Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Skills Shortages

Billy Kelleher

Question:

5. Deputy Billy Kelleher asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the steps being taken to cater for the shortage of skilled labour in the agricultural sector and the competitiveness issues arising if unaddressed. [51188/18]

What are the steps being taken to deal with the skills shortage in the agricultural sector? What competitiveness issues might arise from these shortages, not just in the context of farms but in the context of the entire process, including final sale?

I am acutely aware of the shortage of labour that exists in some parts of the agrifood sector, and in the economy generally. It should be noted that the sector accounts for 7.9% of total employment, or approximately 174,000 jobs. As most of these jobs are based outside of our cities, they are crucial to the rural economy.

Food Wise 2025 highlighted the need for the attraction, retention and development of skills and talent right along the food supply chain. Investment in people is crucial for the success of Food Wise 2025 and the success of the sector as a whole. The human capital recommendations contained in the strategy are more relevant than ever, as we see skills and labour shortages developing. My Department has hosted two Food Wise 2025 skills workshops, involving all relevant stakeholders, to look at skills gaps and needs both at farm and at food and beverage industry levels. This process of stakeholder engagement has led to two important reports, namely, the report on future skills needs in the food and drink sector, published last year, and the people in dairy action plan, which I launched in June of this year. This incorporates a total of 29 specific actions which are organised into six key initiatives. The specific recommendations in both reports are in the process of being implemented and progress will be reported periodically to the Food Wise high-level implementation committee, which I chair.

Labour supply issues have been most acute in meat processing and on farm in the horticulture and dairy sectors, although I am aware that some other parts of the industry, including pig, poultry and egg production, are also beginning to face the same issue. While some potential exists to recruit labour from within the domestic and European labour markets, it has become apparent in recent times that this will be insufficient to meet the demand and, therefore, I and my officials have had extensive engagement with the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, and her Department in relation to employment permits for non-European Economic Area nationals.

I welcomed the announcement by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, of an initial pilot quota of employment permits for the horticulture, dairy and meat processing sectors in May, with a further allocation for meat processing in August. While the number of permits allocated is relatively modest, at 500 for horticulture workers, 50 for dairy farm assistants and 750 for meat processor operatives, it is addressing the immediate shortage of labour. Alongside the dedicated pilot scheme for the agrifood sector, an overarching review of the broader employment permit system has been carried out by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. My colleague the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, published the report on this review in September and my Department, having actively participated in the review, is now on an interdepartmental group tasked with implementing the recommendations. I am confident that this exercise will lead to a permit regime that is more flexible and adaptable to the labour needs of the agrifood sector, particularly for seasonal employment.

I said at the time of the announcement of these permits that they were just one piece of the jigsaw in addressing labour supply and that the sector must also continue and intensify its efforts to source and retain labour from both the domestic and EU markets.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

In this regard, my officials have been working closely with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to assist in these efforts. That Department has hosted a series of information sessions and meetings with representatives from across the agrifood sector on the range of initiatives and supports available. It is clear, however, that there is no quick fix to address these issues. Instead, we must take a multifaceted approach and my Department will continue to progress initiatives in this regard.

We have to monitor the situation continually. Some time ago the chief executive of Dairygold, Mr. Wolfe, said that labour shortages were a constraint on expansion for 25% of the company's clients and suppliers. It is a gripping issue that has to be addressed. The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has five people looking at skills issues across the whole economy. I do not believe we have taken the issue as seriously as we should have. We need to think about skills shortages before they happen because currently we get skills shortages and then react to them. We need to shorten the time between a shortage arising and when we address it, such as by issuing work permits. I ask the Minister to ensure that the Department is more proactive in responding to the views of industry and advocates for the agricultural sector.

I appreciate the Deputy's concerns. My Department is now involved in a working group with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation and we will be proactive in trying to find a resolution to the issue. It is one of the downsides of an economy that is nearing full employment and I am acutely conscious of how it impacts on the agrifood sector, both inside and outside the farm gate. We will remain focused on it. We have had an initial response in the area of work permits but more needs to be done, both in terms of permitted workers and in the context of labour opportunities in Ireland's existing workforce.

The pay rates in the agricultural and processing sectors are on the lower end of the scale and any change in that brings about problems with competitiveness straightaway. Equally, it causes problems in recruitment. When people are paid €9 or €10 an hour but companies and factories can pay more, people drift out of the agricultural sector. In the short and medium term that can be addressed by work permits but for the long-term sustainability of agriculture and to ensure that there is a constant pool of people with skills and who are interested in making a career beyond the traditional farm manager and farm apprenticeship schemes we have to be more creative and imaginative in terms of policy and within the industry. When the Minister talks to the industry in general that is a key point that he should make. The industry must become an attractive one so that people will want to forge a career out of it, not only by owning farms but in all the sectors through to processing.

