Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Afforestation Programme

Paul Kehoe

Question:

111. Deputy Paul Kehoe asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the timeframe for the implementation of the Mackinnon report into the review of approval processes for afforestation in Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23814/20]

I ask the Minister about afforestation and its importance, specifically with regard to the Mackinnon report that was published in 2019.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Senator Pippa Hackett)

The Mackinnon report, which was carried out by Jim Mackinnon, the former chief planner of the Scottish Government, reviewed the forestry approval process and related issues in Ireland.  This was similar to an exercise which Mr. Mackinnon had previously conducted for the Scottish authorities. It was published at the end of last year and presented to the forestry programme implementation group in January.

Its implementation is one of the commitments which the Government made for forestry in the programme for Government.

The report was informed by, among other things, discussions with a range of stakeholders including the forestry sector, farming organisations, the environmental pillar, State bodies, Teagasc and the Forestry Appeals Committee. In addition, written submissions were received at the time.

The report includes 22 ways forward or recommendations across a range of issues. I am pleased to say that many of these recommendations have already been taken on board by my Department and acted upon. We are, for instance, in line with the Mackinnon report, introducing an amendment to the Agriculture Appeals Act and have issued guidance on Natura impact statements. We have also introduced a single consent system for forestry road planning

It is important that the report is implemented in the best way possible and that is why I am currently examining the appointment of an independent chair to oversee the process. The intention is that this person will report on the feasibility of implementing the Mackinnon recommendations for us to consider further. The newly commissioned forestry programme implementation group is to monitor progress and to help deliver on its ambition. A review of the forestry programme implementation group is currently under way to enhance representation in order that the membership of the group is best selected to help advise the Minister, myself and the Department on the implementation of the national programme.

There is a significant amount of activity in forestry at the moment especially on the reform of the planning and appeals processes and the introduction of the agriculture appeals (amendment) Bill to the House soon. Nonetheless, I am well aware that implementation of the Mackinnon report is also a priority and I expect to be making further announcements on this issue in the near future.

I wish the three Ministers, Deputies McConalogue and Heydon and Senator Hackett, the best of luck. It is a privilege to be a Minister. I was a Minister of State for nine years. It is very strange for me to be asking the questions now to a Minister of State after nine years. I welcome the fact that the Minister of State is in the process of appointing an independent chair. I would like to bring her back to November 2019 when one of the headlines in the Irish Farmers Journal was that the lack of political priority for the forestry sector was of major concern. I would like the Minister of State to be able to turn that headline around and say that the forestry sector has absolute political support. Having formerly worked in the forestry sector and whose college was related to the forestry sector, I have a great interest in it. I really believe that the Government can achieve a great deal more than has been achieved in the past. There are some decisions that the Minister of State and her Department can make which would make a very real difference. We are falling way behind in our planting targets. I have no doubt the Minister of State is well aware of that. As she is coming from the Green Party, which is very much the environmental party, I urge her support in this sector. It is really needed.

Senator Pippa Hackett

I thank the Deputy for his kind words. The Mackinnon report did, indeed, highlight that lack of political priority for forestry. It is something of which I am very aware. We are missing our afforestation targets by a long way. The commitments in the programme for Government were highly ambitious for forestry, far more so than any previous programme. I am really looking forward to getting my forestry implementation group off the ground and starting the process of devising a new forestry programme for Ireland. It will be done with stakeholder engagement and as broad a base as we can achieve. We see the difficulty certain communities have with broad-scale single species afforestation. Those are some of the issues I wish to address. I look forward to engagement with politicians as well as stakeholders in devising that.

I worked in None-So-Hardy nurseries in County Wicklow. I ask the Minister of State if at all possible in her busy schedule to visit it. Nearly every Minister with responsibility for forestry has visited None-So-Hardy in Wicklow. They have a base in County Wexford as well. If we are to encourage farmers to enter into planting forestry, they have to see that as a seamless process. If they see a process that has delays with decisions from inspectors and so on, they will not be encouraged to go into forestry. I know quite a number of farmers in that position. None-So-Hardy nurseries have dumped millions of trees over the last years because of the lack of planting. They are committing to their side of it, sowing from seedlings and the whole way up but when it gets to planting and to the farmers, there is a serious delay. I ask for the undivided attention of the Minister of State on this specific issue. I ask her, on behalf of the management, to visit None-So-Hardy nurseries in Wicklow or Wexford.

I will let Deputy McNamara in briefly.

I share Deputy Kehoe's concerns about delays but I am also glad to hear that the Minister of State is aware of some of the environmental difficulties. The answer is not to get rid of objections but to process them and deal with them quickly and to hire suitably qualified people in the Department to vet these applications. While forestry is extremely important, the type of forestry we are carrying out at the moment does little to benefit our environment. In fact, it is completely detrimental, particularly in the way monoculture is planted, clear-felled and replanted. I invite the Minister of State, before she comes to any final decision, to look at Slieve Aughty. Much of the land is designated as a special protection area, SPA, for hen harriers. Farmers are put to great lengths to protect the habitat for hen harriers and rightly so. They have no objection to that. However, Coillte then comes in, using pesticides for which it has received a derogation, and completely rapes the countryside.

