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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 4 Jun 1958

Vol. 49 No. 6

Agriculture (Amendment) Bill, 1958—Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

As I stated in the Dáil, the main reason for the introduction of this Bill is to empower county councils to increase, where they so desire, the contribution which may be paid by them to county committees of agriculture beyond the present maximum which is equivalent to a rate of 10d. in the £ in rural areas.

As the House is probably aware, these committees of agriculture have their statutory basis in the Agricultural Act, 1931, and that Act prescribes that the county councils should contribute to their support on the basis of a minimum rate of 2d. in the £ and a maximum rate of 3d. in the £ for agricultural schemes. A rate of a ½d. in the £ was fixed as the maximum contribution for forestry schemes. Since then the educational activities, as well as staff costs have risen considerably for each committee and the maximum rate of contribution by county councils has had to be increased progressively.

The last increase — to 10d. in the £ — was authorised by the Agriculture (Amendment) Act, 1955. In addition to the county council contributions the State pays an annual grant to each committee. This grant forms part of the annual Estimate of the Department of Agriculture. Its sum total is roughly equivalent to the total of the contributions paid by county councils although in distribution the poor counties get some preference.

The continued increase in salaries and other expenses as well as the increasing number of instructors employed by the committees will soon make it necessary for some committees to seek a contribution greater than that at present allowed under the 1955 Act. The present Bill therefore increases the maximum permissive contribution to the equivalent of 15 times the produce of a rate of 1d. in the £ in rural areas.

I should like to stress, however, that this provision merely permits the councils to increase their maximum contributions where they consider that such an increase is justified. It does not compel any council to do so.

Sub-section (2) of Section 2 of the Bill has given rise to some misunderstanding. This section relates to the making of a contribution by county councils of not more than half the produce of 1d. rate to committees of agriculture in respect of whose counties the Minister for Agriculture has made a Forestry Scheme Order. Except for a change in phraseology necessary to bring the Agriculture Acts into line with Local Government Legislation, this sub-section makes no actual change in the position under the 1931 Act of committees of agriculture vis-a-vis forestry schemes.

The 1931 Act provides that a Forestry Scheme Order may be made only where as a result of the joint representation of the county council and the committee of agriculture for the county concerned, the Minister for Agriculture considers it desirable that steps should be taken to preserve existing woods standing in such county. In fact no Forestry Scheme Order has been made in respect of any county, nor is any such Order in contemplation.

Advantage is being taken of this Bill to accede to requests made by committees of agriculture that they should be put on a par with other local bodies such as vocational education committees and county councils by being made bodies corporate with the rights usual to such bodies. The Bill also provides for certain other matters relating to salaries and allowances payable to officers of committees of agriculture and travelling and subsistence allowances to members of such committees.

The remaining provisions of the Bill are simply amendments of existing legislation consequential on the foregoing provisions.

The Minister's statement has clarified the situation in a way that one could not gather from the Bill as it is drawn. I confess I think there was a good deal of misunderstanding about sub-section (2) of Section 2. It appeared to many that county committees of agriculture would have to carry certain responsibilities with regard to afforestation schemes and some of us had grave doubts about the wisdom of such a policy. However, we gather from the Minister's statement that it is only in those cases where a joint demand is made by the committees of agriculture and the county council that this section will operate.

There are one or two points in the Bill on which I am not quite clear. We read, for instance: "The council of a county shall, in the local financial year ... and every subsequent local financial year,...". The Minister can enlighten us. I take it the requisition ought to come from the county committee of agriculture, or does it? Where does the thing start?

This Bill is rather a different measure from the kind of measure under which the vocational committees operate. With the vocational committees, there is a sub-committee of the vocational committee which will meet, I think, in the month of November. The members of the county council who are members of the vocational committee will make the rate and the vocational committee will make its demand on the county council and the county council has not anything to say to it. In that respect, this Bill is to me rather vague. I have experience.

I think that what really happened in the past was that the county committee of agriculture came to a conclusion, after discussing what they wanted to do, on what they expected to spend. Then it was a question of what decision the council would reach. Sometimes, there were differences on the council — not frequently, in my experience, I confess. However, it is open to a council to repudiate a judgment of the committee of agriculture, if they want to.