The Deputy's point is very well reflected in the report by Tom Moran, the former Secretary General of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, in particular on the dairy side but also the labour issues inside the farm gate. One point he made is that a transition is required from farmers who have traditionally worked on their own to being employers, particularly those who have expanded substantially on the dairy side. That brings a host of additional challenges. Recruitment is one but retention is another. There is a host of issues around retention. It has to do with salaries but other issues too including terms and conditions of employment that the expanding dairy sector needs to grapple with. There is a lot going on in that area but it is not just the dairy industry and pay is but one element of that.

Laboratory Facilities

Bobby Aylward

Question:

6. Deputy Bobby Aylward asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the status of the review and cost-benefit analysis of the regional veterinary laboratory in County Kilkenny which serves the farmers of the entire south-east region; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51041/18]

What is the status of the review and cost-benefit analysis of the regional veterinary laboratory in County Kilkenny, which serves the farmers of the entire south-east region? I have been raising this question for a long time and getting no answer.

My Department has commissioned a cost-benefit analysis, CBA, of options that have been proposed for the future development of the regional veterinary laboratories, RVLs. The team conducting the CBA includes internationally-recognised, independent experts in economic analysis and animal disease surveillance. I expect a report and recommendations to be presented to me in the near future. The focus of this review has been to secure and improve the service to the sector at best value to the taxpayer.

My Department completed an initial consultative process with all relevant stakeholders on the options for the RVLs during the course of last year and the consultants undertaking the CBA have also consulted with stakeholders. Any decision that is made on the RVLs will be informed by both those consultative processes and the outcome of the CBA.

I have been raising this issue since early 2017 and almost two years on it seems we are no closer to a decision on the six regional veterinary laboratories around the country which are under review. Meanwhile farming families are forced to operate under a cloud of uncertainty as we await the results of the cost benefit analysis the Minister commissioned, which has been going on for well over a year at this stage. There is huge concern in Kilkenny and elsewhere that the six remaining veterinary laboratories may be under threat of closure by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I remind the Minister that good farming practice, food quality and our branding in this regard will be damaged significantly by any reduction in service. In a written response to a parliamentary question I tabled on this issue in October the Minister stated: "Any decision that is made on the RVLs will be informed by both those consultative processes and the outcome of the CBA." He said that already today. Can the Minister give us a firm indication today of when he will finally make a decision on the RVLs and put this issue to bed once and for all?

The rationale for considering the regional veterinary laboratory structure and the cost benefit analysis is to make sure that what we have is fit for purpose. I envisage investment and not dismantling of services. The Deputy can rest easy. I am waiting for the advice on the roadmap but it is investment in these infrastructures we anticipate.

The Minister seems to be kicking this issue down the road for almost two years and he does not seem to be overly concerned. This is very important to the people of the south east. The laboratory in the south east serves Wexford, Waterford, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Kilkenny-Carlow, Laois, Kildare and all the surrounding counties. We have these laboratories for a reason and for best practice in agriculture. They give a badly needed service to the farmers of this country. People in Kilkenny are worried about it closing, their jobs going and the lab being taken out of commission. We are trying to clarify for once and for all how it takes two years to produce a report. That seems incredible. How long does a report have to take and how long more before it is established that this laboratory is being kept in place for future good farming practice and young farmers? The sooner I get that answer the better.

I am trying to put the Deputy's mind at ease.

I would not be asking the question if it was at ease.

This €13 billion export-orientated industry is built on a quality production system that is verified in many instances through the regional veterinary laboratories. I felt it imperative to make sure that infrastructure was fit for purpose and if there is a requirement for investment that we have the appropriate targeted investment. I do not envisage dismantling the service, I envisage enhancing it.

Will the Minister guarantee no closures?

Did I not just tell the Deputy to put his mind at ease?

Question No. 7 replied to with Written Answers

Ports Facilities

James Browne

Question:

8. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his plans for the introduction of a border control post at a location (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [50974/18]

What are the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine's plans for the introduction of a border control post at Rosslare Europort?

My Department has been working to assess the infrastructure requirements at ports and airports that handle consignments of plants, animals and plant and animal products from the United Kingdom. This work is part of a co-ordinated Government-wide approach involving the Revenue Commissioners, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Department of Health and the Office of Public Works.

On leaving the European Union, the UK will become a third country and as such checks to ensure compliance with EU rules, so called SPS checks, will be required on consignments of plants, animals and plant and animal products originating in the UK. These checks will be required whether the UK leaves with a deal or leaves with no deal. EU legislation requires that these checks are carried out at ports or airports that have designated facilities called border control posts, BCPs.

Consignments that will be subject to SPS checks when the UK leaves the EU are currently entering Ireland at Rosslare Europort. For this reason, Rosslare Europort has been identified as a future location for a border control post. Work is under way, in conjunction with the Office of Public Works, to identify a suitable site for the construction of the BCP. The BCP will be located in a central control compound that will also house the required facilities for the other governmental bodies.

The location, design and functionality of this compound needs careful and precise planning to ensure that it is fit for purpose and achieves value for money. The facility must meet and be operated in compliance with EU legislative requirements.