Thank you, Deputy.

It is shameful that we have an agency in State ownership which does that. I ask the Minister of State to look at it.

A good forestry policy, as I am sure the Minister of State will appreciate, should do three things. Obviously it should play a really important role in terms of protecting the environment and carbon emissions. It should also be of benefit to a local community. The forest is something that people should want to live close by to, as opposed to the current position whereby entire communities are rising up against some of the forestry policies. It should bring a benefit to the economy, particularly to the local economy. We have managed to develop a forestry policy in this State that does none of those three things, for reasons I have outlined. There are examples and we are beginning to see spreads of areas where this can be done well. Our forestry policy does not necessarily mean telling farmers they have to plant a certain percentage of their land with trees. They would find their worst land and would plant as many trees as they could on it. We should be encouraging them to have trees planted throughout the farm. The example of the Inishowen uplands project is of a standard that we should try to emulate across the State.

There are over 500 applications currently at appeal stage. We have one individual who has to process each and every one of them. That backlog is leading to a situation where we do not have timber within the industry at present. Will the Minister of State unblock that blockage as an immediate action?

Senator Pippa Hackett

Am I to answer all of these? I was not prepared for this, I am sorry. It was a rookie error, perhaps.

The Minister of State can do her best. The questions were tabled in the name of Deputy Kehoe but the other Deputies are entitled to come in.

The Minister of State should forget about the rest and only answer my question.

Senator Pippa Hackett

I will do my best. I was scribbling down notes. In response to Deputy Kehoe, yes, I have a visit already in my diary for Friday to None-So-Hardy. I am glad we are all out of restriction now so I hope that will happen.

That is great although I cannot take the credit for it.

Senator Pippa Hackett

I am looking forward to that visit very much. I was aware of the destruction of many hundreds of thousands of young trees, which was an absolute travesty really. I hope that is not something we will see repeated. Nurseries need a significant run-in time and to see trees like that destroyed is a sad state of affairs.

On how forestry fits in with communities, I am very aware of that. Any new forestry programme will certainly need to listen to those communities. There is a lot to be learned. There is a legacy issue with a lot of forestry. Forestry is a long-term thing with trees planted many decades ago and now we are seeing the effects of that. Things have changed, however, even within the past couple of years. We plant things differently from how we used to. There are greater setback distances from roads, or there certainly should be.

There should be but Coillte has its own-----

Senator Pippa Hackett

I will certainly take into account the comments made.

Perhaps the Minister of State would visit.

Senator Pippa Hackett

A visit, indeed I would love that.

Meat Processing Plants

I ask that Deputies stick to their time because there are many Deputies waiting and we will get through all the questions if we just stick to the times.

Matt Carthy

Question:

112. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if a cross-departmental task force will be established to analyse the meat industry here in view of the role of the sector during the Covid-19 pandemic, the ongoing complaints by farmers regarding the prices offered to them, the allegations in relation to price-fixing and recent revelations regarding the conditions for workers in the sector. [22611/20]

This question was originally submitted to the Taoiseach. The issue pertaining to meat factories crosses a number of Departments. The role that meat factories have in our society, and especially our rural society, is profound. My question relates to the issues arising from meat factories during this Covid-19 period, the ongoing problems farmers have around getting a fair price, and the treatment of workers. I am interested to hear from the Minister on this issue as it relates to his Department.

I thank Deputy Carthy. There are a number of questions in that one question. I will certainly do my best to address them.

My Department is contributing to the whole-of-Government response to managing outbreaks of Covid-19 in food plants. In the context of Covid-19, human health must be the absolute priority for all of us, and therefore it is vitally important that all our decisions and actions are led by public health advice. My Department is participating in the HSE-chaired national standing committee on high risk settings, which meets on an ongoing basis to review existing protocols and compliance measures, and to identify any additional control measures that may be required.

My Department is also supporting the HSE and the Health and Safety Authority in monitoring the effective implementation of all relevant Covid-19 guidance in Department-approved food plants. International evidence has shown that meat plants in particular are at risk of outbreaks. My Department is leading research on the operational and environmental factors in meat plants which may influence Covid transmission, for example, by looking at ventilation systems and the recirculation of chilled air in plants, to identify and address those risk factors.

There has been a lot of commentary about wider factors regarding employees in the food industry, for example, shared accommodation and transport, and the sick pay and other employment conditions for workers. There have been discussions between the meat industry and unions on some of these issues, and that is positive. My Department is leading engagement with the ESRI to scope out a research project looking at these wider issues. If the Deputy has concerns with regard to individual workers, he should report these directly to the relevant statutory agencies such as the Health and Safety Authority, the Workplace Relations Commission, or the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, as appropriate.

Specifically on beef sectoral issues, the beef task force that was established in September 2019 provides a forum for detailed engagement on key issues facing the beef sector, and is particularly important in progressing the commitments made by all stakeholders in the beef sector agreement last September. It is independently chaired and includes representatives from all stakeholders.