I am not quite clear about how this machinery will work. It is rather surprising to me that, while the vocational committee can make its demand which the county council has to meet — it is a body corporate with a seal, just as the committees of agriculture will now be — the county committee of agriculture will be placed in an inferior position in that regard. There may be a purpose in that, but I do not know what it is and I should like it explained. When the Minister tells us that we will not be made responsible for afforestation schemes, I am quite happy. Apart from what might be done by way of assisting those committees who went into some afforestation on their own, by making larger grants available to them and encouraging individuals, I think it would be altogether outside the competence of committees of agriculture to take on anything more.

The other sections of the Bill are clear. There are certain improvements with regard to the position of some members of committees in respect of the travelling expenses they may claim. The Bill is simple, and with the exception of those two points which I have mentioned the purpose of which I am not clear about, I have no objection to the Bill.

There is one point on which I should like to have information. As Senator Baxter has stated, the committee of agriculture comes to the county council and more or less says: "We want so much money," and the county council can object or reduce the committee's demand, as it wishes. Under this Bill, we find in Section 5 that the committee of agriculture may, with the consent and subject to the conditions imposed by the Minister, borrow from a bank by means of overdrafts. Can they borrow without the consent of the county council? I looked up Section 27 and Section 28 of the principal Act and, as far as I could gather, they borrowed then, the wording being "the county council acting by the committee of agriculture," but I would like to know does this Bill give power to a committee of agriculture to borrow without the consent of the county council? I think a county council should have the final say in matters like this because they are the elected representatives of the ratepayers.

It is hardly necessary for me to say that I welcome the Bill and I think it is a step in the right direction. I remember a time when the county council's contribution was very small — it was only a penny or twopence in the £ in the early days—but even in those days very good work was done. The result was very striking, and I wonder if the work being done now bears the same relation to the amount of money spent on it. It strikes me that the work done in the early days was better, but, of course, I am not an expert in such matters. I did not hear the Minister say anything about recoupment, but I take it that some of the moneys spent by committees of agriculture will be recouped from the Central Fund. The Minister, I expect, will probably refer to that when he is replying to the debate. The general feeling about rates is that they are too high. It would soften the matter a bit, if we were to know that a big percentage of the moneys spent by committees of agriculture would be recouped.

At one time, I tried to get advice on forestry. It was a long time ago and, though I looked everywhere, I was unable to get advice on forestry from any quarter. I do not know if committees of agriculture employ forestry experts, but I do think that forestry advice would be necessary and it might not require the services of full-time instructors. With reference to the taking over of land for afforestation, I remember that at one time Cork County Committee of Agriculture, or the county council, took over some land for afforestation. The scheme went on for a long number of years, but it never showed a profit and eventually, I think, it was closed down. I just mention this as a warning to other counties.

Most of the money spent by county committees of agriculture is spent on agriculture, but I think it would be well that more should be spent on horticulture. There is a good market for vegetables across the Channel, if it could be organised properly, and a lot of vegetables and fruit are being canned and bottled now, something which did not happen a few years ago. I think there is an opening for big development in the horticultural line, and I would like to see more development of it along our coastline, where the climate is mild and where such things as early potatoes could be grown.

I think the greatest need in connection with agriculture at the moment is to keep up our live-stock population. A big number of cattle were exported last year, and they are still being exported, with the result that there is a danger that our cattle population may go down. That would be bad from every point of view, but it would be particularly bad from our balance of payments point of view. I do not know whether I could make any suggestion to the Minister——

I think any suggestions on that line would be out of order on this Bill.

Very well; I will not pursue that line. I only wanted to say to the Minister that he has 350 agricultural instructors in the country, and if it were put to them that that was one of the big needs at the moment, it might have some effect. I think it would be in order to say that. The obvious solution would be to get each animal to have two calves instead of one. That would not be within the bounds of possibility, but there are other ways it could be done, and I would leave the matter in the hands of the Minister and his experts.