As a result of the co-ordinated Government-wide process involving the various impacted arms of the State, certain efficiencies and savings have been identified through the potential to share specific areas of the facilities. My Department will continue to look for innovative, cost-effective solutions throughout the planning, design and implementation process.

Rosslare Europort is a serious bone of contention for people in Wexford because it is owned, controlled and managed by CIÉ. It makes €2.5 million profit per annum which has effectively been sucked out of it every year to subsidise other parts of Iarnród Éireann. I appreciate that is not the Minister's area of responsibility but one of the benefits of CIÉ abandoning that port and using it as a cash cow is that there is space there for the Office of Public Works, OPW, and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to put in place the necessary buildings and works there. I understand the OPW is examining potential sites there but I know from Wexford County Council that it has not yet reached the planning application stage. For Rosslare Europort to start to reach its potential it would be important that these Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine facilities, with customs and gardaí, are put in place.

In the case of a hard Brexit in particular, there will be mayhem in Rosslare Europort for roll-on, roll-off trucks if the facilities are not in place.

I appreciate those points and some of the history, which I was not familiar with, in respect of Rosslare. The infrastructure required is significant in the context of a border control post, including inspection bays and parking for trucks, dedicated areas for live animals, public offices, etc. A lot of the detailed planning is ongoing on the part of the Office of Public Works in terms of the overall Government approach to the infrastructure required to deal with Brexit. Traffic management, planning applications, staff requirements, IT systems and all those details are all part of the Brexit preparations. They are also evidence that, however effectively we pursue our negotiations with the UK, the arrangements we currently have are far better than any that will replace them in the context of the impact on trade and the cost of the infrastructure requirements. Plans are well advanced, however.

As the Minister will know, 80% of goods by volume to the Continent cross the UK land bridge. The concern of the road hauliers is that even if the land bridge is left open via customs checks, things like checks and tolls, or even the fact that many of their drivers may be Polish or Romanian, will mean that even if there is not an actual technical block to them going over the UK land bridge, doing so may become uneconomical. The development of Rosslare Europort for direct links to the Continent will become very important. There was a surprising reported statement from the head of Rosslare Europort to Wexford County Council recently, to the effect that he reportedly said that the Government's policy is not to invest in ports. I hope he is being misquoted in the local newspaper because that would be quite a shocking statement to make. It would be interesting to have that clarified, but it is not the Minister's Department.

I can certainly say that substantial financial provision has been made in my Department in the context of Brexit planning for infrastructure, staff, IT systems etc. It is inevitable that some of that investment will be in port infrastructure. Much of it will be through the OPW as well. I do not want to draw conclusions on what other people have said, however. The land bridge issue is really important for our access to the rest of the European Union markets. However, it is equally important to reflect on the fact that we are the land bridge through which the UK exports many of its products destined for Northern Ireland. It is important to acknowledge the signalled intention of the UK to remain in the convention on common transit, which would enable us to continue to access the European Union markets via the UK land bridge. That is very important for all sectors of the economy but particularly for the agrifood side.

Fish Quotas

Thomas Pringle

Question:

9. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on recent negotiations resulting in the 20% reduction in the mackerel quota for fishermen here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51117/18]

This question is about the annual mackerel quota allocation. Every year, doom and gloom is announced beforehand along with major potential cuts. Then the Department rides in on a white horse and saves the day by securing a smaller reduction. At the same time, the quota is reduced every year. What is the Department's view on the annual negotiations?

The negotiations the Deputy refers to are those concerning the management of mackerel in the north-east Atlantic, which is Ireland’s single most important fishery. The negotiations concluded in Bergen last week after five separate rounds and the parties to the final agreement were the European Union, Norway, and the Faroe Islands.

Ireland is the second largest EU quota holder and my officials participated in every stage of the talks. The countries involved in the negotiations have agreed to a 20% reduction in their mackerel quotas for 2019. The reductions reflect the available scientific advice that the abundance of this stock has declined. This level of reduction is seen by all parties as essential to ensure that the stock is fished sustainably. Irish fishermen will now have a quota worth over €55 million directly to our catching sector for 2019.

Agreement was also reached on a two-year extension of the sharing arrangement between the main parties - the EU, Norway and the Faroe Islands. This provides a welcome degree of stability for this hugely important fishery. Mackerel is Ireland’s single most valuable fishery and, in my view, this agreement provides stability combined with a precautionary approach to help ensure the long-term sustainability of the stock. The scientific advice is currently being reviewed and assessed by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, ICES. The coastal states will meet again to consider the outcome of that review when it becomes available. This is expected to happen early in 2019. While the quota for Ireland is less than that of recent years, those quotas were unusually high by historical standards. The quota of 55,000 tonnes for 2019 is in line with our historical average quota. Ireland will continue to be cautious with this critically important stock.