I am aware that I am out of time in my response but I will certainly follow up with the Deputy.

It appears that the balls always fall right for the meat factories in all of this, and I have said this to the Minister's predecessor. The Minister will recall during the Covid period that Deputy Naughten revealed the factories had received tests results of some of the workers before the workers themselves. The Minister asked if we are aware of any individual concerns around the workers. The workers in a lot of these factories are scared stiff to talk to anybody. We have a situation where the companies operate behind a veil. They are unlimited companies, usually based through myriad schemes in Luxembourg or some other third country. It is incredibly hard to get any answers. When a body agrees to look into matters, as the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission did last year, the companies respond with what I can only describe as an insulting letter to those who put the queries, and it was admitted through FOI that they had not actually asked the meat factories any questions. The Minister can see where the concerns are.

I am aware of the concerns regularly expressed by the farming community and also with the issues around Covid recently. The Deputy will know that in advance of the last election I put forward the policy for a national food ombudsman to address some of those issues. It is included in the programme for Government. Other parties, including the Deputy's, did not have any suggestions in that regard on how to address that issue. I look forward to any ideas Deputy Carthy has, along with all the farming organisations, to try to ensure that office is robust, and which will help to address that issue.

The terms and conditions of workers are very important. Workers must be properly protected and looked after. Everything I will do in my Department, and working with other agencies, will be about ensuring that is the case. This is why I will be establishing, and working with the ESRI, a review on how we can learn and try to improve the situation, while working with other Departments also. If there are particular issues which Deputies become aware of, even if not through a specific person, it is important those are fed back. Any issues or situations where people are not being treated properly must be addressed. As the Minister I will do everything I can to ensure that is the case.

If the Minister is looking for ideas, one is contained within this parliamentary question, which is that the Minster would set up a cross-departmental task force to look at all of these issues. I take the Minister's bona fides on this but the crucial test for the Minister and whatever third bodies are set up is whether his Department continues to see its role in all this as defenders and protectors of the meat factories. That is the perception. I believe this perception is based in reality, and in the role the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has played over the past years. The Department has seen its role as defending the meat factories no matter what, and to defend against all and any allegation or question that is put. The Minister's big challenge is, in the first instance, to break this down within his own Department, to put the right questions to the right people, and to ensure when questions are asked, either by Deputies in this House or by farming organisations, that the questions are answered. For far too long, responses to questions on meat factories have been too slow, if they come at all.

I have no doubt that Deputy Carthy likes to put forward the narrative that this would be the case in the future. As I have said to him in response to numerous questions, as the Minister I will be respecting everyone in the food supply chain and all stakeholders, and in particular the primacy of the primary producers who have not had a fair crack in relation to transparency or the margins they get, and will be doing the best in that regard.

We must respect everyone, but we also must hold everyone to account. That has been my form up to now, and with three Ministers of State also working in the Department, this will be our form. No doubt Deputy Carthy will try to paint it as otherwise on occasion but-----

I will give the Minister credit if he does it.

------this is essential. This is why I have moved to working with the ESRI. Every industry, including the beef sector, has to work within the law and within the terms and conditions that are there. I am aware that issues have been raised in how lessons may be learned in that regard. This is why I seek the study and assessment as to what conditions are and how they might be improved. Working with other Departments we will take that forward. As the Deputy knows well, the immediate priority is ensuring that conditions in the factories are safe at the moment. This is an immediate priority for the Department and for the industry.

Beef Industry

We are getting through the questions. If Deputies continue to co-operate it will benefit everyone.

Denis Naughten

Question:

113. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the progress to date of the beef task force; the timeline for the completion of commitments given to the task force; the steps he is taking to implement the measures proposed by this Deputy and unanimously adopted by Dáil Éireann on 26 September 2019; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23762/20]

The Minister said earlier that protected geographical indications, PGI, status will not be the silver bullet. It will in fact be the final nail in the coffin if the current approaches continue to be taken to maximise the number of beef farmers eligible for PGI status. It contradicts a motion I put down in the House this time last year, and which the Minister supported, that PGI status should be for certified grass-fed and extensively reared Irish suckler beef. Will the Minister implement that motion, which the Minister himself approved?

I thank the Deputy for the question.

Many of the issues raised by the Deputy at that time, and raised by me and many other Deputies, have fallen under the remit of the beef task force. The beef task force was established in September 2019 and it provides a very constructive forum for detailed engagement on key issues facing the beef sector. It is particularly important in progressing the commitments made by all stakeholders in the beef sector agreement last September. It is independently chaired, and includes representatives from a range of stakeholders, including farm organisations, the meat industry, and my Department and its agencies.  The task force offers a suitable platform for strategic engagement by stakeholders on the opportunities and challenges facing the sector.  I am pleased to say that the task force will meet again before the end of September.

Information relating to the work of the task force, including the full text of the agreement of 15 September 2019, and updates on actions arising out of the agreement to date are available on my Department’s website.

On market transparency, Grant Thornton has been contracted as consultants to conduct a series of transparency studies on behalf of the Department.

