Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Basic Payment Scheme

Brian Stanley

Question:

36. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the steps being taken to complete all farm inspections for 2019 in order that outstanding single farm payments can issue. [48949/19]

Brian Stanley

Question:

38. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the number of farmers waiting on their farm inspections to be completed; and when single farm payments will be fully processed. [48947/19]

Brian Stanley

Question:

39. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his plans to move farm inspections to the months of June and July to ensure that single farm payments can be paid out on time; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48948/19]

All of these questions relate to outstanding basic payments this year. I have been contacted by a number of constituents on this matter. I suppose other Deputies have also been contacted. The advance payment that is normally made on 16 November is delayed. I have contacted the Department on behalf of a number of people to ask when the payment is expected and have been told that remote satellite inspections have not yet been completed. The Minister mentioned dual applications and so on but that is not what is holding these cases up. The delay in the Department completing inspections is holding them up.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 36, 38 and 39 together.

EU regulations governing the administration of the basic payment scheme, the areas of natural constraint scheme and other area-based schemes require that full and comprehensive administrative checks, including ground or remote sensing inspections where applicable, are fully completed to ensure eligibility with the various schemes’ requirements before any payments issue. There are certain minimum numbers of inspections that must take place annually under the various schemes.

The method of selecting cases for inspection is set down in EU regulations and is undertaken by means of a risk analysis process with cases being selected on a risk-based and random basis. All cases to be selected for inspection must be in respect of eligible beneficiaries under the various schemes. Therefore, the selection of cases for inspection, while commencing after the closing date for receipt of applications, 15 May, is an ongoing process so as to ensure this specific regulatory requirement is fulfilled.

This year, late applications were accepted up to 9 June, with a deduction. Furthermore, amendments to applications were accepted up to 9 June and allowing for the preliminary checks process whereby applicants could further amend their application up to 19 June as a result of issues notified to them by my Department the final details of the land to be subject to the inspection process cannot be fully established until these periods have elapsed. Therefore, the inspection process cannot commence any earlier.

The EU regulations further prescribe that the inspection process in each case must be fully completed before any payments can issue. I wish it were otherwise, but that is the case. Some 8,000 applicants were selected for a land eligibility inspection in respect of the various 2019 area-based schemes. Where an application is selected for inspection under any of the area-based schemes, the outcome of that inspection applies to all schemes for which the applicant has applied.

As of 25 November, my Department has received inspections results for over 93% of these inspections, of which 92% have been advanced to payment stage processing. The balance of these cases falls into a number of categories, namely, applicants who have been notified of the inspection outcome where an area over-declaration has been identified and from whom a response is awaited; and applicants who have chosen to submit comments on notified inspection outcomes. These are currently being examined and are subject to final processing. The balance of the outstanding inspection results is currently being finalised and will then be advanced through the final stages of processing promptly.

Some 7,700 of the overall number of inspection cases are eligible applicants under the basic payment scheme. To date, some 6,500 of these cases have received the advance payment. The balance of these cases falls into the various categories that I have already outlined.

I assure the Deputy that my Department continues to finalise cases, including ground and remote sensing cases, on a daily basis to ensure that basic payment scheme payments are issued as quickly as possible.

We accept that the vast bulk of payments have been made but work remains to be done by the Department on a small number. I understand the EU regulations. The payments cannot be made before the middle of October. I understand that but where applications have been made properly, all information supplied, and preliminary inspections carried out but where the Department still has work to do, it is not acceptable that these payments are still held up as we move into December. Changes have been made to the online application system. That was supposed to speed things up. The Minister has said that 97% of applications have been processed. That is good news but the people who are still waiting are caught with regard to cashflow. As the Minister will understand, bills start coming in at the end of the year and must be paid. Not only is the balancing payment due in December looking shaky, but these people have not even got the advance payment everyone else got in October. My three questions all relate to the work to be done by the Department; that is how important this is. Where the Department has work to do and loose ends to tie up, I ask that this be done as soon as possible so that the advance payment and balancing payment can be made to these farmers in the coming weeks. I do not need to tell the Minister that some farmers have huge cashflow problems, particularly this year. We had a very wet harvest. These farmers are going to be strapped for money, which they need to keep the show on the road. I ask the Minister and his senior officials to make every effort to ensure that the small number of outstanding applications are processed as quickly as possible.

