Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Tá sé go maith bheith ar ais agus iontach a fheiceáil nach bhfuil gach duine imithe ag treabhadh.

Over recent years, the beef farmers in this country have been under enormous stress and pressure, with consistently falling incomes coupled with higher costs annually. Fundamentally, looking back and looking at it from a distance, one could say the primary producer has been increasingly marginalised in the sector overall. The Government and beef industry itself have reacted far too late to what has been a growing and deepening crisis for many beef farmers. That belated response has contributed to the crisis itself but also to the difficulty in resolving it.

The National Planning Championships commenced today. This is an event that showcases the very best of Irish agriculture and farming but it is against the backdrop of the severest crisis facing the beef sector in many years. It is fair to say that the crisis has been exacerbated by the Brexit situation. The signing and endorsement by the Government and former Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Mr. Phil Hogan, of the Mercosur beef deal further enraged beef farmers at a particularly difficult time. Thousands of workers have been laid off, with very negative consequences for the economies in the towns in question and the hinterlands of the factories.

Last March, Fianna Fáil constructively tabled a Private Members' motion calling for progressive action to be taken on fair prices, the 30-month age restriction, the four-movement rule, weight restrictions on cattle, 70 days' residency and transparency in the beef supply chain. We have been calling for a food ombudsman for quite a long time. It is interesting that many of the elements called for are now contained in the agreement signed this week but it has taken this long to have some significant movement on these issues. The Government did not act urgently enough on the motion. We had during the local elections an electorally engineered scheme involving the former Commissioner, Mr. Hogan, and the Government but we learned subsequently that there were many caveats and conditions attached to the BEAM initiative, resulting in many small farmers, in particular, not applying, because it involves a reduction in livestock.

Negotiations this week have resulted in an agreement, signed by the representative bodies of the farming sector. This has not yet translated to the picket line and the blockades have not been lifted. This reflects a lack of trust, a level of frustration among farmers and a breakdown in relationships between all in the sector.

We welcome the agreement. We believe space should be given to the various farm organisations to discuss, advocate and vote for the deal. Speedy implementation has to occur.

I put it to the Taoiseach, however, that the Government should still seek further Common Agricultural Policy market disturbance aid for losses incurred since May. It should avail of all avenues to increase the live export trade; the Government has also been tardy on that front. It should also work towards the introduction of a €200 suckler cow payment in the next CAP. The Government should reject the Mercosur deal, which will undermine EU climate change policy. Will the Taoiseach agree to those measures? Does he accept that a comprehensive range of measures has to be taken to ensure a sustainable future for beef farming in this country?

I welcome the Ceann Comhairle, all the Members of the House, the Press Gallery, and the staff of Leinster House back for what will be an eventful session. We have much to do.

On the Deputy's question, I acknowledge the extraordinarily difficult times beef farmers are facing. For more than a year, prices paid to beef farmers at the factory gate have been very low at approximately €3.50 per kilogram, which is less than the cost of production. Many farmers are at their wits' end because these prices have persisted for so long. There are many reasons that prices are low. Consumption and demand are flat, production is up, and sterling is weak. The price that Irish farmers get, however, is roughly the European average. It is set by the market, not by the Government or anyone in this House. It is largely a function of supply and demand.

The Government is certainly trying to help and has done a lot to assist farmers in the last year or so. For example, it is opening new markets in China and across Asia. There has been a 60% increase in Bord Bia's budget to open new markets around the world to Irish beef. Some €40 million was provided in the last budget for areas of natural constraint payments and for the beef environmental programme. In recent weeks, €100 million was made available to support farm incomes. Approximately €80 million of that €100 million has been allocated. There is still €20 million available. These are very significant supports. They are much greater than the supports that would be offered to any other loss-making sector. They have been provided for a reason, however, which is that we care about family farms, the livelihoods of our beef farmers and the future of the beef industry and its wider value to the rural economy.

Producer organisations have now been recognised for the first time. This could potentially change things significantly. At the moment farmers are price takers. The establishment of producer organisations for the first time allows farmers to come together as a group to negotiate proper contracts and proper prices with the factories. That can and should help to increase the prices paid to farmers but it must be allowed time to operate and function.