The first is an independent review of market and customer requirements, specifically on the four in-spec bonus criteria currently in operation in the Irish beef sector. The second is an independent examination of the price composition of the total value of the animal, including the fifth quarter, while the third is a summary of competition law issues relevant to the Irish beef sector. An update on the progress of these reports will be provided to the task force at its next meeting at the end of this month.

On the draft application for PGI status for Irish beef, this issue was discussed in detail at the last task force meeting in June. Consultation on and development of the draft PGI application by Bord Bia began in early 2019. As part of the procedure for developing the application, a national opposition procedure was launched whereby groups or individuals could submit their suggestions and observations on the proposal over a period of four weeks. This procedure concluded last Friday, 11 September and submissions are now being examined by my officials. There will be further opportunity for discussion with stakeholders following this, including at the upcoming meeting of the beef task force.

The difficulty is that the agenda here is to shoehorn as much beef as possible into the PGI status application. As the Minister knows, the former Commissioner, Phil Hogan, said that we should be seeking designation specifically for suckler beef. When I raised this with the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Creed, in the House last October, he said that the concept of suckler beef does not have a high degree of resonance. However, across a range of food products, including dairy, there is resonance in relation to grass-fed production. The Minister is saying here that he will take into account the market research by Bord Bia but that body has let down the suckler industry in this country. Bord Bia has not promoted Irish suckler beef. It will to continue undermine it and put the money back into the hands of the processing industry unless the Minister stands with, and defends, the suckler producers. He must put a PGI programme in place specifically for the suckler industry.

Obviously market research is very important in terms of assessing what consumers are looking for and what resonates with them. We must take that into account and I know that Bord Bia has done significant research in that regard. It is really important that PGI status has the support of all stakeholders and that everybody gets behind it, including farmers, the industry and our marketing agencies. We must get behind it and make sure it is supported in terms of advertising so that it can be a success. My objective is to work with all stakeholders to ensure that we take forward the work that has already commenced and get agreement on a PGI status that can add to the value of Irish beef and help us all to market it abroad.

The Minister has heard that the stakeholders on this side of the House are vehemently opposed to the approach that is being taken which, from its inception, was about maximising the amount of beef that could be shoehorned into a PGI application. The Commissioner at the time said it would be unsuccessful. Unless we focus on suckler beef, that will not happen. The difficulty is that Bord Bia has never distinctly promoted suckler beef because that does not suit the processing industry in this country which wants to get a premium price for manufacturing beef.

Is the Minister sincere about trying to break up the blockage that is there within the beef sector? I believe he is but he must ask the Tánaiste, who has responsibility for business, enterprise and innovation, under section 10(4) of the Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014 to request the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission to carry out a market study of the beef industry in this country. That does not require any evidence and can be done at the stroke of a pen. We will see how transparent the industry is at that stage.

To go back to the point I made earlier and to support the point just made by Deputy Naughten, we are at a very funny stage now. Bord Bia has said that it cannot apply for a distinct PGI for Irish suckler beef, which is the best beef in the world as I said earlier, because naturally-bred Irish suckler beef is not widely recognised in the market. Whose job is it to make sure it is widely recognised in the market?

Who is our promotion body?

It got millions of euro.

It is none other than Bord Bia, which is also charged with seeking and securing the PGI status, so it is clear why there is a problem. I want all of our farmers who produce beef to get a good price for their product. However, there is a premium product that comes from a large number of farmers across this State, namely, our suckler farmers but they are not getting a premium. In fact, they are the ones who are operating at a loss and we need to correct that.

Coming from Inishowen in Donegal I know, no more than anyone else, that our suckler beef is tremendous. Our objective must be to ensure that our high quality beef gets the best price possible and is marketed well abroad. This is important and is something that I have raised with Bord Bia in the past. It is an issue that Bord Bia very much recognises too. It is important to assess the market and where consumers are at, and feed that into how we frame the PGI status application. We must take all the evidence on board, particularly the views of farming representative bodies. We must then ensure that the industry gets behind it and that Government supports it in terms of making sure that it is marketed and promoted. There is more work to be done over the next period of time in advance of the next beef task force meeting. It is my objective to try to get everyone working in partnership to promote Irish beef abroad and to try to get agreement on the PGI status.

Inshore Fisheries

Pádraig MacLochlainn

Question:

114. Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine when the implementation group of the inshore fisheries sector strategy last met; his plans for future meetings to implement the strategy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23768/20]

I referred earlier to the Irish inshore fisheries sector strategy which was launched in January of last year. In dialogue I have had with the inshore fisheries sector, questions are being asked as to when the implementation group last met and the plans to implement the strategy.

The Strategy for the Inshore Fisheries Sector 2019-2023 is an industry-led strategy, the first of its kind for the Irish inshore fisheries sector. The national inshore fisheries forum finalised the strategy at the start of last year, following what I understand was an extensive development process that also involved the six regional inshore fisheries forums and a steering group with industry and State partners. 