In explaining these matters to the farmers who are waiting, I accept that I am losing but I will give the Deputy some information on the number of applicants paid on the preliminary payment date and on how the situation has improved. That is attributable to the Department staff who are working to accelerate the process. In 2015, 100,000 applicants were paid on the first day the payments issued. That figure has been steadily improving. Some 114,000 were paid on the first day in 2019. There has been a steady improvement. As I have said, to date 97.5% of applicants have been paid, that is 119,000 out of 135,000. There is always a residual core of difficult cases. These difficulties arise from many different issues including overclaims, commonages and remote sensing, some of which is contracted out resulting in a wait for stuff to come back in.

Remote sensing is the issue.

To be fair, these cases are being cleared as quickly as possible. There is a whole team effort involved in it. I accept that farmers waiting for that payment will not consider this acceptable but I assure the Deputy that we are doing everything possible. The situation has improved significantly year-on-year.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I accept that the number of applicants being paid early has increased. It is good that is happening but I am trying to draw the Minister's attention to the fact that remote inspections are causing problems for a small number of farmers. They are the ones who are caught. It is important that we make progress in that regard. The Minister outlined the timeline with regard to the dates for completion and then revision or alteration of the application. There is still room to start inspections sooner, in the summer period. That would bring things forward by three, four or five weeks. We could then ensure that everything is up to date and ready to be paid by 16 October, unless a farmer's farm does not meet the required standards. We all accept the need for these standards. We would agree that farm practices have improved. The work being carried out by inspectors shows that standards on farms right across the country have improved over the last ten or 20 years. That is the good side of all of this.

The Deputy's point sounds perfectly rational but I will explain the roadmap. The closing date for applications is 15 May. There is a three-week period afterwards in which applicants have the right to correct their applications. Once that three-week period has elapsed, the Department does its preliminary checks and then communicates with farmers on any issues that arise. It should be borne in mind that we accepted late applications up until 19 June. The roadmap moves on for such late applications on a pro rata basis. We are processing applications as quickly as we possibly can. We are always looking at how we can improve the service we deliver but we are well within, for example, the targets set out in the farmers' charter. Some 119,500 applications have been paid and there were 122,000 applicants. There is a number still to be cleared and we are doing our best to clear that backlog as quickly as possible.

Organic Farming Scheme

Eamon Ryan

Question:

37. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if changes will be made to the organic farming scheme assessment criteria which automatically favours larger farms over smaller farms in view of the fact that 50 of the available 125 marks are awarded based on a size threshold. [49105/19]

The recent opening and then closing of the organic scheme was really disappointing in that, of 225 applications, only 55 were ultimately successful. Many farmers put a huge amount of money, training and attention into this area and are bitterly disappointed. I understand that there was only one successful application in the area of horticulture at a time when we want to expand our horticultural production. Some 70% of horticultural fruits and vegetables in this country are imported. I ask the Minister to review the whole process and to reconsider many of the applications. One issue is that of the amount of land involved. The promotion of larger farmers within the assessment criteria is one of the reasons the scheme was so unsuccessful, at a real cost.

The organic farming scheme is one of the most successful schemes under our current rural development programme. A budget of €56 million was allocated to fund the scheme during the period 2014 to 2020, which was the largest allocation ever to an organics support scheme.

The scheme has more than achieved its targets in new land converted and the maintenance of organic land. Latest figures indicate that there are now some 72,000 ha under organic production, an increase of nearly 50% on the position at the start of the programme in 2014.

The organic farming scheme, OFS, was reopened last year on a targeted basis on foot of a recommendation from the organic sector strategy group. This group included representatives from a broad range of stakeholders, among them the farming representative organisations, processors and organic control bodies. Following assessment by the group, it recommended targeting sectors for which there is a clear market demand and which are critical to the further development of the organic sector, namely, horticulture, cereals and dairy. There was acknowledgment that the budget was limited given the success of the current scheme and the overall spending within the rural development programme.

It is important to note that the selection criteria used could only be revised within the parameters approved by the Commission under the current rural development programme. It should also be noted that based on the selection criteria used, the predominant farming enterprises in 95% of the unsuccessful applications were not from the targeted sectors. While a maximum of 50 marks could be obtained in respect of the size of the farm, the sectoral balance enterprise marking was weighted in favour of the targeted enterprises. The horticultural enterprises, which tend to be smaller in size, gained a maximum mark of 50 under this criterion.

This was a targeted reopening and that I fully expect that there will be a new organics scheme under the next Common Agricultural Policy. Ranking and selection criteria to facilitate assessment of applications will be reviewed and may be revised in the context of a new organic farming scheme at that stage.