On the scientific advice, the fishing industry is very critical of it and questions whether it is accurate. What is the Department's view? Could the Minister expand a bit more on that? It is critically important in deciding the total allowable catch for any species. There is some concern within the industry as to whether it was accurate and reflects what is being seen on the ground. What role does the Department take in deciding on the advice? What is the Minister's official view on the scientific criteria that are used?

As the Deputy is aware, the ICES advice was for a 61% cut in the total allowable catch, which would have been 318,000 tonnes, of which our share would have been substantially less than the 55,000 tonnes we have got. What has been agreed is a 20% cut but also a review of the science in early 2019. Issues have been raised with the data inputs that contribute to the formulation of the advice. A benchmark review of those data has begun and that is expected to conclude in February. We are open to a review of that science. I have personally engaged with members of the industry on that matter. They are adamant that the science may be incorrect and cite previous instances where this has proven to be the case. It was incumbent upon us to have an open mind in that context and to take a precautionary approach in establishing the quota, which sees a cut but also intention to revisit that in reviewing the science. All of us have a shared interest in making sure the stock is fished sustainably. That is why we will be revisiting this in February.

I still have not got to what the Department's view actually is on the scientific advice. Does it have a view? It seems that it does not and that it is just going to wait and see. Maybe we should take on a stronger role. If our fishing organisations and possibly the Marine Institute are taking a view that the scientific advice is wrong, surely the Department must have a view on it as well. That is vitally important in respect of whether this review will be taken on board or will be just another sop that fishermen will have to put up with.

It would not be for the Department to deliberately undermine science. We are generally advised on these matters by the Marine Institute in particular. There is within ICES and implicit within the decision a willingness to reconsider the science, to look at how its conclusions were reached and at the data inputs that led to the suggestion of a 61% cut in the total allowable catch for 2019. The Common Fisheries Policy provides that we are obliged to take on board the science but also its socioeconomic impact. This is specifically provided for, although sometimes conveniently ignored by some commentators, to find a balanced outcome. We felt it was prudent to review the science once ICES had conducted its review.

It is a reasonable position to take given that we in the Department are not scientists and we are advised by the scientists in the Marine Institute, whose findings feed into ICES. That will be reviewed in February 2019.

Permission has been given to Deputy Heydon to ask Question No. 10 on behalf of Deputy Burke.

Brexit Supports

Peter Burke

Question:

10. Deputy Peter Burke asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the supports provided to Bord Bia to assist agrifood businesses here find new markets for produce in the context of a potentially changed trading environment post Brexit. [51197/18]

Many agrifood businesses do much of their business with the UK. That relationship will change but I am a firm believer that every cloud has a silver lining and this might make us proactively consider other markets in an even more energetic way than we have done. What supports are there through Bord Bia for agribusiness?

Bord Bia’s work is critical to the success of the growth of our food and drinks exports. The agrifood sector accounted for more than 11% of total goods exports from Ireland last year and, since 2009, agrifood exports have increased in value by 74%, from €7.8 billion to €13.6 billion last year. Bord Bia has played a vital role in that export success by enhancing and promoting our focus on quality, innovation and sustainability. The development of the Origin Green programme, providing proof of the sector’s sustainability credentials, has played an important part.

Bord Bia works closely with my Department to prioritise and develop new markets, building on its significant investment in consumer and retail insights. As an agency, Bord Bia has played a key role in our Brexit response, facilitating conversations at the highest level with UK retail chief executive officers and ensuring that our ongoing commitment to the UK market is fully understood. In that context, I will meet many of our retail partners in London later this evening. We have no intention of stepping back from the UK market. On the contrary, we will redouble our efforts to build on our consumer reputation and strong relationships to maximise growth and supply high-quality and innovative products to our neighbouring island.

Bord Bia’s Brexit barometer has been used to identify evolving client priorities and concerns and further inform Bord Bia’s Brexit programmes and supports. As a result of the many findings from the two exercises it carried out in 2017 and 2018, Bord Bia has launched a series of Brexit support programmes focused on supply chains and customs requirements regarding trade and currency risk for the industry, as well as a customer engagement plan to communicate to key UK stakeholders the preparedness of Irish food and drinks suppliers.

In September 2017, I announced further funding of €6.745 million for Bord Bia to undertake a programme of additional activities, based on Brexit barometer analysis, to support the food and drink sectors in addressing the market challenges relating to Brexit. The funding was additional to the €1.6 million I provided to Bord Bia in autumn 2016 for grants to assist food companies highly dependent on the UK market and an additional €2 million allocated to Bord Bia as part of its 2017 grant for increased expenditure on programmes. In the 2019 Estimates, I provided a further allocation of €5.3 million to Bord Bia, bringing its total grant-in-aid to €46.6 million for 2019. This compares with a grant of €28.9 million in 2014 and represents a 60% increase in funding for marketing and promotion of our food offering over five years.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

This year Bord Bia received approval to recruit 32 additional members of staff as part of the wider Brexit response. A recruitment campaign commenced in April 2018, and to date 24 positions have been filled. Recruitment is ongoing for the balance and it is hoped that these additional staff will be fully in place by 2019. At least ten of these positions will be based abroad. This will bring Bord Bia’s headcount from 93 in 2008 to a maximum of 147 by the end of December 2018, amounting to a 63% increase over ten years.