Bord Iascaigh Mhara, BIM, is leading the implementation of the strategy, in partnership with the national inshore fisheries forum. BIM has advised my Department that the implementation group met last year and identified priority actions under the strategy. The last full meeting of the group was held on 25 November. BIM advises that plans for a subsequent meeting at the end of March were overtaken by the Covid-19 pandemic, like many other things, and it has not proved possible to convene a meeting of the group since then, as the industry has been focused on dealing with the impacts of the pandemic which have been significant. Despite this challenge, BIM has confirmed that work to progress the identified priority actions has continued and it anticipates a meeting of the group may be arranged in the coming months.

In the meantime, the chair of the national inshore fisheries forum has formally written to invite me to meet the forum. The programme for Government contains many actions that I would like to hear directly from the sector on and I look forward to meeting the forum at the earliest mutually convenient opportunity.

I am sure the Minister will agree that it is absolutely stunning that the last time the implementation group met was November 2019. The whole country has gotten used to conducting meetings online. We have all conducted countless meetings online every day. Could this group not have met online?

The aforementioned report refers to an industry-led approach, which was really welcome and which was in stark contrast to the approach adopted 20 years ago. The last time there was a major report like this, the industry was not consulted or involved in its design. Inshore fishing and coastal communities all across this State, which comprise the inshore fishing industry, believe in this report and its potential but they are absolutely struggling. I appeal to the Minister to get a grip on this situation and insist that the group meets as soon as possible to provide him with an implementation plan for this report.

The important thing to note is that the implementation of the agreed priorities under the strategy has been continuing and it is crucial that it continues. It will certainly be important that a meeting be held promptly to follow on from and to co-ordinate that. It is a very welcome approach. It has been greatly welcomed by the inshore fishermen that this is being led by themselves and that they have had such a stakeholder and leadership role.

I take the Deputy’s point that a meeting would be useful in the near future. It is important to note that the work has been continuing despite the fact that, due to Covid, there have not been meetings. We can see that work continue but I would certainly welcome a meeting in the near future. I also very much look forward to meeting them myself to discuss progress to date.

I ask that the Minister would include in his diary for the upcoming period a meeting with the National Inshore Fishermen’s Association, NIFA. I met them online in recent weeks and they raised a wide range of issues with me. They feel utterly abandoned by the Government with regard to supports during the Covid crisis and the price of produce. I cannot stress enough that they are in crisis. The recent deal between the EU and the US on lobster tariffs is another threat, so there is a range of issues.

There is a sense that they signed up to a partnership in this strategy or plan and we hear, one year on, that there have not been meetings of the implementation group and there is no evidence that this report is being implemented. The sector feels abandoned. I ask the Minister again to meet NIFA as soon as possible to listen to their concerns and then act on them.

It certainly will be a priority of mine to meet with them and I have engaged with them previously. The approach they have taken in terms of leading this strategy has been a credit to themselves and it is important that it bears fruit. It is important to the Government and to me, as Minister, that the important contribution they make to our economy is recognised and that jobs in the inshore fisheries sector are supported. As Minister with responsibility for the marine, that is something I will do and I look forward to meeting them in the very near future.

Questions Nos. 115 and 116 replied to with Written Answers.

Herd Data

Martin Browne

Question:

117. Deputy Martin Browne asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on the concerns that many farmers have on the issuing of tuberculosis, TB, herd history risk letters to farmers and the implications of same in terms of GDPR; the impact that such letters have on the value of herds that have passed a test; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23941/20]

Niamh Smyth

Question:

122. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he will engage with farmers in relation to concerns regarding the decision to provide personalised herd test history statements and reports. [23767/20]

I ask that we would also deal with Questions Nos. 133 and 139 as they are on the same topic.

Yes, if they are on the same issue, I will deal with them.

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I want to get his views on the concerns many farmers have on the issuing of tuberculosis herd history risk letters to farmers and the implications of same in terms of GDPR; the impact that such letters have on the value of herds that have passed a test; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 117 and 122 together. I thank Deputy Browne for his question and congratulate him on his recent election.

Herd test history statements and reports are issued to all cattle herdowners with the aim of helping them to reduce the risk of bovine TB in cattle herds. The bovine TB forum interim report identified the need to provide more effective information to farmers to help them reduce the risk of TB in their herd and advocated for the development of herd risk categories that are “simple, clear, and convey sufficient information to enable farmers to make the decisions appropriate to their situation”. Against this background, the Department developed individualised reports that provide a simplified TB herd risk category for farmers, with herd-specific advice on how to reduce risk of TB.

There is a large, robust body of scientific evidence on bovine TB and this scientific evidence underpins the advice contained in the herd history statement. Furthermore, the content of the statement is consistent with the advice that has been provided by my Department for several years, including in newsletters, videos, leaflets and other media. Farmers are already provided with information in regard to their TB risk, but this report presents this in a new and user-friendly format.