Of those 55, how many are in the horticulture sector? I heard what the Minister of State said. While one can read the terms and conditions that are calibrated to support that, it has, however, singularly failed. Rather than wait for the next CAP scheme, which will probably be delayed so we will be talking about 2022 before it is finally agreed, we need to act now. In respect of horticulture, Ireland currently imports 70% of a rapidly increasing demand for horticulture products. Irish farmers are out on St. Stephen's Green today, stating, rightly, that they are the ones losing out because they cannot get the higher price they need to survive. This is one way we could achieve the diversification, higher prices and profitability that we need.

How many horticulture farmers were approved under this scheme? Were Europe to agree to a revision, would the Minister of State go back and look at some of the failed applications?

There were two applications. One was accepted and the other failed.

There were two.

Two applied. The breakdown of unsuccessful applicants was five in cereals, 70 in beef, and 28 in lamb. Returning to the press statement when I opened the scheme that on the recommendation of the group, which had all the stakeholders, that this would be targeted in areas where there was a specific market deficit. As I said in my opening response, 50 marks were based on size but there were also 50 marks for the sectoral areas in which people were involved. My press release last year stated that this would be ranked on the basis of those priority schemes on foot of the strategy group's recommendation.

On the delay, the transitional arrangements to the next Common Agricultural Policy will allow us the opportunity to try to get a new scheme in place. This has been the Department's most successful scheme. Funding has been increased this year to €12 million. There are real market opportunities which we need to grow. We will work to get a new scheme open as soon as possible. This was an extension of the scheme. The budget provided was double what was anticipated.

We have a real problem if there were only two applications in horticulture. That was the first of the three targeted areas that were mentioned. If there were only two applications, that means that sector requires an immediate review and an effort is required to ignite some activity and interest in the horticultural sector. It has particular characteristics and needs. We need Irish horticulture. That there were only two applications from horticulture to the scheme is a sign that this needs urgent attention, and no delay.

I set up an organic strategy group last year. This was one of its recommendations. It published a forward implementation programme and plan that deals with all the issues. I advise the Deputy to study that.

I have. I advise the Minister of State to do something about it.

That is what we are doing.

Questions Nos. 38 and 39 answered with Question No. 36.

Farm Household Incomes

Bernard Durkan

Question:

40. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the extent to which he expects the income of farm families to be protected notwithstanding the impact from Brexit or other market forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49103/19]

How satisfied is the Minister about the future income of farm families?

The agrifood sector is an essential part of the economic and social fabric of Ireland, especially in rural and coastal areas. Primary agrifood output in 2018 was approximately €8.5 billion and the vast majority of this was produced by farm families.

Teagasc in its Outlook 2020 published yesterday stated that the average family farm income in Ireland increased by an estimated 7% in 2019. It states that the key drivers of this increase has been a reduction in animal feed use on dairy, beef and sheep farms, compared to 2018, as well as additional supports channelled to cattle producers to alleviate the effects of falling beef prices.

Beef farmers are estimated to see an increase in income of about 10% in 2019 compared to 2018 due to lower costs and the beef exceptional aid measure, BEAM. Dairy incomes are estimated to increase by 14% due to higher production. Sheep family farm incomes will remain relatively stable. I appreciate where Deputy Durkan comes from and note that tillage farm incomes are estimated to drop by up to 24% as a result of lower prices, despite higher yields.

Teagasc further states that prospects for 2020 are forecast to see an increase for dairy, sheep and tillage, while beef farm income will be stable.

In 2018, €1.93 billion was paid to farmers by my Department. Direct payments for 2019 commenced in mid-September and over €1.1 billion has been paid to farmers to date. The beef exceptional aid measure provided support to Irish beef farmers to mitigate the market disturbance and sustained period of low prices which has occurred, at least in part due to Brexit uncertainty. A total of 34,517 eligible applications were received under BEAM with a projected payment of up to €78 million due to issue in December.

Brexit undoubtedly remains a challenge for the Irish agrifood sector. Budget 2020 made provision for €110 million to help farmers, fishermen and food SMEs as a first tranche of support in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Over the last four budgets, the Government has acted to assist farming to navigate the challenges of Brexit through a variety of supports.

Discussions on the new CAP proposals continue at EU level. I continue to work at building consensus among my agriculture colleagues in Europe to maintain the CAP budget and ensure the best possible outcome for Irish farmers from the CAP post-2020 negotiation process.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply.

To what extent has the Department measured, regardless of whether this examination has been concluded, the impact of Brexit on agriculture and the agrifood sector here? To what extent have alternatives been sought or adopted? To what degree will Mercosur impact on incomes or has it impacted to date?