There is no doubt that a 60% increase in funding shows the level of importance we are placing on the food and drink industry, which, as the Minister noted, accounts for 11% of our total exports from the country, which is important. Is the Minister satisfied we can maintain many of those UK contracts and suppliers? It is encouraging to hear he will meet key stakeholders in London this evening. Is he satisfied we can retain them or does Brexit pose the risk that some of our agribusiness will lose some of those markets?

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has rolled out new embassies and representations all around the world. Does Bord Bia link in with it and take every opportunity through trade delegations and so on to try to open up those markets?

When Food Wise 2025 was drawn up, we were not familiar with the word "Brexit". Does the strategy remain fit for purpose in the context of Brexit or are changes needed to bring us in line with modern realities?

On the final question, it has never been more important to have a blueprint for the industry. Food Wise 2025 was intended to be an identification of the major roadblocks that were holding back the industry's capacity to meet its true potential, whether in the area of research and development, human capital or whatever. The programme has been rebuilt every number of years, and we are beginning the process of examining its next iteration and the challenges of the future. While Brexit is one challenge, the international trading environment, sustainability and so on are also challenges. Food Wise 2025 is a living document and it will be reappraised, but it has never been more relevant to identify the challenges and systematically dismantle them in a focused way.

The UK market will always be of great importance for us, and geography should always be a major determiner of where we trade. It is the biggest market on our doorstep and it is the one we understand most for cultural and historical reasons. Although the future trading relationship will be different when the UK is a third country, that is, outside the European Union, and we will have costs that we do not now incur, it should nonetheless always remain our major trading partner. It accounts for somewhat less than 40% of exports now, but I hope the hard-won space that we have on British supermarket shelves can be maintained, which is partly why we regularly engage with our retail partners, as I said I will do later. I recently returned from a trade mission in Indonesia. New embassies are important and Bord Bia is part of that global footprint.

In an international context, will the Minister expand on the importance of Origin Green and how it fits in with the trade delegations to which he is party? In the overall narrative of the quality of our industry, what role does the programme play?

Origin Green is of significant importance because in the higher value-added markets where we want to have space on the supermarket shelves, our food suppliers are increasingly asked less about whether their food is safe, traceable, nutritious and so on but rather about antimicrobial resistance, animal welfare, climate sustainability and so forth. That is where Origin Green has come into its own. I had a meeting yesterday with the board and sub-boards of Bord Bia to be given an overview of how 2018 went. One of the points I made to them was that it was imperative that we constantly work to ensure that Origin Green, which has been a real door-opener for us, is fit for purpose and constantly proofed against the challenges of changing market dynamics, of which Bord Bia is acutely conscious. It has been important to what market penetration we have globally.

Agriculture Cashflow Support Loan Scheme

Eugene Murphy

Question:

11. Deputy Eugene Murphy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if the plans announced in budget 2018 to introduce a low-cost cashflow loan scheme for farmers have been abandoned in view of the fact that there seems to be no movement on a hardship fund to help bridge cashflow difficulties for farmers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [50998/18]

Will the Minister clarify whether the plans announced in budget 2018 to introduce a low-cost cashflow loan scheme for farmers have been abandoned, given that there seems to be no movement on the hardship fund to help bridge the cashflow difficulties for farmers?

One of my priorities is to improve access to finance for the agrifood sector. Food Wise 2025 identifies competitiveness as a key theme and includes a recommendation that stakeholders work to “improve access to finance for agriculture, forestry and seafood producers and Agri-food companies”.

The future growth loan scheme is being developed by my Department and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation in partnership with the Department of Finance, the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland and the European Investment Fund. It will be delivered through participating finance providers and will make up to €300 million of long-term investment loans available to eligible businesses, including the primary agriculture, agrifood and seafood sectors. The loans will be competitively priced and will be for terms of eight to ten years. This is a long-awaited source of finance for young and new entrant farmers, especially the cohort who do not have high levels of security. It will also serve smaller-scale farmers, who often do not have the leverage to negotiate for more favourable terms with their banking institution.

Food companies have identified long-term investment finance of up to ten years as a critical need which is currently unavailable. The delivery of this product and its effects will be felt all along the food production chain. The fund is leveraged by Exchequer funding of €62 million, of which 40%, or some €25 million, will be provided by my Department. My Department’s contribution was announced as part of budget 2018 and will be paid to the scheme by the end of this year. Arrangements are being finalised to have the scheme in place and ready to be launched in early 2019. It will run for three years from its launch date, and further announcements in this regard will be made shortly.

In regard to general cashflow issues, I liaise with the main banks on issues relating to the agrifood sector and I welcome that they have followed through on their commitment to support the sector through a challenging period.