I welcome this Bill, but I do not see that there are any far reaching changes contemplated in it. I heard Senator Baxter say a few moments ago that agricultural committees were in an inferior position to vocational committees, as far as providing them with the money required for their various schemes. I am a member of a vocational committee and am also a member of an agricultural committee, and there is very little difference in the procedure adopted in both cases. We hold an annual meeting of the vocational committee and a number of the members of the county council, who are members of that committee, go into various details of the money required. After consideration, a certain amount is agreed, passed, and is recommended to the county council. An annual meeting of the agricultural committee is also held, and in our county we are favoured by the attendance of a member of the Minister's staff, from the Department of Agriculture, who comes down and discusses our annual estimate in detail with us. We are free to recommend any figure we wish, as long as we keep within the 10d. in the £1 we are allowed under legislation. I think it could not be a better scheme or fairer to everybody.

I have heard some members speak about afforestation as if county committees of agriculture were going in for afforestation in a big way. I do not believe the Minister intends that to happen at all. Any committee can set aside £500 or £1,000 in their annual scheme and that money is very usefully spent in small amounts to pay 50 per cent. of the cost of the trees given to any farmer who wishes to plant a small shelter belt on his farm. These shelter belts are a great asset to any farmer and in some counties where we have hilly districts, they are availed of by people to provide shelter for their stock in the winter months. I do not believe there is any intention of proceeding to acquire land in a big way with a view to afforestation.

Under the terms of the Bill, the committees of agriculture are becoming incorporated bodies. In other words, they will be entitled to purchase land. That is the only part of the Bill with which I would have any doubt about agreeing. I do not think that committees of agriculture should be entitled to purchase land, except in very rare instances and that it should be done only with the sanction of the Department.

This Bill affords something of an opportunity for inquiring into the position of committees of agriculture. Their status is being somewhat changed and they are being made into bodies corporate. It seems to me that committees of agriculture must find themselves in a difficult position. They are a spending body and they have to secure the sanction of the county council for money which they require for their purposes, within the limits imposed by the Act. On the other hand, they have to conform to certain regulations and have certain schemes approved by the Minister for Agriculture. I do not think that is an entirely happy position for a body which may have ideas, or provides a setting in which they can get their ideas implemented.

There were certain things in this Bill which appeared very vague to me at the beginning, but in the light of the Minister's statement, certainly one difficulty has been cleared up, that is, in relation to sub-section (2) of Section 2. It does appear that under Section 35 of the 1931 Act there was provision, upon the joint representation of the county council and the committee of agriculture, that the Minister might make a forestry scheme Order. It does not appear from what the Minister said that that section was ever a very live section.

And never will be, I think.

That is all the more regrettable because the section was intended to enable committees of agriculture and the county councils to preserve the amenities of woods which, apart from their selling value, had a certain value for agricultural purposes, as I understand the position.

Section 4 is a section which bothered a previous speaker who does not think the committees of agriculture should be empowered to own land. I should have thought that, of all people, they should be empowered to own land and experiment on it; that if, in their own county, they wanted to experiment, grow a particular crop, try out cattle or grow a particular type of grass, they would certainly need to be owners of land to carry out such experiments. In so far as they will now be able to own land, that is probably a very good thing. I understand that the committee in one county has had to carry out experiments on other people's land which they could have carried out on their own land, if they had it. Perhaps the Minister might indicate under what circumstances committees would acquire lands outside their functional area.

Their headquarters might be situated in an urban district.

I was wondering if it was outside the county altogether. That could happen in towns which are on a border. I am glad to see that Section 6 gives power to enable retrospective payments of salaries, since it is the unfortunate position of local officials that they have to await the settlement of salaries for other groups of employees. That is a welcome improvement in regard to these officers who give such good service to the country. I think that sub-sections (1) and (2) of Section 36 of the 1931 Act are not to apply for the future. That being the case, I do not know why sub-sections (1) and (2) are not being repealed but perhaps there is some reason for that.