I will make three points in reply. The Common Agricultural Policy moved a long time ago away from product support, where the Minister would return from every December Council with prices across the board, to income supports. That is why initiatives such as the exceptional aid measure or the environmental efficiency programme are important, as are all the other schemes. Second, one strategy in the context of Brexit was new market opportunities. We have had considerable success - Japan and China come to mind - not only in opening markets but also in respect of the protocol which determines the product flow into those markets. That is a really important part. The graph has continuously gone upward for live exports and is firmly rooted in high welfare standards, which is an important safeguard.

Mercosur concerns us in the context of the beef sector. A process must be gone through. We are taking every step possible to ensure that the adverse impact of a trade deal with Mercosur, should it be approved, would be minimised for us.

Having regard to all that has transpired and any remaining issues which may impact on the agrifood sector, such as climate change, what action can be taken to promote the agrifood sector and its products?

For example, in the world in which we live there is a great deal of starvation, a great need for food and despite what people may think, there is still a great need for high protein diets in some areas. To what extent can the Minister capitalise on that on behalf of the Irish agrifood sector?

The best investment in the future of the agrifood sector is in ensuring our sustainability credentials are recognised at home and abroad. Regrettably, there is a view in certain quarters that the production of greenhouse gases is in some way a consequence of sloppy agriculture. It is not possible to be involved in food production without producing greenhouse gases. It is important we produce it as efficiently as possible and the Paris Agreement clearly reflects same. On the other side, we must sequester as much carbon as possible so that in the agrifood sector we contribute to the national endeavour in the climate change agenda. That will deliver environmental sustainability and in many respects it will also contribute to economic sustainability because in those 180 markets around the world we are in, that is what consumers are increasingly asking. They are not asking if it is safe or traceable but they are asking if it is sustainably produced and how we are taking incremental steps year on year in respect of same. That is what our climate action plan is about and that is what the roadmap that was recently published for consultation in the agriculture sector is all about.

Question No. 41 replied to with Written Answers.

Live Exports

Jackie Cahill

Question:

42. Deputy Jackie Cahill asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the progress made in providing extra lairage facilities at Cherbourg or surrounding area in preparation for spring 2020; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49126/19]

What progress has been made in providing extra lairage facilities at Cherbourg or in surrounding areas in preparation for the spring of 2020? Will the Minister make a statement on the matter?

Live exports are a critical part of Ireland's livestock industry. They play a significant role in stimulating price competition and in providing an alternative market outlet for farmers. My Department facilitates this trade, recognising its importance to the agrifood sector, while placing a strong emphasis at all times on the welfare of all animals being transported. In 2018, total live exports of cattle, including calves, increased by over 30% compared to 2017, to 246,000 head. This growth trend has continued into 2019, with live exports already totalling 266,000 up until the week ending 19 October. This is up from 221,000 for the same period in 2018, a 20% increase. This increase is in part due to my decision in 2017 to reduce the veterinary inspection fee payable on live exports of calves less than three months of age from €4.80 to €1.20. This has brought greater equity to the inspection fee regime. Since then, there has been continued growth in the export of calves, rising from 102,000 in 2017 to 159,000 in 2018. We have already surpassed this figure in 2019, with 194,000 calves having been exported in the year to 19 October.

The transport of calves poses some additional challenges associated with journey times and feeding requirements, which require the use of lairage facilities at Cherbourg. The Deputy will appreciate the development of additional lairage capacity in Cherbourg is a commercial matter for the export sector. However, officials from my Department met their French counterparts in the summer of 2019 in Cherbourg and, during these discussions, the French authorities indicated they would be willing to consider applications submitted for additional lairage capacity should they arise. Officials from my Department are in ongoing communication with Irish exporters on the need for co-operative management between each other to ensure the lairage capacity at Cherbourg is optimised. I have urged the live export sector to consider developing an additional lairage in Cherbourg or to engage with the owners of existing facilities to explore the potential for additional capacity. This has proved possible, as evidenced by the French authorities approving an increase of the holding capacity of the Qualivia lairage in Cherbourg earlier this year. My Department worked closely with the French authorities in this matter. This move provided for additional daily capacity for 400 calves.

The importance of the live exports cannot be overstated. Last spring we had a situation where at times there was a backlog in trying to get calves onto boats to get to Cherbourg due to the lack of lairage facilities on the Continent. We cannot let that situation happen in the spring of 2020. The changes in the density regulations for the lorries will add extra costs and reduce the numbers per lorry of calves that can be exported. That will bring about its own complications as well. It is essential the maximum number of calves are exported. Due to the favourable weather last spring, calves will come in a concentrated period from the middle of February to St. Patrick's Day. A huge percentage of our calves will be born in that month. We will need extra facilities. We see the protests outside the gates today and we see where beef prices are. This is one of the safety valves where we can put competition into the trade going forward. I know the impact on numbers for calf exports will not be seen for two years but it is essential the maximum number of calves are exported to the Continent this spring in an efficient and economic manner.