The delivery of last year's agriculture cash flow loan scheme has acted as a catalyst to encourage financial institutions to improve and develop new loan products for the sector. A recently announced initiative by one of the main banks mirrors the scheme in offering a discounted interest rate with extended and flexible repayment terms. The milk flex loan product developed by the Irish Strategic Investment Fund with dairy co-operative and private banking participation is another good example of innovation in this regard. In addition, many farmers rely heavily on co-operative and merchant credit and I have welcomed initiatives by some of the co-operatives in relation to credit facilities for their suppliers.

While I have to welcome what the Minister says will come on board in 2019, it should be remembered that this was announced in budget 2018. If I am not mistaken, the Minister made a further announcement at the IFA AGM in January and indicated that it would be established in the autumn. I push this point on the basis that these are the most challenging times for farmers I have ever seen. They face the uncertainty of Brexit, the uncertainty of CAP reform and, most importantly, climate change. As the Minister has seen himself, weather patterns have changed dramatically and that is costing farmers dearly. Any business, but farming in particular, requires financial planning. As such, I urge the Minister to put this in place within a matter of weeks. Farmers need it desperately and there should be no further delay. If another payment announced on budget day did not occur when it was supposed to, there would be uproar in the country. I appeal to the Minister to do everything required to bring this in as quickly as possible.

I confess to having been rather frustrated myself at the difficulty in progressing the matter. As the Deputy knows, the European Investment Fund Agreement Bill 2018 has concluded its passage through the Seanad and will come before the House today. It provides for the legislative framework under which the new loan fund will be delivered. A legislative basis is required because of the involvement of the European Investment Fund. It has been a more cumbersome and difficult process than we anticipated and it has taken longer than I would have liked. However, I am satisfied that it addresses a gap in the market for capital investment through unsecured lending over eight to ten years at an interest rate which is not currently available. I acknowledge that it is later than we would have liked, but it will be in the marketplace in early 2019.

While I welcome that, one must consider what has happened already in 2018. There was a terrible fodder crisis last spring and the weather was appalling. In fact, we did not have a spring as it seemed winter went into summer. Farmers were initially unable to get fodder. In the Minister's own part of the country, the dairy sector was severely affected. There is now a beef price crisis. Farmers are under attack financially on all fronts and while I welcome the clarification the Minister has provided this morning, I urge him to put the fund in place as quickly as possible. Farmers will not be able to continue farming without having that financial planning in place. Such planning must be assisted by Government given the threats facing farmers. There is uncertainty from Brexit and there is no doubt that there will be challenges from CAP. A financial crisis on top of all that makes it next to impossible for farmers to continue to work at their trade.

I accept the Deputy's point. If we were in any doubt, the 2018 Teagasc farm income survey published this week confirms it. I acknowledge that it has been a very difficult year. However, in the context of climate-related challenges, the stakeholder group we established has worked extremely well. It includes statutory, non-statutory, voluntary and farm organisation participants. We have seen the gap close substantially and there is now an acceptance that there is sufficient fodder in the country. There may be individuals who remain vulnerable and we must remain vigilant in that space. However, I accept the thrust of the Deputy's observations overall and hope this financial product aimed at capital investment rather than working capital will be of some benefit to the sector in 2019.

Hare Coursing

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

12. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on the inherent cruelty involved in live hare coursing; and his views on whether Ireland’s reputation is being damaged by allowing this blood sport to continue in the face of international bans on the activity. [51049/18]

My question is on live hare coursing. What are the Minister's views on the inherent cruelty in this activity? Is our reputation being damaged by allowing this blood sport to continue in the face of international bans on live hare coursing.

I note the major improvements in animal welfare that have taken place in recent years. The Deputy will recall that my colleague and predecessor, Deputy Simon Coveney, brought forward major legislative reform in the form of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013, which replaced legislation dating back over 100 years. The Act enshrined the "five freedoms" concept and introduced mandatory standards to provide for positive welfare for animals. I launched myself a new draft strategy on animal welfare in September. The strategy has recently undergone a public consultation process and the responses, which are currently being examined, have been very positive. As the Deputy will be aware, detailed debate was held around the issue of coursing during the passage of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 and the Dáil voted overwhelmingly to allow the continuation of hare coursing in accordance with the legislation which specifies that the hare must have a reasonable chance of escape. I am fully committed to promoting good practices that respect the welfare of all animals and my Department devotes considerable resources to protect animal welfare and deal with breaches of animal welfare legislation. Under the 2013 Act, a person can receive a fine on summary conviction of up to €10,000 and on conviction on indictment of €250,000 and-or imprisonment up to five years. The Act provides for fixed penalty payments for lesser offences. The Act provides the framework within which the welfare of animals can be safeguarded and I am hopeful that the substantial and significantly increased level of penalties for offences of animal cruelty provided for under the Act will act as a deterrent to animal welfare abuses.