On the questions the Deputy raised, the Common Agricultural Policy will be reformed as part of the new EU budget. It is the position of the Irish Government that the CAP budget should be protected in full. We do not agree with, nor will we accept, the 5% cut proposed by the European Commission. If we are to convince European taxpayers and our European partners to defend and protect the CAP budget, however, the CAP will need to be reformed and modernised to take account of matters such as the environment and animal welfare, even more so than it does at the moment.

The Mercosur agreement is not yet signed. That is not correct. That deal may be put to member states for ratification in approximately two years' time. As I have said before, we will not support a trade agreement that damages the environment or exposes our industry to unfair competition.

I again make the point that much of what was contained in Fianna Fáil's Private Members' motion early this year has now found its way into the agreement that was discussed this week. It seems that a lot of time was lost and a lot of resentment and frustration was allowed to build up within the beef farming sector before people got down to work and began to engage. That is a great pity because fundamentally it is a question of fair prices. I believe in food security. I also believe that a country like Ireland needs to retain key sectors such as the beef sector, have a diversity of food supply in our country and contribute to Europe. I fundamentally believe that. To ensure that happens, however, a greater weight has to be given to the primary producer. The role of the primary producer has been eroded for some time now.

That issue is at the heart of this crisis and needs to be redressed. Some of the agreement's proposals have merit, but they could have been initiated well over one or two years ago, for example, those relating to the task force, the price index and so on. These are measures for which we have been advocating for quite some time-----

I thank the Deputy, but his time is up.

-----but that have taken this crisis to develop in response.

In the context of Mercosur, when I used the phrase "sign off", I did not mean literally signed off. I was in the Chamber when the Minister, Deputy Bruton, essentially endorsed it.

And the current Minister, Deputy Humphreys.

In particular, Commissioner Hogan endorsed it. Regarding the €100 million scheme that the Taoiseach mentioned, no one told small beef farmers in the middle of the local elections that it would involve reducing livestock-----

The Deputy is way over time.

-----and that one would have to engineer a 25% reduction in one's stock were one to apply to and gain from the scheme. That is the problem. Will the Taoiseach confirm whether it is the Government's intention to seek further support from Europe along the lines of the exceptional aid scheme because of the market disturbance that has occurred and the very low beef prices that farmers are getting for their cattle?

Thanks, Deputy. Mercosur at the moment is only at the level of a political agreement, and that political agreement was signed off on not just by the entire Commission, but in particular by Commissioner Malmström from Fianna Fáil's own political family who is the Trade Commissioner. In two years' time when there is a legal agreement, we will be in a position to assess it and take a position on it then, but I have said before that we will always defend the interests of Irish industry and Irish farmers when it comes to any trade agreement.

We have secured €100 million in income support for farmers - €50 million coming from the Exchequer and €50 million coming from the European Commission. As of now, only €80 million of that €100 million has been drawn down. Yes, we can certainly give consideration to a further request, but that has to come at the appropriate time, and that €100 million has yet to be fully drawn down.

In respect of the protest and the blockades, the Minister, Deputy Creed, convened talks. Those talks were successful in coming to an agreement.

Too little, too late.

Six farm organisations representing the vast majority of farmers in the State have endorsed that agreement. The protestors were successful in highlighting the issues affecting beef farmers, they did bring the industry to the table, but all that can be achieved from protests and blockades has now been achieved. I would ask that they end now-----

-----and that people try to make this agreement work because I am deeply concerned. I think everyone in this House who cares about the beef industry, who cares about rural Ireland, who cares about employment-----

The Taoiseach knows a lot about rural Ireland, all right.

Tell people to eat more beef.

-----is concerned that continued protests-----

You are the Taoiseach of Dublin.

You told people to eat less beef.

Deputies, please.

-----and continued blockades will lead to more job losses.

There is no need to remind us.

There have been 3,500 job losses already. There is a risk that meat plants and meat factories may close permanently. This could do long-term, irrevocable damage to the industry. I do not think anyone in this House wants that.