I am clearly committed to maximising the opportunities in the marketplace, particularly for live exports. The graph and the investments clearly show that and we have had some successes there. I am disappointed with the Deputy's contribution on the welfare standards. That is the only way we will safeguard that market access and I make no apology for increasing those measures beyond the statutory requirement. I have had a lot of engagement with stakeholders and I know stakeholders have been engaged on these matters in Cherbourg. We must ensure we have the highest standards. Fortunately we have an exporter's association and it is plugged in to the Department's way of thinking on these issues and that of other stakeholders. There has been a lot of engagement. I have met with customers for our calves who are happy with the quality of our exports but who are equally concerned we would have the highest standards and that is what we are committed to.

With respect, I did not question the welfare standards. I only said they will raise extra complications with the amount of lorry space on the ships. That will create difficulties. As I have said, it will be a concentrated calving period this spring. We will have a month to avail of this opportunity to get calves to the Continent and we cannot have any blockages preventing the maximum number of calves getting there. The welfare of calves has to be paramount and if the buyers on the Continent are not happy with the condition of our calves, we would not see the increase in the percentages of exports we have seen. Thankfully, calves are arriving on the Continent in good nick as they should be. If they were not we would quickly see the numbers of calves being exported drop.

The provision of extra lairage is an essential safety valve that has to be availed of. We see commentary in the media about the value of these calves coming out of the dairy herd. If we do not have a proper live export there will be serious issues. Welfare standards have to be as high as possible, and we accept that, but we want to ensure a lack of lairage space in Cherbourg does not cause any backlog in the system this spring.

We are in agreement on these issues. We need to work together and unequivocally state we are committed to the highest standards. We must not just state it but we must reflect it in our actions and regulations. I am happy to report that from the engagement I have had with customers they are happy with the quality of the product they buy here, not just the calves but all the stock we export. That is a reflection on the farmers who produce that stock, whether it is calves for export or beef cattle for export. All those markets are important but they are grounded in our capacity to display our welfare credentials and that is enormously important.

Forestry Management

Brian Stanley

Question:

43. Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the steps being taken to resolve the serious backlog in the issuing of felling licences; and the way in which he plans to deal with the difficulties landholders of small pockets of on-farm forestry face regarding planning permission for small access roads and environmental assessments similar to those needed for large scale forestry. [48950/19]

My question is on farm forestry and plantations that come in under the forestry schemes. In recent decades we have had farmers engage with it and do small scale plantation. I am saying this to both the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle. We are coming near the stage where farmers will be thinning and harvesting those plantations. Some of the regulations around that are onerous. The regulations need to take the scale of the plantation into account.

I acknowledge applications to my Department for forestry licences are facing unacceptable delays at present. I am glad to have the opportunity today to give some background to these delays and to provide details on what is being done to alleviate the issue. These delays are as a result of changes made to internal appropriate assessment procedures, AAPs, which are beyond my Department’s control. The Department is obliged to implement changes to the AAPs that were required following important Court of Justice of the European Union decisions and their subsequent interpretation in the High Court and the forestry appeals committee.

Currently, we are amending the AAPs in order to introduce a robust and workable system that will address the issues now faced and which will deal with the backlog. Introducing this system involves the recruitment of additional ecological expertise and changes in procedures for the forestry inspectorate. Notwithstanding these current difficulties, we have issued 3,929 felling licences this year, compared with 3,136 issued in 2018, with 71% of licences being approved within four months.

Small access roads do not require planning permission unless an entrance is created to and from public roads. We have been working with the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to remove the requirement that forest entrances on public roads, apart from national primary routes and motorways, require planning permission but certain legal issues have arisen that are now being considered by both Departments. With respect to environmental assessments, any forest road development that is shorter than 2,000 metres does not require an environmental impact statement to be submitted with the licence application.

I thank the Minister of State for the reply. The delays will become a significant problem and they continue to escalate. These small plantations need to be accessed for harvesting. The European Court of Justice decision was taken but it has left us in a ludicrous position. I am an environmentalist but the Minister of State and I, as well as anybody with a bit of common sense, know that if a person wants to harvest a small plantation, the environmental impact on the surrounding area depends on the scale and would be smaller with a smaller plantation. This is bananas. Is it possible to get some of the bureaucrats in Europe to look at some of these plantations? We cannot treat a small plantation in the same way as one that is 40 or 50 times its size. This is a real problem that must be tackled at the European level. I accept a case was taken and won, with the European Court of Justice making its ruling. It is the reason I have put the question. This will create major blockages. There must be an environmental impact assessment of a 15 km radius of each plantation. It is bananas.