Like Senator O'Quigley, I feel that this Bill provides one of the rare opportunities we have here of considering some aspects of the works of county committees of agriculture and how they can be made to function better. The present Bill provides power to strike an increased rate. That, of course, is very welcome, further to extend the work of the committees of agriculture, particularly in the sphere of advisory services. Before granting these powers to county committees, and before making them bodies corporate, I should like to feel that the full development of the county committees was examined closely so as to bring them into closer touch with the farming community and, above all, to make the county committees more representative of the farming community. I am not suggesting for a moment that the 100 per cent. membership of the county committee should be from the farming community, but certainly I think the opposite has been shown to hold in many counties. That certainly does not make for confidence in an essential institution of our democratic society.

Two ways seem to suggest themselves that would make the county committee more representative of the farming community. One is the increased use of co-options. Many county committees have set a good headline and have co-opted leaders of the rural organisations. Other counties have refused to deviate from the position that only the elected representatives of the people should sit on these committees. There is a good deal to be said for that point of view because the urgent task of the moment is to safeguard democracy here. We see quite frequently where Members of the Oireachtas are held up to ridicule as being incompetent and unfitted for representation and so on. The same campaign is very often waged against the members of county councils and other elected bodies. The answer to all that is that the critics, if they are not satisfied with those within, should accept it as a public duty, to offer themselves for election.

Hear, hear!

That applies very much to the young farming community at present. I do not believe they are pulling their weight as far as representation on public bodies is concerned. I know that organisations have a horror of being, as they say, drawn into politics, but I think that the horror is allowed go too far in regard to representation on county councils, county committees and so on.

It is an essential duty to maintain the democratic system. After all, the only alternative is some form of dictatorship. The young farming community, who have made such great strides in agriculture over the past ten years, who have built up such a fine amount of voluntary education, will have to face their responsibilities as citizens of the future and contribute their full quota to manning the democratic institutions of the State. Otherwise, those institutions cannot function and cannot be fully representative of all sections of the community.

The other way in which the county committee can be brought into close contact with the farming community has been very successfully shown in County Cork where a county advisory committee, drawn from the leaders of the rural organisations within the county, has been set up. This has been set up to help and advise the county committee on problems directly concerned with the advisory services. It has organised the whole county into sections of two or three parishes, the area being served by an adviser. They have set up a committee to work with the adviser in his area. These are excellent arrangements. They have brought the utmost harmony to the rural organisations in County Cork. I am proud to say that whatever differences may appear at national level between some of our farming organisations, they do not exist in County Cork and do not exist within the county advisory committee there.

There are other developments which, perhaps, could also be more widely known. The county committee, by its very nature, must seek to give more or less uniform service to all the people in the county. Consequently, it cannot give one adviser to 1,000 farmers in one area and one adviser to 300 or 400 farmers in another area. That has been met in Boherbue, where the farmers themselves, 300 of them, realising that they needed more advice and help from scientific officers than they could expect as their share of the county service, have been putting up for the last four years half the cost of the services of such an adviser.

I might say at this stage that their work has been closely investigated and costed by some of the staff of University College, especially by Professor Murphy. When the results are out — and they will be out within a year or a year and a half — it will be one of the greatest examples of what small farmers can do. It will have a tremendous lesson for us here. Make no mistake about it, the small farmers of Boherbue, with their intensive dairying and pig production, their own grain silo and dynamic local leadership, are setting a headline that is something to be proud of. There is another group in the county at Barryroe also doing this completely independently. They, too, are doing a wonderful job; but I believe such groups should have their share of the county rates. It would be well that the county committees would at least consider that if they have an adviser to every 1,000 farmers, any region is entitled to its share of that service.

There are a few rather disturbing things. We are anxious to build up our democratic institutions. We are anxious to build up especially our local councils, county councils, county committees, parish committees and so on. But there were some happenings in the past that we should be careful about, because they tended to weaken and undermine the confidence of the community in their representative institutions. I have four examples.

The examples will refer to county committees of agriculture?

Strictly to county committees of agriculture. I am dealing with their functions, which are being broadened in the present Bill. The first concern is the Parish Plan, which gave rise to a great deal of contention and a feeling — not without some justification, I think — that it was an effort to centralise the advisory services on the pattern of the National Agricultural Advisory Service in England, and thereby to by-pass the local control. That danger has more or less passed, but we have at present overlapping services in many counties where there is a parish agent in the middle of a county and around him the ordinary advisers of the local county committee.