Coursing is regulated under the Greyhound Industry Act 1958 by the Irish Coursing Club, subject to the general control of Bord na gCon. The Irish Coursing Club is committed to maintaining high standards in the sport of coursing and it actively promotes the protection and conservation of the Irish hare. Coursing operates in a highly regulated environment coupled with a comprehensive set of rules directly applied by the club. Hares are sourced under licences from the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht which are issued annually and subject to a total of 26 conditions. These measures include a requirement that a qualified veterinarian attend at all coursing meetings to report on the health of hares, a prohibition on the coursing of hares more than once in the same day, a prohibition on the coursing of sick or pregnant hares and a requirement that hares be released back into the wild during daylight hours.

I am tired of being told about the wonderful legislation. While it is wonderful in theory, there are many examples in which it does not work. I need only mention puppy farms, the fox incident about which the Minister knows well as it took place in Cork, badger issues, live hare coursing and fur farming. Hurling, camogie, basketball, rugby and soccer are sports. There is no glossing over the cruelty involved in live hare coursing, which cannot be called a sport. Evidence of that cruelty exists where hares are used as live bait for dogs to chase. People who attend coursing meetings see hares being terrorised as they run frantically around a field. They are hit hard by the dogs and sent tumbling through the air. The hares run in circles and sometimes leap over the dogs to try and escape. On current numbers, there is evidence that hares are endangered. Are we going to wait until the situation is as it is with the curlew and the corncrake and the hare is at risk of extinction? I note also the injuries to the dogs involved. I would love to know how many greyhounds are put down every year for failing to make the cut. Of course, we have an industry which exports greyhounds to countries in which there are no animal welfare provisions, including a recent report of two greyhounds being sent to Pakistan.

The Deputy will recall that the House voted overwhelmingly in 2013 to allow for the legal holding of hare coursing events, subject to certain conditions and restrictions. Our obligation is to ensure those regulations are complied with fully. Compliance with licences is a shared responsibility of my Department through veterinarian attendance and of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, which issues the said licences. The Deputy digressed into a host of other issues, including badgers. She will be aware that my Department is moving to a vaccination programme for badgers rather than one of culling. While culling will continue to be an element of management in certain areas, there is a movement towards vaccination and I consider it to be progressive. Hare coursing is highly regulated and much changed since the position a number of years ago. Greyhounds are muzzled now so that there is no slaughter of hares as may have previously been the case. It is highly regulated and it has the overwhelming support of the House.

If there were a free vote on banning live hare coursing, there would be a different attitude. After my Bill was sadly defeated, members of the parties that voted against it told me they would have voted in favour of it if there had been a free vote.

Unauthorised photography is forbidden at coursing meetings so people who attempt to video the meetings do so with great difficulty. Nevertheless, there is video evidence, with the most recent from the Ardpatrick and Kilfinane coursing in Limerick. Muzzling and other rules do not adequately protect the hare and the footage shows signs of great cruelty. The hare is struck by the dogs, and that is without mentioning the hare's suffering during the capture and confinement period, which is totally against the animal's nature.

While I am proud of Ireland's uniqueness in certain areas, I am not proud that we are unique in this area. We are only one of three countries where live hare coursing continues. The practice is banned everywhere else. There is an alternative. Drag hare coursing works in other countries. If we will not even consider it here, I can only conclude that it is the cruelty in the sport that attracts people. It is time that we look at this when survey after survey has shown that people do not want this activity.

That is an unfortunate slur on people who support and attend hare coursing and I certainly would not concur with the Deputy. Many people involved in organising coursing do much that is positive in breeding hares and protecting the species. Hare coursing is highly regulated and stringent conditions apply, as is right and proper. It is also right and proper that these events are policed, with breaches punished as provided by law.

Question No. 13 replied to with Written Answers.

Areas of Natural Constraint Scheme Review

Niamh Smyth

Question:

14. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the status of the ANC review; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51189/18]

I welcome the publication of the ANC review and that farmers in Cavan-Monaghan are unaffected by the loss of any areas. Will the Minster make a statement on the review?

Under the current rural development regulation and subsequent amendments under the omnibus regulation, member states are required to change the approach to the designation of land under the areas of natural constraints scheme. To date, my Department had been identifying eligible areas using a range of socio-economic indicators such as family farm income, population density, percentage of working population engaged in agriculture and stocking density. From 2019, eligible areas must instead be designated using the following list of biophysical criteria, namely, low temperature; dryness; excess soil moisture; limited soil drainage; unfavourable texture and stoniness; shallow rooting depth; poor chemical properties; and steep slope. This process has now been completed and in recent weeks I have published details of the outcome and completed a series of consultation meetings with key stakeholders.

The outcome of the review project can be summarised as follows. The vast majority of land that was eligible under the existing scheme will remain eligible under the new approach. Some 700 townlands that would have previously been eligible are not eligible under the new designation. Farmers impacted financially by this change will receive a degressive phasing out payment in 2019 and 2020. More than 2,000 townlands will now be eligible under the new approach and will be eligible to receive a payment for the first time in 2019.