We may share many of these opinions but we are bound by the constraints of the judgment. We are trying to remove the onus on the applicant to do the environmental impact assessment and there has been engagement with the Marine Institute and others. We are currently developing a new system of screening in and screening out and getting outside consultants to help with the ecological assessment. We are seeking clarification on the legal position and we are working with the industry. To that end I commissioned a report by Mr. James MacKinnon, which we will accept tomorrow and I hope to publish on Friday, and it deals with the procedures and processes in question.

We are clear in our recognition that this is a challenge that we must get right. We have had engagement with the forest appeals committee's new chairman, who has extensive experience with An Bord Pleanála, on the procedures and to get guidance on how we can best progress. That is in light of how so many cases are now going through an appeals process. It is another matter that the Deputy has not raised but it is certainly there and causing problems.

I accept, from what the Minister of State has outlined, that efforts are being made to try to deal with this. It will cause real problems with biomass and lumber supplies. We are trying to move towards on-farm forestry as a sustainability goal that is good for the environment and for farming. My party certainly supports and promotes this, as have others. The problem is that small plantations are sometimes on the edge of farms and on very marginal land. That was sensible when the trees were planted. These regulations will paralyse the harvesting. Having an environmental impact assessment for a 15 km radius around a tiny plantation of forestry is absolutely nuts by any measurement. Surely this can be conveyed to somebody in Europe. There are no other words for this. I accept the Minister of State's comments that the Department is bringing in consultants but there must be every effort to deal with this. This should not be on our radar. I could understand a small environmental assessment of a limited area around a plantation.

As I said, we are acutely aware of the challenges and the implications of not getting this sorted for the sector. It affects approvals, new plantations and felling. There is pressure to have enough timber to plan for the period ahead. We are working on this and we are confident we will have a solution. That is all I can say.

Trade Agreements

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

44. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the latest developments on the provisional Mercosur agreement; the impact assessments being carried out at European Union and national level; the steps he is taking to protect farmers here by ensuring beef does not form an element of the final Mercosur deal at EU level; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49058/19]

There was a commitment by the Government to do an impact assessment of the Mercosur agreement. In a recent response to a parliamentary question, it was indicated to me that the assessment will not be available until after the summer, which is simply unacceptable given the effect that the Mercosur deal would have on our beef sector. This Government is simply trying to cover up the damage the deal will do and delay the impact being known properly until after the general election. Will the Minister today account for this long delay?

On 28 June, the European Commissioners for trade and agriculture announced that agreement had been reached in principle between the European Union and Mercosur countries on a free trade agreement. As I said at the time, I am disappointed by the outcome of these negotiations, which includes a 99,000 tonnes tariff rate quota, TRQ, for beef from the Mercosur countries. The agreement is now in a process of legal scrubbing and translation, following which it is likely to be provisionally applied in all areas with the exception of investment-specific areas. Formal ratification will then take place through national parliaments.

Since the publication by the Commission in 2016 of its cumulative impact assessment of future trade agreements on European Union agriculture, the United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union and a number of trade agreements have been concluded. I have therefore requested the Commission to update its 2016 study accordingly and Commissioner Phil Hogan has indicated that this will be completed in 2020. In addition, the Commission has engaged consultants to carry out a sustainability impact assessment of the Mercosur agreement. A draft interim report was published in October and the final report is expected in early 2020. These European Union assessments are being augmented at national level by the economic and sustainability assessment announced by An Taoiseach. This whole-of-government analysis of the potential effects of the agreement on Ireland is being led by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation which has overall responsibility for Irish trade policy. My Department will be part of the steering group managing this assessment.

Why on Earth is it taking until next summer for the Minister's Department to finish an impact assessment on such an important deal that will have such a negative impact on our beef sector in particular? It is simply unacceptable and not rational or reasonable for it to take that length of time. The Minister has indicated that significant assessments have been done on this in the past and the Minister's Department has even done an assessment. A significant body of work was done in the European Union cumulative impact assessment, which indicated that the trade deal proposed at that stage would have a significant impact on the price of beef across Europe.

The only reason or rationale for delaying this until next summer is that the Minister does not want the impact of agreeing this Mercosur deal on the beef sector to become any clearer than it is already. As we know, that sector is already under massive pressure and many farmers are not making a profit. Why is there a need for approximately eight more months to finalise the assessment, given that the deal has already been signed for a number of months?