I should like to ask the Minister if it is his intention that these parish agents shall be incorporated as speedily as possible into the county services. Otherwise, it will just lead to disintegration in the future and may encourage other Ministers to have a crack at county committees by putting in more parish agents and taking away from their jurisdiction. It is high time we had co-ordination there. In that co-ordination, the officers on local building schemes and so on could well be co-ordinated at county level. Again, that co-ordination will be called for in the Agricultural Institute that is coming. If it is to service these regions and provide good advisory services, then it will have to have its lines of communication. I am certain that the county committee of agriculture, properly developed and extended, is the democratic medium through which the country can be co-ordinated.

The second point deals with the general council of county committees. Many of the recommendations made following this investigation which the farmers commenced three years ago and in which I had the privilege of taking part, have been implemented and the present Bill incorporates some of them. They were put forward by representatives of the agricultural officers' organisation and by representatives of certain county committees as indicating handicaps and things that needed to be improved.

Another thing which was obvious to us at the time was the fact that the county committees of agriculture needed to have some central body and it was, indeed, a great pleasure, to find that that body actually came into being within the last year or two. Certainly the need for it was felt. We have got now the general council of the county committees and I submit that that body, if given proper responsibility and if helped by the Oireachtas and the Minister, will provide an indispensable means of raising production here and of keeping the whole process democratic. I am, however, somewhat disturbed that the composition of this body was not officially recognised in the selection for the Agricultural Institute Commission.

It was: just one in five — on a level with the beekeepers! I submit that is not altogether the level we would expect to find for the general council of county committees, any more than for the National Farmers' Association. I submit it was a pity that at least three of the five seats were not given, ex officio, to organisations which are undoubtedly at the forefront of our agricultural development, the general council of county committees, the National Farmers' Association and possibly some milk organisation.

I have one further point to put forward. The county advisory committee, as it functions in County Cork, suffers from the handicap that there is no allowance made or no provision for travelling expenses for the members. I do not submit that travelling expenses should be paid in full, but there should be some grant from the county committee to the organisation concerned to enable the members to defray some of the cost of their taking part in the county advisory committees' deliberations. If we develop our county committees along the lines I have suggested, if we are not afraid to experiment and not afraid to encourage local initiative, whether it be in Barryroe, Boherbue, or anywhere else, then I am sure in a very short time we shall have little or no complaints about county committees not being representative because our farm leaders will come forward themselves and we may, perhaps, see a system of three-parish advisory committees developed, which is, after all, the only medium by which one instructor can contact 1,000 farmers.

I do not know if I should be tempted to enter the wide field covered by the last speaker. We could discuss the matter of the composition of county committees of agriculture and the way in which it is proposed to bring these voluntary bodies together for the purpose of electing certain members to the Agricultural Institute, but all I shall say on that matter is that, while a fair share of the wisdom may rest in the Senator as to the way in which the matter should be approached, quite a few others have some knowledge, too, of this matter and have a fair idea also of the difficulties.

Since the matter has been raised in the course of this discussion, let me say that I did go to the trouble — I do not use the word "trouble" in the sense that it was any trouble to me — to meet the representatives of the major bodies, in the hope that they would be able to give me, as a result of their combined wisdom, some suggestions that would be helpful in order to secure the most desirable method of approach in the selection of these people. As a result of that effort, we parted on this note: "Minister, we see your difficulty. We have not been able to be very helpful to you. We realise we have not made any suggestion that is of a worthwhile nature as far as the problem you have presented us with is concerned and all we can say is — just do your best." Now, an organisation can be big and powerful, or it can be small and weak. It does not follow that the weak organisation will not have in its ranks in some capacity, either as an officer or an ordinary member, an individual who may not have as useful a contribution to make as the best that can be found in the more powerful organisation from the numerical point of view.

All I want to say then in my own defence is that, to whatever extent the decision is open to criticism, it represents a desire to bring into consultation and to give responsibility to the widest number of organisations, irrespective of their numerical strength and having regard to the utter impossibility of giving them in whatever groups they find themselves an influence in proportion to their membership.