Following many successful years of reducing bovine TB levels to the benefit of the farming community, there has been a concerning incremental increase in the disease since 2016. This has continued in 2020, with further increases in herd incidence and reactor numbers observed. Herd incidence on a 12-month rolling basis has breached 4% for the first time since 2012 and reactor numbers have exceeded 20,000, the highest number since 2009. These trends highlight the need for urgent action by all stakeholders to manage the risk more effectively across all transmission routes. It is this need for action that is my Department’s primary motivation in issuing the herd history statements.

While the immediate trends are disappointing and worrying, great progress has been made over the past decade. During 2009, some 5,860 herds were subject to restriction while the number in 2019 was down to 4,060. By working together, we have made progress previously and we need to make progress again. I have listened carefully to the concerns raised by farmers following the issuance of these letters and I am eager to schedule a TB forum meeting as soon as possible to further develop a shared understanding of how, collectively, we can reduce TB incidence.

My Department remains committed to reducing TB in Ireland, as demonstrated by the recent sanctioning of an additional 16 officers to assist the TB programme. Attaining TB-free status remains critical from a farm family profitability and sustainability perspective, and from a trade perspective at national and international level. I am acutely conscious that every TB restriction represents a significant challenge to the farm family concerned. It is a deep regret that, today, more than 2,700 herds are currently restricted, which represents a 21% increase on the same time last year. I want to work with all stakeholders to ensure fewer herdowners experience the challenges associated with a TB restriction and that we all work purposefully towards eradication of this disease, thus eliminating this ongoing cost on farmers and the State.

Separately, I understand some queries have been raised in respect of GDPR. I know the letters were designed to be in line with European and national legislation, taking account of data that is already available to herdowners. My Department will engage fully with data protection concerns that are raised in regard to the TB letters.

Farmers accept this needs to be tackled. However, in recent times, we have had meetings with farming organisations and all have expressed their concern at the issuing of letters regarding TB herd history. It has angered not just farmers in my constituency but all over the country. They are saying that what the Department has done is to affect the welfare of individual farmers by sending out letters, and many of them believe this leads to the devaluation of their herds. This was all done without any protection being offered to them at a time farm families are really struggling, which is accepted by all in the House.

One of the biggest worries they have concerns the implications of GDPR. Will the Minister outline the decision which led to letters being sent out? Will he speak to the farmers who believe their livelihoods may have been damaged as a result? Will he comment on the data protection implications?

It is not an easy job to unite all of the farm organisations but they are all united in the belief that this was an insensitive and insane move. Notwithstanding Deputy Browne’s valid concerns, people are asking what exactly was the purpose of this, how much it cost and whether it was the case that when the cat is away, the mice will play, given the fluctuation in the ministerial post.

Would the Minister have allowed this to happen or stood over it if he had been in office at the time? I suspect he would not. I suspect he would have done what the former Minister, Deputy Creed, apparently did which was to say, "Put them back in the drawer as we have better things to be doing at the moment".

Regarding the background to it, as I outlined, the interim report of the TB forum was important in that regard. That report advocated the development of herd risk categories that are simple, clear and convey sufficient information to enable farmers to make decisions appropriate to their situation. I know farmers have expressed concern about the letters. All of us can unite on the fact that we must address the issue of figures for positive incidences of TB increasing and going in the wrong direction. The people who are penalised and lose most from that are the farmers affected. As I said, 2,700 herds are currently restricted.

I am open to ideas on how we can address that, because we must address it to improve the situation for farmers and to work towards reaching a position where we can eradicate TB as we did with brucellosis previously. Another prompt meeting of the TB forum would be a positive move in that regard.

I have to disagree with the Minister. The people who are operating in the sector say it devalues their herds. The letters in question were not agreed in the TB forum, which has to get up and running a great deal better than what is happening. What is concerning is that following recent events farmers need to have confidence in the Department and they just do not have it now. Various organisations have spoken about how the farmers' faith in the Department is being eroded. These letters did little to help that, and I believe the Minister will agree with that. Concern has been expressed that the Department is going ahead with changes to the TB eradication programme that have not been agreed, especially at the forum. Farmers are worried that the Department is falling short in that regard. The measures being taken are out of the farmers' control. Can the Minister tell us what the plan is for the TB forum?

On that point, I challenge the Minister to set a date. I welcome the fact that he has committed to reconvening the forum, but I challenge him to get it done over the next week. This is an area where I happily admit that I do not have all the answers. I do not believe anybody does. The one thing I know is that the current set of policies and procedures is not working. The figures the Minister outlined for 2019 as opposed to 2009 do not show sufficient progress when one considers the millions of euro that have been spent on TB eradication programmes. Much of that funding came directly from the EU and that funding is likely to dry up. What we are likely to get in its place are EU-set policy provisions that might not necessarily work for the Irish family farm network. We have a collective responsibility to find the answers and to tackle TB in a way that does not penalise our farmers but ensures we move to the point the Minister outlined. He will have our full support on that but I believe we must have a complete re-think.