I call Deputy McDonald.

The Taoiseach's own party colleagues have been whipping the issue up on the picket lines.

Please, can we have order for Deputy McDonald?

The farmers who continue to protest and picket outside meat processing factories are fighting for their livelihoods and for the future of the family farm. The Taoiseach's words will offer them little hope and comfort. In the midst of the figures that he rattled off, he did not mention, even though he should have, that many beef farmers made less than €10,000 per year. Despite doing most of the work, farmers only receive approximately 20% of the sale price of beef. As the Taoiseach set out, the current price for a kilo of beef is €3.45. That is below the break-even point. Brexit looms, and the reality is that beef farmers are struggling for their very survival. That is why there are pickets on the gate. Many see this campaign as their last stand before their livelihoods are gone forever.

This crisis did not come out of the blue. It has been taking shape for decades. This dispute is the direct result of corporate greed and the inequalities that have long existed in the market. Farmers are price takers, not price makers. Prices are decided by a very small and powerful group of people, which is something that does not feel, look or smell right. Fairness and fair play do not exist in this market or in the experience of beef farmers. As a result, the industry is on the brink.

While the livelihood of beef farmers is being ruined, thousands of factory workers have been laid off. Only this morning, we heard of 350 temporary lay-offs at a plant in Cahir, County Tipperary.

Much like the struggling farmers, these workers have bills to pay and children to feed and the loss of their pay cheques is absolutely devastating. Farmers do not want to be on the picket line, they want to be farming. Factory workers want to be back at work, earning a living. However, that is not going to happen unless the principle of fair play is brought to bear.

I acknowledge that the two rounds of talks so far have delivered some progress regarding bonus payments and a grid review. However, the core issue of the base price being offered to farmers remains. There is a solution in that regard. The way to bring this dispute to an end is for the highly profitable meat factories to agree a base price increase with farmers. It seems clear that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, must convene a new round of talks at which farming organisations and processors can discuss this increase in base price. It is also clear that supports must be offered to the workers who have been laid off. Does the Taoiseach agree that meat processors should sit down again with farmers and agree an increased base price? Will the Minister convene a new round of talks to facilitate such a negotiation and agreement?

I pointed out earlier that the price Irish farmers receive for beef at the factory gate is roughly the same as that received by European farmers at factory gates all across Europe. The average price is roughly the same across Europe and it is lower elsewhere. Commodity prices often work that way because they are set by the market as a function of supply and demand. However, that price is too low. It is well below the cost of production for farmers and that is the underlying problem that has given rise to this dispute and these difficulties.

The Minister has acted. He convened and chaired talks and secured an agreement that will bring about greater transparency, higher premiums, ensure that no legal action will be taken against protestors and that any existing legal action will be removed. The establishment and recognition of producer organisations is now permitted and that is crucial because it will allow farmers to band together and negotiate with meat factories for a proper contract and price. That is what needs to happen next. The agreement reached has been endorsed by the Minister, the meat industry and the six farming organisations that represent the vast majority of farmers. I welcome the fact that the Leader of the Opposition, Deputy Micheál Martin, and Fianna Fáil have endorsed the agreement. I did not hear Sinn Féin endorse the agreement. I hope it will do so because if Sinn Féin wants the 3,500 workers who Deputy McDonald mentioned to get back to work, the factories need to reopen.

It is more than that.

There are 6,000 workers.

There are 6,000 workers.

If Sinn Féin wants beef and sheep farmers to be able to get their animals to the factories in order to get any payment at all, the agreement should be supported by all of us in this House. I ask Sinn Féin to support it.

That is a very disappointing response. It matters not a whit whether Deputy Micheál Martin, the Taoiseach or anyone else in the House endorses this agreement if it is not sellable and does not work for the farmers who are out on the picket lines. That is what matters. I am disappointed that the Taoiseach would try to use this issue to provoke a party-political fracas. It is not appropriate. Some 6,000 workers have been temporarily laid off and they want to get back to work.