I am sorry that in the discussion both in the Dáil and here there should have been this confusion regarding this forestry question because there was nothing so far from my mind as to attempt in any way to encourage county committees of agriculture to embark on any sort of campaign of afforestation. Goodness knows, county committees have many matters with which to deal. Their finances are limited and they have enough on their hands without having to deal with that kind of expanding forestry programme.

Indeed, apart altogether from this sub-section to which Senators have referred some of this Bill is designed to give county committees power to dispose of plantations of one kind or another. County committees of agriculture in some counties, though not in many, have plantations and have the responsibility of looking after them. As everybody knows, they are not suited for that work, and my idea was to see to it that they would have power to dispose of such properties. To find oneself, then, accused of amending the law so as to provide for extended activities in this field is surely interesting.

The way in which this has arisen is, of course, that the 1931 Act provided that where a forestry scheme was adopted by a county committee of agriculture the council should strike a rate of a halfpenny in the £ for the purpose of that scheme; but no county committee adopted a scheme and therefore no rate was ever struck, and although certain county committees had the responsibility of looking after plantations, they still carried on under normal provisions and took it into account in preparing their annual estimates for presentation to the premier body. The manner of expressing these things had been changed in some of the Local Government Acts, and it was decided to bring the phraseology of the Agricultural Act into line with the other Local Government Acts. Therefore, this amendment was designed, not to make any change in the 1931 Act in this regard but to bring it into line in respect of the manner of expressing how a halfpenny or a penny in the £ or its equivalent was to be provided from the county rate.

I am glad to be able to say that, apart altogether from any question of what is in the 1931 Act or the amendment here, I was myself in my early days a member of a county council and a county committee of agriculture, and I have had some experience of seeing county councils interesting themselves in those days in afforestation. Any personal experience I have had has taught me that county councils are not well equipped to engage in that business, nor are county committees of agriculture and, to use the old expression, the cobbler should stick to his last. With that sort of mental condition, I would not be likely to invite them to ramble into that field on any wider basis.

The county committees have been given power to borrow without any reference to the premier body, and I do not see that there is anything wrong with that. They can borrow only with the consent of the Minister, and it seems to me that this is a power they should have. Some objection or criticism has been made — I think by Senator Baxter — as to the distinction between the powers enjoyed under the Vocational Acts by the county vocational committees and the powers of the county committees of agriculture. I was not really aware that that was the case, although years ago I served on both bodies; but in this matter of the county committees of agriculture, I think it is only right that if the rate is to be increased, the manner in which the estimate for the year is prepared is the same in both cases.

County councils are composed largely of people who are representatives of rural areas, and they have to have regard to the capacity of the ratepayers and the cost of all the services. I do not see that there is anything wrong in asking a county committee of agriculture to be able to show cause as to why an increased rate is required for agricultural purposes. They are dealing with a jury, a council, composed of people who have everything in common with the interests that the agricultural committees are trying to promote, and therefore they should not have any difficulty, if the case is strong, in inducing the council to give them money where it seems that money is required and will yield good results.

I think it was Senator O'Callaghan who mentioned the contribution that might be made by the State, in the event of the rates in certain counties being increased as a result of this enabling measure. There are only about three counties where the maximum rate has been reached and about two others in which the margin between the present rate and the maximum is very small. As far as the rest of the counties, some 20 or more, are concerned, they are very far from having reached the maximum rate as yet. The basis of contribution as between the State and the local committee is roughly pound for pound, and of course, the State contribution will be made on that basis, should any county decide to increase the rate above the maximum now provided by law and by the amendment of the law as it exists now.

Will the Minister state, if a council borrows the maximum, it will still have the right to borrow by loan, in addition to the maximum county rate?

The right to borrow on the part of the committee will have nothing to do with the maximum rate. That is an independent and separate matter. Senator O'Quigley, I think, asked me about capital expenditure. They might want to purchase a site in Drogheda or Dundalk which would be outside the rural area. They might want to build headquarters or buy property. It is for purposes such as these that borrowing would take place and, as I have said, it can take place only with the consent of the Minister.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for next sitting day.