The Deputy speaks of the Mercosur trade agreement as if it were a reality today and we are suffering its consequences; that is not the case and there is quite a period to go before it will become the reality. There is talk about the deal being agreed but there is quite some time to go before a decision will be required by this institution or other member state parliaments or regional assemblies on the Mercosur agreement. It is important that we take the time to do the appropriate assessment of the impact this would have on our agrifood sector, our beef industry in particular and the economy in general. In the context of the assessment that has been mentioned, this is being dealt with primarily by the Department with lead responsibility on trade and its Minister, my colleague, Deputy Heather Humphreys. My Department is also involved.

We also await the final report of the Commission. It is not a question of kicking the matter to an imaginary date the Deputy might consider politically advantageous. It is about taking the appropriate steps. We are not now, nor are we likely to be in 2020 or 2021, anywhere near a decision on the content, which is why it is important that we properly analyse the impact of the transposition of the headline agreement into a legal text in order that we will protect our interests as much as possible.

The analysis has to be comprehensive but does not have to take that length of time. Apart from the impact it will have on our beef market at European level, which is already 102% self-sufficient, the addition of 100,000 tonnes, which will increase supply while consumption is already under pressure, does not make sense. It also flies in the face of the rationale of climate action, given that it will involve transporting meat produced with a large carbon footprint in South America to an oversupplied market, which does not make sense from the perspective of climate action. Unfortunately, the Government, the Minister and the Taoiseach failed to get the message across at European level as to the lack of logic of the beef element of the Mercosur deal or the impact it will have on our beef sector domestically. An impact assessment for Irish and European beef needs to be completed promptly, and the Minister and the Taoiseach need to push back hard at European level in respect of the impact it will have if is followed through and agreed.

The point the Deputy advanced is a dangerous and false narrative in defence of his position on the carbon footprint of the transport element. We export our product to more than 180 countries, some of which are as far removed from here as the Mercosur countries are from Europe. I have seen figures that suggest that the life cycle footprint of the product is critical, and the life cycle on farm is where the greatest footprint is. We make every effort to ensure that in the agreement's transposition into a legal text, corrections will be built in for areas such as safeguarding sustainability on climate issues and the single payment scheme. We are working to ensure they will be drafted in such a way as to give us as much assurance as possible.

Beef Industry

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

45. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine when the beef task force will meet; the reasons it has not met; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49123/19]

It is frustrating for beef farmers that the task force is not yet up and running. It was to have a leadership role, get the stakeholders around the table and progress the poor circumstances beef farmers face. We need to overcome the issue of the ongoing injunctions and get the task force up and running. Will the Minister outline the efforts he has made to bring that about and to get the task force up and running?

As the Deputy will be aware, the inaugural beef task force meeting, scheduled for 14 October, was prevented from proceeding. Since then, however, the independent chairman and my Department continue to engage proactively with task force members with a view to progressing the implementation of the provisions of the agreement. My Department and its agencies continue to progress the commitments to which they signed up under the agreement. The full text of the agreement between beef sector stakeholders, along with an update on the progress made to date on the action points, is available on my Department's website.

An immediate increase in a range of bonuses was announced as part of the 15 September agreement, and it has been confirmed to my Department that the bonus system is now in place. Initiatives in the agreement aimed at improving information along the supply chain included the commissioning of the following reports: an independent review of market and customer requirements, an independent examination of the price composition of the total value of the animal along the supply chain, and a summary of competition law issues relevant to the beef sector. My Department has issued a request for tender for these reports, with a deadline for receipt of tender responses of 12 noon on Thursday, 5 December, which will enable the award of the tender before the end of 2019.

In respect of market transparency initiatives, my Department has published an expert report on mechanical carcass classification review, introduced an appeals system for manual grading and initiated a consultation process on the transposition of the unfair trading practices directive, with a deadline for submission of 13 December. Bord Bia has developed a beef market price index model based on three components, namely, a cattle price index, a beef market price index, including retail and wholesale, and an offal price indicator. This is now available on the Bord Bia website.

Teagasc is significantly advanced in the first stage of the scientific review of the quality payment system grid. My Department also proactively engages with several potential beef producer organisations that have the potential to strengthen the bargaining power of beef farmers in the supply chain. Two beef producer organisations have been formally recognised by my Department in recent months.

I established the beef market task force to provide leadership to develop an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable pathway for the future of the beef sector. As I have previously stated, it is in the interests of everyone involved in the beef sector that the work of the task force goes ahead. I hope that all parties will agree to come together as soon as possible to progress this important work.

