donegal, is that the greater the investment, the fewer the jobs. I acknowledge the argument that the remaining jobs are more sustainable but it is difficult for those who find themselves out of work because of modernisation to see where the growth in employment will take place. This is a problem with the grant aid process. Jobs are linked to announcements even when the announcement is about modernising plant and equipment rather than job creation. That is where the confusion arises among the public and the people who work in these factories. I welcome that the grant aid is being increased for added value but there needs to be a focus on creating jobs.

The Deputy makes a fair point. There is a concern that when money is invested in processing equipment, the resulting modernisation and mechanisation can reduce the number of people working in the factories concerned. We are trying to ensure that we are competitive as a place to land, process and add value to fish. For example, the landing of blue whiting in Killybegs last year was a significant injection into the local economy. We hope this will continue during 2013 but we also need to find a way of ensuring that instead of simply sending fish landed in Ireland elsewhere in frozen or chilled form for grading and processing, we do that work here. We have the infrastructure and expertise to do the work but we need to continue investing to add value and export higher value products. That is where the jobs will be created. Killybegs clearly could be at the centre of such activities because of its scale and size. This is why the emphasis of the grant has slightly changed to 30% for added value and 20% for general processing upgrades in order to encourage people down the route of added value.

Disadvantaged Areas Scheme Payments

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

118. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he intends to reduce the payment on the first ten hectares of land under the disadvantaged areas scheme to farmers in areas classified as mountain when the herd owners do not have sheep; the amount of any proposed reduction; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7272/13]

As the Deputy is aware, we are faced with unprecedented financial constraints and difficult decisions have had to be taken in recent years regarding funding of schemes operated by my Department, principally the disadvantaged areas scheme. Rather than simply take an across the board approach to cutting rates, I am determined to use this opportunity to make the scheme more focused. I am prompted by the need to ensure those farmers most actively contributing to the achievement of the aims of the scheme have their benefits largely protected.

I would argue strongly that the approach I adopted to the 2012 scheme is testament to this and the commitment I gave that farmers adversely affected by the changes will have every opportunity to have their specific circumstances taken into account is clear evidence of my desire to minimise the impact on the most active farmers. On a close examination of the detail of the scheme, one aspect which was highlighted was the change in farming practices over the years in certain parts of the country, specifically, in mountainous areas. Historically, support was provided to sheep farmers in such areas at a higher rate than in lowland areas in recognition of the additional burdens they faced. While the disadvantaged areas scheme has replaced for the old sheep headage scheme, this approach was continued and a higher payment continues to be made to people farming such mountainous land. These premium payments are available for farms of up to ten hectares. Deputy Ó Cuív was Minister when this decision was made in 2000.

I have decided to retain the top-up payment on the first ten hectares of mountain type grazing. In order to benefit from the top-up payment, farmers who declare this category of land will have to maintain a sheep flock on their holdings in 2013. In the context of taking a more focused and fairer approach to the disbursement of limited funds, it can readily be accepted that there is little argument against this proposed restriction.

In other words, the top-up payment Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív introduced to compensate mountain sheep farmers in the switch from headage payments to the disadvantaged areas scheme, DAS, payment remains intact. The only qualifying criterion is to have sheep on the land. Therefore, it would not be justifiable, given all the savings we must try to make, to provide top-up payments for sheep farmers if they do not have sheep. That is not an unreasonable requirement. We are protecting the payment and think the Deputy did the right thing when he introduced it, but we require farmers to have sheep on the land in order to draw it down.

When I introduced the payment, it was for those who were farming on mountain land. There is a far greater number of farmers on mountain land who farm cattle only than farmers who farm cattle and sheep or sheep only. I have submitted numerous questions for written reply on this issue, but I have not been able to get a straight answer. Is the Minister saying that in 2013 all of the farmers in the designated mountain areas who farm cattle only will have their payment reduced because they will not receive the top-up payment on the first ten hectares, as would have happened when I introduced the payment? In other words, I did not discriminate between sheep and cattle farmers because they were both valid types of farming in mountain areas. Will the Minister give me a simple "yes" or "no" answer as to whether all farmers in west Kerry, County Wicklow, Connemara or wherever else who do not have sheep but cattle only will see a reduction in their disadvantaged area payment this year?

My understanding is that the payment resulted from replacing the old sheep headage scheme with a disadvantaged area scheme. Therefore, anybody who availed of the payment and continues to farm in the same way will be able to retain the payment. If somebody is not farming the land and has no stock on it, he or she cannot expect to hold on to the top-up payment, which is not unreasonable.

What I am saying is that when the headage payments and other schemes were abolished, farmers received the disadvantaged area scheme payment. The idea behind that payment is to compensate those for farming poor land and the poorest land in the country is mountain land. Therefore, I introduced a rate of payment that was higher for mountain land than land in severely disadvantaged or less favoured areas. I again put the question and ask for a simple "yes" or "no" answer. Will cattle farmers who are actively farming mountain land receive the top-up payment or will it be confined only to sheep farmers who account for a minority of farmers in mountain areas? Will the Minister give me a "yes" or "no" answer because I have submitted a few questions for written reply on this issue, but have not been able to get an answer from him? Will a farmer with five cows and so on be paid at the same rate as a neighbouring sheep farmer?