There are not many coming forward with the answers, but we need answers. That is why I am calling a meeting of the TB forum. Nobody suffers more than farmers when herds are restricted. Farmers experience stress when they are facing a test, particularly if they have gone down in the test in recent times. There is also the cost impact on them. It is incumbent on all of us in the Oireachtas and on the farming stakeholders and primary representative organisations to work together to turn the dial in the other direction, to start to get on top of this disease again and to work towards its eradication. Certainly, the current trajectory is going in the opposite direction, and that is in nobody's interest. The reason I am calling a meeting of the TB forum is to get people together. We need the answers and we must get people behind it. How we go about it might not necessarily be easy, but we must be clear and united in the objective, which is to improve the situation for farmers, to eradicate this disease and to eradicate its massive cost to farmers. I certainly hope that in calling the stakeholders together in the TB forum we can start to move in that direction.

Common Agricultural Policy

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

118. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the progress that has been made in the provision of interim measures under the present CAP for 2020 and 2021 until a new Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, is in place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23965/20]

Déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Aire. My question relates to the interim measures. It is clear there will not be a CAP for a number of years. This relates to the areas of natural constraint, ANC. Will it be the same ANC, will it be just a rollover or will there be change? It also relates to the basic payment scheme, BPS, the green, low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, and so forth. The Minister might outline what will happen over the next few years, because farmers need to know so they can get on with their business.

The provision of interim CAP measures for the transitional period between the current rural development programme and the post-2020 CAP strategic plan is closely related to progress on the transitional regulations, which will provide a range of options for member states to deploy over the period.

Since their publication in November 2019, the transitional regulations have been subject to extensive discussions between the European Council, the European Parliament and the Commission.  A common understanding was reached between the Council and Parliament on the text in June, including with regard to a transition period of two years' duration. The Commission position remains in favour of a one-year transition period. This issue will be finalised in tandem with the incorporation of the details of the 2021-27 EU budget into the transitional regulations once the budget has been agreed with the European Parliament, which is expected by the end of October.

In the meantime, I am currently considering the potential options available, as well as engaging with stakeholders for their views.  We will have to ensure that what we do in the transitional period is consistent with programme for Government commitments, as well as providing a solid foundation for the development of our CAP strategic plan for the period to 2027.  In addition, the very ambitious targets set out in the EU biodiversity strategy and the farm to fork strategy will have to be taken into account.

My ministerial colleagues and I intend to continue meetings with the farm bodies and stakeholders over the coming weeks to hear their views and, importantly, to get their input.  I am also conscious that we have limited time to make decisions and implement workable solutions.

It is important that we can give certainty to farmers in the near future. Obviously, the budget and the Estimates campaign will be important in that regard. Working with my ministerial colleagues in government, I want to ensure that schemes can be replicated and income streams maintained for farmers, and in terms of framing the next CAP programme to ensure it contains schemes that continue to contribute substantially to incomes and to deliver on the various objectives from a sustainability point of view.

When we had the rural environment protection schemes, REPS, 1, 2, 3 and 4 followed by the agri-environment options schemes, AEOS, 1, 2 and 3 and then GLAS, a farmer could pass seamlessly from one to another. This became a fundamental part of the income of many farmers. Suddenly, at the end of GLAS there is nothing. Will we get an interim environmental measure? Farmers cannot wait. They have to feed families and they have to live. Will there be an interim environmental measure while we are waiting for the 2022-27 programme? In every other CAP we were able to roll over schemes into new schemes. I do not know why it did not happen in the last CAP.

This is something the Deputy has raised regularly in the past. I accept the importance of ensuring that the income stream from environmental schemes, which has been very important for farmers, continues. In addition, there are the environmental outcomes and contributions to biodiversity and we do not want to see a missed opportunity to ensure those outcomes continue. Certainly, it is my objective to ensure that we have a continuation into next year for those who are coming out of GLAS and that we do not have gaps as they emerge. I am looking at the options for how we do that and also at the programme for Government commitment to the introduction of a new scheme and how a pilot scheme would look.

The basic objective is to ensure a continuation for those coming out of GLAS in order that they will continue to be in an environmental scheme and be in a position to receive the income generated by that.

My understanding is that some people have come out of GLAS and been left high and dry. These people have depended on it for years. I know that GLAS was much smaller than previous schemes such as REPS, which was the biggest scheme, and REPS 4 in particular. Certain farmers have gone from €11,000 or €12,000 down to nothing. They are still adhering to the same very high environmental standards but their income stream is gone. People have to live and survive. Many of them are on high nature value land, but that land has relatively low productivity or its productivity is constrained by rules laid down by the Minister's Department.

The Minister referred to an aspiration that the transition period will only be one year. However, almost nobody in Europe believes that there will only be one year of transition. It will potentially be much longer and run into several years so it is important that we get this transition period right. I ask the Minister to quickly identify the schemes that will be available during the transition period because farmers need to know whether or not criteria will be changed. It is also important that the Minister outlines whether he personally has plans for the convergence process during the transition period, because clarity is required. We are getting very close to the transition period so to talk about consultations at this stage without some form of assurance on the type of funding to which Deputy Ó Cuív referred would be very unfair on farmers.