I thank the Minister for outlining the efforts ongoing offline in the absence of the task force. As he noted, the intention of the task force was to show leadership, bring people around the table and make progress on stumbling blocks, but that has not come about, although we accept there are ongoing injunctions. What efforts is the Minister making in his leadership role to step outside the comfort zone, build bridges and bring about the task force by bringing together the various parties, getting them into the room and getting them talking? While they are not around the table, even though some efforts are being made, there are serious ongoing issues with the price of beef. There have been advances in Europe but farmers here do not believe they have the same opportunities, and demonstrations are ongoing.

I support my colleague. I stood in front of the Minister yesterday during the demonstrations. Hundreds of farmers are demonstrating outside the gates of Leinster House, although I accept he met their representatives briefly at 7.30 a.m. They are there because they are deeply frustrated. It has been months since they stood down their protest, and they did so because they believed the Minister when he stated he would set up a task force, but there has been no change.

The Deputy will agree we convened the task force for 14 October-----

That was months ago.

It was convened for 14 October but on that date, for reasons both Deputies know, the task force meeting could not go ahead. I do not intend to elaborate on why it did not happen on that date because that is well known. There are other complicating issues, which were mentioned earlier, and the injunctions are a significant impediment to convening a meeting. I have been involved in discussions, as have the independent chairman and officials at my Department, and much bilateral engagement has facilitated a great deal of the background work that will be necessary to progress elements of the agreement. I would like there to be a plenary convening of the task force at the earliest possible date. My Department, the independent chairman and I, as well as many of the constituent members, are committed in principle but we need to address the complicating issues that currently thwart us. Nevertheless, I am hopeful we can find an agreement as soon as possible.

Questions Nos. 46 to 49, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Beef Industry

Bobby Aylward

Question:

50. Deputy Bobby Aylward asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his plans for the inaugural meeting of the beef market task force, in view of the urgent need for same; the reason for the persistent delays in the holding of the meeting; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49124/19]

My question is similar to that of my colleagues, which I support. It relates to the setting up of the beef task force. We are all aware the price of beef is on the ground. There has been no upward movement since the summer, when the blockades took place, and there is still talk of getting only €3.45 per kilogram for prime beef from this country. The Minister has to use his influence to set up the task force. I listened to what he stated in response to the previous question. In fairness, he is trying to take steps in the background rather than dismissing the demonstrators, but unless there is transparency and accountability for everyone involved, such as Meat Industry Ireland, farmers, factories, processors and wholesalers, there will not be fair play for farmers. The primary producers do not receive fair play and no one can say they do. The Minister must use his good offices to ensure transparency in the system.

As the Deputy will be aware, the inaugural beef task force meeting, scheduled for 14 October, was prevented from proceeding. Since then, however, the independent chairman and my Department continue to engage proactively with task force members with a view to progressing the implementation of the provisions of the agreement. My Department and its agencies continue to progress the commitments to which they signed up under the agreement, the full text of which is available on my Department's website.

An immediate increase in a range of bonuses was announced as part of the 15 September agreement.

It has been confirmed to my Department that this bonus system is now in place.

Initiatives in the agreement aimed at improving information along the supply chain included the commissioning of the following reports: an independent review of market and customer requirements; an independent examination of the price composition of the total value of the animal along the supply chain; and a summary of competition law issues as relevant to the Irish beef sector. My Department has issued the request for tender for these reports, with a deadline for receipt of tender responses of 12 noon on Thursday, 5 December. This will enable award of the tender before the end of 2019.

In regard to market transparency initiatives, my Department has done the following: published an expert report on mechanical carcase classification review; introduced an appeals system for manual grading; and initiated a consultation process on the transposition of the unfair trading practices directive, with a deadline for submission of 13 December. Bord Bia has developed a beef market price index model based on three components: a cattle price index, a beef market price index - retail and wholesale - and an offal price indicator. This is now available on the Bord Bia website. Teagasc is significantly advanced in the first stage of the scientific review of the quality payment grid.

My Department is also proactively engaging with several potential beef producer organisations which have to potential to strengthen the bargaining power of beef farmers in the supply chain. Two beef producer organisations have been formally recognised by my Department in recent months. I established the task force to provide the leadership to develop a sustainable pathway for the future of the beef sector in terms of economic, environmental and social sustainability. As I previously stated, it is in the interests of everyone involved in the beef sector that the work of the task force goes ahead. I hope that all parties will agree to come together around the table for this purpose at the earliest possible date.