First, we have continued with the prioritisation of support for farmers farming in mountain areas in the most recent budget. They will not suffer any DAS payment cut. I will check my understanding of this issue when Question Time concludes and revert to the Deputy with a note. I understand the scheme was previously targeted at sheep farmers in mountainous areas. If that is not the case, I will seek to clarify the matter. The intention behind what we are doing is to ensure those who are not farming and do not have stock in mountainous areas will not continue to receive the payment.

They do not receive the payment.

I hear what the Deputy is saying, but it is my understanding and my briefing note suggests the payment is made to sheep farmers only. However, I will check and revert to the Deputy with a response on the position of farmers with suckler cows in mountainous areas.

Fishery Harbour Centres

Thomas Pringle

Question:

119. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the number of rent reductions that have been negotiated between tenants in fishery harbour centres and his Department in each of the past two years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6919/13]

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine owns and operates under statute six fishery harbour centres at Killybegs, Ros a' Mhíl, Dingle, Castletownbere, Dunmore East and Howth. Properties located in the fishery harbour centres are offered for tenancy under lease or licence agreements when appropriate. An individual agreement, which is a formal document and is legally binding on both parties, is voluntarily signed at the outset by the tenant. The Department has approximately 140 property agreements in place in the six fisheries harbours.

Property agreements are complex instruments. The specific terms of the agreements held with the Department vary. Approximately 80 of the property agreements that are in place do not contain rent review clauses which require rent to be static or increased in the subsequent period. These agreements include short-term licence agreements and pending lease agreements. Any property agreements that were entered into after to the application of section 132 of the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act 2009 contain rent review clauses in which the rent payable following the review may be fixed at an amount which is less than, greater than or the same as the amount of rent payable immediately prior to the date on which the rent falls to be reviewed. Approximately 60 lease agreements contain rent review clauses which require static or increased rent to be applied for the subsequent period. All of the property agreements that contain such rent review clauses were signed prior to the application of section 132 of the 2009 Act. These agreements generally require rent reviews to be conducted every five years. The most recent round of rent reviews on these agreements related to the period up to mid-2008. A number of the rental valuations determined by the qualified valuer, who was appointed by the Department following a tender competition, were disputed by the tenants. The rent review dispute procedures set out in the tenants' leases were followed. In some cases, the independent experts recommended a decrease in the revised valuation determined by the valuer acting on behalf of the Department.

I am acutely aware of the economic situation facing businesses and small enterprises. Following the completion of rent reviews due for the period up to mid-2008, I decided in 2011 that no rent reviews would be carried out for years subsequent to 2008 and that zero rent increases would apply across the board. I have recently decided to continue this approach for rent reviews due in 2013. A zero rent increase will be applied in all such cases. In other words, we are providing for a practical response. When a rent review takes place, we are entitled in law to consider either an increase or a retention of the same rent. We have decided that the easiest way to deal with this is by not reviewing the rents so that they do not increase for the tenants in question.

It may be a practical response, but it does not go far enough. No one is more aware than the Minister of how circumstances have changed since the last reviews were done in 2008. Many businesses are struggling to meet rents that were set at peak market values. Perhaps the Department, as an extension of this process, can take a proactive view of the possibility of reducing those rents where that can be justified. I think that would go a long way towards enabling people to preserve their businesses. It might even give them room to expand their businesses and create jobs. In advance of the last general election, Fine Gael proposed the implementation of such a process, which would be the fairest way of going forward in this area.

We have looked at the Deputy's proposal, but it is not as easy as it might seem. When a lease is signed that does not contain a mechanism whereby the level of rent can be reduced - it must stay as it is or increase - it is not straightforward from a legal point of view to reduce that rent. In order to ensure both sides do not have to go through the cost and hassle of the process of arbitration on the agreement of valuations and rents, etc., I have decided that the easiest way to proceed for the moment is by simply not having reviews. That gives tenants some certainty that their rents are not going to increase. I think it is a reasonable response in the circumstances.

If there is a case to be made that we are overcharging for rent, we need to look at that. However, whenever rent reviews have been carried out, there have been recommendations for rent increases, and I do not believe that is appropriate given the pressures many businesses are under at present.

Clearly, if there was movement on both sides whereby the tenant and the landlord agreed to examine the process, it would be possible to arrive at a situation in which both sides agreed to reduce the rent in the vital interest of keeping a business in place and giving it the opportunity to create extra jobs and be more sustainable. There needs to be a will within the Department, however. If there is a will, there will definitely be a way and both sides can agree to alter the terms of the lease and arrive at a rent that would be agreeable to both.

We need to balance two things. First, we need to ensure we are not charging rents that are over the top for businesses. Second, we need to run six fisheries harbours in a businesslike manner so they can pay for themselves, if possible, and pay for the investment that is and has been needed over the years. We are trying to balance our obligation as a landlord to be fair to the tenants and do all we can to keep them in business by not applying rents that are over the top with the requirement to obtain an acceptable commercial income from all of the tenancies within our harbours. We are trying to balance those two priorities. This is why I have tried to give certainty to businesses by saying we will not go through the rent review process. The point I am making is that some of the rent reviews we went ahead with actually recommended an increase in rent, so just because a review is carried out by an independent assessor, it does not necessarily mean we will get a recommendation to reduce rent. Of course tenants will want lower rent all the time but I have to run the harbours in a businesslike commercial manner so I can invest in those harbours and, at the same time, not treat tenants unfairly. That is why I believe that putting off rent reviews in order to essentially freeze rent for the foreseeable future is a reasonable way to proceed.