I thank Deputies Ó Cuív and Carthy. I indicated that the Commission has a preference for a one-year transition but it is becoming increasingly clear that a two-year transition will be required. If it is to be two years, it is important that we give clarity on the schemes and that the funding is there to ensure the income streams they produce for farmers continue as well. That will be an objective of mine over the coming weeks. I have been engaging comprehensively with farmer representative organisations to take on board their views on this matter, and I will continue to do so. A decision will be made in advance of the transition regulations being notified. I will be seeking to bring clarity regarding the schemes and other issues such as convergence when we get to that stage of agreeing the transition regulations.

Coillte Teoranta

Catherine Connolly

Question:

119. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if an independent review and sustainability audit will be commissioned of forest business and other activities of Coillte, as recommended in the 2019 report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24007/20]

My question relates to one of the recommendations in the report by the Joint Committee on Climate Action, namely, that an independent review be carried out of Coillte's activities. Is it the intention of the Government to carry out that independent review? If so, when will it be commissioned?

Senator Pippa Hackett

The Joint Committee on Climate Action launched its final, cross-party report, entitled Climate Change: A Cross-Party Consensus for Action on 16 April 2019. Its implementation was a matter for the previous Government, which adopted some of the measures in its own climate action plan for 2019. This Government is proposing to revisit that plan and publish its own climate Bill this autumn. The joint committee's report acknowledged that it "was not in a position to examine afforestation in any level of adequate detail". It did, however, set out a number of recommendations for the forestry sector to be considered in the design of the new national forestry programme for the period 2021 to 2027.

The committee also recommended that the climate action council, which is currently known as the Climate Change Advisory Council, conduct a comprehensive review of national forestry in respect of climate change mitigation and adaptation and feed its findings into the new national forestry programme. It was in this context that the committee suggested that the Government should also commission an independent review and sustainability audit of Coillte's forest business and other activities in 2019, in conjunction with a review of the Forestry Act 1988 to ensure that policy is consistent with the objectives of environmental, social and economic sustainability in this sector.

As the Deputy knows, Coillte is a private limited company established under the Forestry Act 1988.  The Act provides, inter alia, that a principal objective of the company is to carry out the business of forestry and related activities on a commercial basis and in accordance with effectual silvicultural practices.  It is self-financing and does not receive funding from the Exchequer. As a State-owned enterprise, it is also subject to the code of practice for the governance of State bodies 2016. Coillte currently operates forestry, land management, panel products and renewable energy businesses. The company manages an estate of 440,000 ha, of which just under 400,000 ha are forested.

I am also preparing the way for the design of a new national forestry strategy and national forestry programme, which I look forward to starting very soon.

I welcome the Minister of State. I am disappointed with her response because it is the same response to which I have been listening for four years, having heard previous responses from civil servants. The Joint Committee on Climate Action made a very specific recommendation based on very specific reasons. Since then, climate change and biodiversity emergencies have been declared. Coillte owns over 50% of the forested land in Ireland so there are serious consequences here. The committee recommended a review. The simple question is whether the Government intends to carry out the review - yes or no? If the answer is "Yes", when will it happen?

Senator Pippa Hackett

My commitment is to develop a new forestry programme. In that process I would like to engage with stakeholders and politicians all across the board to design the programme. If part of that process involves looking at the remit of Coillte, I would certainly welcome that. I am looking forward to embarking on that programme. There is an ambitious forestry programme outlined in the programme for Government, which I think the Deputy would accept. Once we embark on it we will have a very robust forestry programme that will deal with all of those issues, including climate action, the environmental issues and embracing communities in its design. That is something I am committed to doing.

I welcome the Minister of State's commitment, and that of the Government, but I think she is missing the urgency of this situation. We declared a climate emergency over a year ago. We have a biodiversity crisis and we have a serious problem with the way we proceeded with planting trees in Ireland, particularly Sitka spruce, although I am no expert. I know from sitting on the Committee of Public Accounts for five years the problems that emerged when the reports came before us. I am not laying blame; I am just asking that we learn and go forward. We do not have time for what the Minister of State is proposing. A specific recommendation was made to carry out an independent review and the Minister of State now tells me there is a new national forestry programme. I know that. It was on every Government agenda, including that of the previous Government. I am asking the Minister of State to recognise the problems that exist as a result of successive Governments following a policy of planting the wrong trees, particularly in view of the challenges we are facing.

Senator Pippa Hackett

I fully acknowledge the difficulties and problems in the forestry sector. I also acknowledge that we have legacy problems from poor decisions made over the past number of decades. That is something this Government is acknowledging and is appreciative of, and it is something we want to fix and improve upon. That is why we achieved the ambitious forestry commitments in the programme for Government, which are more ambitious than those of any previous programme. We have been in government for the past two and a half months, if that, and we have already implemented some interesting and progressive moves within forestry in terms of woodland creation. We have looked at the climate issue. We are embracing that in how we deal with our forestry and I have given a commitment that I want to see it improved. I want to see a better forestry model for Ireland. It is certainly something I want to be part of and drive on and I would appreciate any inputs from people in this House and beyond.

I have two more minutes.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
The Dáil adjourned at 11.10 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 16 September 2020.