The Taoiseach described all that has been achieved in the negotiations to date. I acknowledged that progress has been made in my initial remarks. However, the issue of the base price has not been addressed. There is no point in telling farmers that they can act collectively and, at some point in the future, achieve a price increase. They need it now. I was on a picket line in County Cavan with farmers who told me that this is either sorted now or they will not be in business next year. Pushing this issue down the pipe is not going to work.

It is unedifying for the Taoiseach to issue a threat to farmers to the effect that they must go with this agreement or get nothing. That is not the way to resolve this matter and, with all due respect to the Minister, neither is posting an open letter on Facebook. We need a new round of talks.

We need rationality, common sense, goodwill and respect for farmers and workers. All of this can be done but it will only be done through a new round of talks.

We have had two rounds of talks. Those talks concluded this weekend with an agreement endorsed by the Minister, the meat industry and the six farm organisations representing the vast majority of farmers in this country. That is where we are today. The base price, as I explained earlier, is roughly the same across Europe. It is a market price, largely a function of supply and demand. There is no legal way to fix a price. That is not how it is done. It is not legal to do that. What is possible though is for farmers to join producer organisations which can then negotiate a price and proper contracts with the meat factories-----

There will not be any.

-----in the same way any producer negotiates a price with a potential buyer. That is the way it is done but that cannot be done at the moment when the factories are not operating. The factories need to be allowed to reopen. The producer organisations need to be allowed to negotiate contracts and prices. The figure I have is 3,500 - it may well be higher by now - but as many as 8,000 people could lose their jobs as a consequence of these protests and blockades. Those people need to be enabled to get back to work.

With Brexit on the horizon and the possibility of a no-deal exit by the UK from the European Union in a little over six weeks' time, it is vital that the public finances are strong enough to support the emergency measures that may be needed to preserve jobs in this economy. Last year, the Government moved €1 billion from the strategic investment fund to the reserve fund for exceptional contingencies - the rainy day fund. The Government also pledged to put an additional €500 million into the fund this year. Can the Taoiseach confirm that at least €1.5 billion will be available to support jobs in the event of a no-deal Brexit? Presumably, there would be more money available if it was not for the mishandling of the funding of the national children's hospital, the metro, rural broadband and so on. The time has come for the Government to give clarity in respect of the specifics of Brexit preparations.

I spoke to trade union officials across the country during the summer. As I said publicly at the stakeholders forum during the week, we have been focused on the agrifood and tourism sectors, but in manufacturing the lack of certainty about Brexit is leading to a visible downturn in businesses. Important regional employers employing hundreds of jobs in each factory are under pressure. It is reported to me that orders have reduced, overtime is being cancelled and, in some circumstances, temporary workers are being let go. The impact of Brexit is being felt today.

It was reported that official estimates indicated that 10,000 jobs would be lost in tourism and hospitality. As the Taoiseach knows, the British Government was forced by the British Parliament to publish its yellowhammer report on the possible effects of Brexit across the British economy. Does the Taoiseach believe it is now time for his Government to publish its own detailed, clear analysis of a hard Brexit on every sector in our economy? How many jobs are at risk in manufacturing if the UK leaves in six weeks' time without a deal? How many other jobs across each sector of the economy are at risk? We need to know how much money we can deploy to sustain jobs in the short or medium term during this crisis. How much money will be available from the European Union in the event of a no-deal Brexit in six weeks' time? I would like the Taoiseach to address those questions in a very open way. How will money be made available to support vulnerable jobs? How much money will be made available? How much of it will come from Europe and from our own resources, and how will it be delivered?

I appreciate that for the next three weeks I will be asked questions about what is in the budget. I hope everyone in this House will appreciate that the answer will be that we will find out on budget day because the budget has yet to be agreed. It needs to be discussed among Ministers, with Fianna Fáil, as the confidence and supply partners to the Government, and at Cabinet. The only answer I can give people on what will be in the budget in three weeks' time is that they will find out on budget day because the budget will only be signed and sealed that morning.