These changes to the 2019 scheme require a formal amendment to Ireland's rural development programme. This process is now under way to allow the 2019 ANC scheme to open for applications early next year. A separate appeals process with an independent chair is being put in place and I will make an announcement on this matter shortly.

An additional allocation of €25 million has been provided for the areas of natural constraint scheme. Cavan-Monaghan is a Border region. This morning, colleagues have spoken of the impact of Brexit. I ask that positive discrimination be shown towards farmers in Cavan-Monaghan when that €25 million is allocated. Much of the land in the area is of poor quality and we have suffered as a result of flooding and the fodder crisis. In light of harsh weather conditions, Brexit and other factors, I ask that preferential treatment be shown in the allocation of the additional funds to benefit farmers on poorer land for whom ANC payments are of great importance. ANC payments make a great contribution to the local economy given that farmers in the area are very much constrained in what they can do with their poor land.

The Deputy will be aware that we have some form on this as we also increased the allocation in the previous year by €25 million. In allocating that, we targeted those who hold the most disadvantaged lands of the three categories. Of the €25 million, some €14 million went to the most disadvantaged category, €9 million went to the intermediate category and the balance went to the low land disadvantaged area. I am inclined to take the same approach in 2019. We have consulted farm organisations to elicit their views. I appreciate the Deputy's observations on the farming landscape in Cavan-Monaghan.

I welcome the Minister's engagement with farmers in the area who are at the coalface. When will the 2019 payments be issued? How will the payment changes or categories impact farmers in the Cavan-Monaghan area?

Payments are usually made in the back end of the year, usually around the time of the ploughing championship. There are two tranches of payments, with the initial tranche made around September, and I do not expect that will change. The application process will be simultaneous with applications for basic payments. Farmers who have ANC entitlements will simply tick a box on the basic payment form and the payment will be processed accordingly.

Questions Nos. 15 to 18, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Bovine Disease Controls

Martin Kenny

Question:

19. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on whether it is counterproductive to eradicating tuberculosis to allow inconclusive TB reactor cattle to move to and be finished in beef herds (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51166/18]

Does the Minister believe it is counterproductive for the eradication of tuberculosis to allow inconclusive TB reactor cattle to move to and be finished in beef herds.

Under EU Directive 64/432, inconclusive animals that have passed a retest are not required to be slaughtered. Research carried out in Ireland found that such animals were 12 times more likely to be positive for TB at the next test or slaughter compared with their test-negative counterparts. As a result of that research, my Department adopted a policy in 2012 which restricted such animals to the herd for life until slaughter, or allowed them to move to a restricted feedlot from where they would be slaughtered. Such animals cannot be traded on the open market. Allowing these animals to move to a restricted feedlot where, by nature of the official supervisory protocol in place, all animals are slaughtered, they are prevented from circulating with other animals which may be sold on the open market. This means the risk of them causing a new TB breakdown is further reduced.

Under the tuberculosis programme, a feedlot herd is a restricted herd that comprises a non-breeding unit which disposes of all cattle direct for slaughter and fulfils at least one of the following three criteria. First, the cattle are permanently housed and never on pasture. Second, there are no contiguous holdings or lands with cattle, meaning they must not have any neighbour contacts either through cattle being confined exclusively in yards or buildings or, if intending to graze cattle, the land is secured in order that there can be no contact with cattle, for example, surrounded by tillage, residential, industrial or recreational units or impenetrable rivers, roads or walls. Third, the boundaries are walled, double-fenced or equivalent so as to prevent any direct contact with cattle on contiguous lands, premises or holdings. Furthermore, there must be no evidence of in-herd acquisition or spread of TB. Thus, a feedlot herd is a herd that poses minimal risk of infecting other cattle because of effective isolation from other herds.

As part of an ongoing review of the tuberculosis programme, my Department policy on inconclusive TB animals is one of a number of areas currently being evaluated.

There is deep concern among farmers who neighbour feedlots that house animals for which test results have been inconclusive. They believe this practice carries a high risk and their economic sustainability is substantially impacted if their farm is beside a feedlot where this takes place. Wildlife moves in and out through farms. I take the Minister's point that in some circumstances, these animals are permanently housed. However, farmers tell me that is often not the case and that the animals are often grazing.

They have serious concerns in this regard. I welcome the review that is taking place and I would suggest that that review needs to focus on that particular issue and recognise that the whole farming sector will be negatively affected if this continues to happen into the future. Everything that can be done should be done to eradicate TB. How many years are we working now on this process and we seem to be getting no closer to the full eradication of TB? It is one of the big issues for Irish livestock farming out there and we do not seem to be able to get to grips with it. This particular aspect needs to be dealt with in a very firm way.

That concludes questions to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We move on to Leaders' Questions under Standing Order 29. I welcome the Tánaiste.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.