The public finances are in a strong position. Two years ago, when I became Taoiseach, our public finances were in deficit and they are now in surplus. We are one of the few countries in the world to record a budget surplus. They do not have one in the UK, in America, or in France but we are in surplus. We have also reduced the national debt considerably as a percentage of GDP in that period.

We do not have a document equivalent to the Operation Yellowhammer document but have produced all that information already. It is in the Brexit contingency plan document we published in July, the document in December before that, in the summer economic statement, and in detailed analyses published by Government and done by Copenhagen Economics, the ESRI, and the Central Bank. All those figures are available, and have been for some time. We never had an Operation Yellowhammer-type document which we hid from people. We published the information all along the way.

The budget is based on an assumption that no deal is a real possibility on 31 October. That does not mean that we necessarily believe that is going to happen. We will work to secure a deal until the very last moment but will not do so at any cost. We believe the prudent thing to do is to prepare the budget with a pessimistic scenario, which is one for no deal. The budget will prepare us for no deal.

On budget day we will publish details of the package that will be available to business and to support those businesses and jobs that are vulnerable as a consequence of Brexit. It will be a substantial package. We do not yet know how much will come from the European Union or from our own funds. Some will come from the European Union but I expect most will come from own funds. Again, that is not as yet determined. The Deputy will know as soon as we know for sure.

It is worth pointing out that we put many things in place already. There is a €300 million low-cost loan to businesses to allow them to prepare for Brexit. A future loan scheme is also being made available to businesses to allow them to adapt as is a €200 million approved restructure and rescue fund with approved state aid clearance from the European Commission to allow us to support those businesses which need it.

The Deputy's question is correct in that there has not been an enormous take up by business of these schemes as yet because they have not needed to take them up but they may need to and that is why it is important that they are there.

Dáil Éireann has not been prorogued so we will be asking questions and, unlike some of what has happened across the water, we expect to get very clear and accurate answers.

All of us in this House, and certainly those workers and employers across the country, understand that the preparations for a no-deal Brexit is not a normal annual budgetary issue. We need to know what the Taoiseach will deploy in terms of the strategic reserves we have in this country to ensure that the task of preserving jobs, which is far more useful than the task of trying to replace jobs, through this difficult period is understood. That means drilling into every industry to know where the jobs are vulnerable and what they might need. The sums talked about are paltry in the context of what will be required in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

We also need to know on a workplace by workplace basis what the pressures are and what will be required. Many of these companies are not going to apply for loans because they cannot afford to provide for further demands right now, adding debt. That is not the solution. I want a clear indication from the Taoiseach that he understands the scale of what will be required in the event of a no-deal Brexit and that he has planned well for that and that he understands where and how resources will be deployed and how much resources will come from Europe and to help us.

The Deputy will know the answers to those questions on the same day that I know of for sure because the budget will not be signed off on until the Cabinet meeting on the morning of 8 October, when we will present that budget to the House on that day.

We are on the same page here. I would rather be in a position that the country is borrowing money to save people's jobs than borrowing money to pay the dole. If that is what we have to do that is what we will do as part of the budget. I need to be honest with people as well.

If we end up in a no-deal scenario, it will be a case of damage limitation. There may be some jobs and, regrettably, some businesses that cannot be saved but we will put together a package that will be significant and meaningful and will allow us to save those jobs and businesses that are viable in the long term but have been made vulnerable as a consequence of Brexit.

Under Fine Gael’s tenure, more and more community-led projects in Donegal are under constant threat of closure due to inadequate funding from the Government. Despite many promises that funding would be provided in 2019 as part of the HSE capital plan, this funding has not materialised. Instead, parents and volunteers continue to provide funds and invest a huge amount of time and energy just to keep the doors of these vital services open. However, closure is still very much in sight and is facing several community-led organisations in Donegal. Lifeline Inishowen, for example, which provides support for women and children who experience domestic violence, is under constant threat of being shut down because, as a community-led organisation, it does not conform to the Government model of delivery of services.

I raised this issue in my speech to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, which coincided with the handing over of a petition signed by more than 1,000 Lifeline Inishowen supporters to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, in Leinster House a number of months ago. No progress has been made to date, despite the fact that Lifeline has stepped in where the Government has consistently stepped out by providing a service in an area where the nearest available services are in Letterkenny, which is more than 60 km away and a two-hour round trip for those who find themselves in an emergency. Last year, Ireland finally ratified the Istanbul Convention, an international instrument to combat domestic violence, yet here we have an example of victims of domestic abuse being further marginalised by the Government. Among the tenets of the Istanbul Convention is that state parties implement comprehensive and co-ordinated policies involving Government agencies, non-governmental organisations as well as national, regional and local parliaments and authorities.

We have also ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, yet iCARE, which is also based in Inishowen, faces a similar situation. The organisation was set up in 2000 and I had the pleasure of visiting its facility to meet the staff and service users. I saw at first hand the incredible work carried out by the iCARE project to provide much-needed educational, social and respite services for children with autism and their families. It was clear that this community-led model works. However, as has been the case across the country under this Government, funding is constantly running out and iCARE is constantly under threat of closure. This is despite the organisation being marked as value for money and the HSE using the facility and referring children to it.

The Bluestack Foundation received €36,000 from the HSE in February with the understanding that it was an interim payment until the Estimates for 2019 were completed. However, it is still waiting for a Government response. Organisations such as the Bluestack Foundation and iCARE are in need of a serious sustainable funding commitment from the Taoiseach and the Government, particularly as the demand for their services is increasing all the time.

The fact that these community-led services were established by concerned parents to service a particular local need and are under threat of closure says it all about the Government's priorities. Will the Taoiseach secure long-term multi-annual funding for iCARE, the Bluestack Foundation and Lifeline in order that these vital services can continue to provide important supports to local people, recognising the fact that we have ratified both the Istanbul Convention and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?

I thank the Deputy for raising the very important issue of funding for community-led organisations in Donegal, including Lifeline and iCARE. I am afraid I am at a disadvantage in that I did not know this issue was to be raised on Leaders’ Questions. As such, I do not have an up-to-date note on funding for either of the organisations but I will seek one and ensure it is passed on to the Deputy's office.

On the wider question of domestic violence, the Government has ratified the Istanbul Convention and updated our laws on domestic violence. We are increasing funding for those organisations that support men and women who are victims of domestic violence and that will continue to be the case. I am very proud to have led the Government that at long last ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. However, we need to make that real. We now have record levels of funding going into disability services but the funding will never be enough and there will always be more to be done and needs to be met. However, as long as we manage the economy well and look after our public finances, we will be able to make things a little bit better every year by increasing funding for organisations that work with people who have disabilities and those who are victims of gender-based violence.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply and for indicating that he will respond to me directly on the funding situation relating to these organisations. The current funding situation is as I outlined. That is the problem. There are no plans or support for these organisations. These organisations offer community-led responses to situations in respect of which the Government has not been providing a response. It is interesting that the Taoiseach referred earlier to how great it is that we have a budget surplus. He must realise, however, that what I am referring to is the price of that. We have a surplus because the Government does not support local organisations that are providing much needed services that it is neither providing nor funding. I would far rather have a budget deficit of 0.5% and have these services provided than having people standing here crowing about the fact that we have a budget surplus. Unfortunately, a having such a surplus means that people are being put at risk. If the Taoiseach provides an update, I would like it to indicate that these organisations will be funded into the future.

Deputy Pringle makes an articulate case in favour of increasing public spending year on year. As he will be aware, the budget that we are planning will increase public spending by approximately €2.8 billion next year. Some of that will be for health services, disability services and services for the victims of domestic violence. I would almost be tempted to send Deputy Pringle to meet the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council on my behalf in order that he might suggest to it what may be the social consequences of running the bigger surplus it is demanding of us. The Government must strike balance between listening to those who advise us to spend less and to build a bigger surplus in order to prepare for bad times that may come in the future and meeting the enormous demands and needs that exist across society. We must get that balance right and I think we do so.

In the context of the organisations to which the Deputy refers, I will seek information on their funding. I will consider the matter and ensure that the information is sent on to the his office.