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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 5 May 1983

Vol. 100 No. 6

Adjournment Matter. - Calf Premium Scheme.

I thank you for giving me the opportunity to raise this important issue and I thank the Minister for coming to hear what I have to say. I should like to congratulate him on his appointment. This scheme, which was introduced last year by the former Minister for Agriculture, Deputy Lenihan, through the EEC, is of great benefit to the farming community, and I wish to compliment him on it, this £22 calf premium. It is actually a calf rearing premium. If calves are reared to the age of six months and if they can be identified after six months, the farmer who reared them, or whoever buys them, can get a £22 premium per head.

I am raising this because I have been asked by many farmers who have reared calves that were born between 20 May 1982 and 30 June 1982 and who have forwarded the necessary documentation to the Department to have these calves inspected and to get the payments on them, to inquire why they have not been paid. They have asked me what is the delay, and why. These calves are almost 12 months old now and some of the farmers are anxious to sell them but they cannot sell them because they have not been inspected and they do not know whether they will be paid for them. I read from the Farmers Journal of 5 June 1982 how to claim the £22 calf premium. It reads:

Only calves born on or after May 20th last and reared to six months will be eligible for the subsidy.

Calves have been reared for six months and beyond it and still they have not been inspected for the subsidy.

I would like to refer to a recent statement by the Minister for Agriculture a few weeks ago which many farmers were concerned about and which influenced a drop in the price of calves at the time. A report in The Irish Independent last September stated that “Price drop follows shock announcement for the calf trade”. I will quote:

Our nation-wide calf trade got a severe shock this week with the announcement that our national calf premium was in danger. The Minister for Agriculture on the previous Wednesday announced that in the EEC farm price negotiations he may not be able to secure the continuation of this calf premium.

Since them he has secured the continuation of it. The previous Minister, Deputy Lenihan, stated in this House that it would be a continuing one and that he hoped that the scheme would be renewed when the first year cycle had been completed. I feel that the Minister in making the most recent announcement did a lot of damage to the calf trade. Definitely it was a damaging statement and any Minister should not have made such a statement which depressed the calf trade at the time. I will read another extract from the Farmers Journal:

If our Minister was to reach such a decision that the calf premium would not be continued he would face a major farm revolt, not alone from the dairy farmers who are of course very much concerned with the future of the calf subsidy, but also from thousands of farmers who are rearing calves for the beef market. When all the talk is over a £22 paid calf subsidy will continue to be a part of our livestock industry, and farmers can be confident that it will not be taken off.

That proves that the farmers were confident and that the Farmers Journal were confident that this scheme would be continued but the Minister saw fit to say that the scheme was in danger of not being continued and definitely a lot of concern was caused among the farming community. With bad weather this year and less income because of the weather conditions, it was very depressing for the farmers to hear that this scheme would not be continued. The delay in payments under the existing premium scheme is also causing grave concern. I will read the instructions from the document received by the farmers from the Department on payment. It states:

If an application is found in order after inspection it will be approved as soon as possible after the youngest calf listed in it reaches six months of age, and will be paid within 90 days of approval.

Calves born before 30 June 1982 are almost 12 months now and still payments have not been made. Farmers have to buy a lot of fertilisers and feeding stuffs to offset the bad weather and are probably not in a position to pay for them. They are in debt to firms. When they get the bills for these debts from the firms and cannot pay there is an interest charge. I wonder will the Department offset the late payment by adding on interest on these late payments.

I will read from Deputy Lenihan's speech in the Seanad on another matter raised on the Adjournment. Senator Hourigan said that this scheme would be very beneficial to the Irish farmers because we carry the administration to the existing agricultural offices and the money is direct cash to farmers. There are no overheads and no deductions. There are overheads in this scheme and I will read from paragraph 5 of the Department of Agriculture document, about identifying and recording calves:

The farmer who wishes a calf born in his herd to attract the premium in due course, must buy from his artificial insemination station, or its agents, quoting his herd number as he does, a Calf Premium Scheme eartag and affix it securely on the calf's right ear with the appropriate tagging pliers within 42 days of the birth of the calf.

So the farmer has to buy the pliers and the tags, speaking of which reminds me to say they are most inferior. Farmers have trouble with these tags — which I believe are imported, which is a shame — because, having been applied with the pliers, many of the tags subsequently fall off the calves' ears, causing further difficulty to the farmers and to the officers operating this scheme.

I hope the Minister will take note of all of these problems, and especially the delays in payment. It is a great scheme and of great benefit to the farmers and I trust he will take the necessary steps to ensure that the payments will be made as soon as possible, more quickly than at present. Perhaps he will also do something about the pliers and the tags.

I join with Senator Kiely in congratulating Deputy Hegarty on his appointment as Minister of State. I know Deputy Hegarty for a long time: he has a great interest in agriculture and is a man qualified for that office. I know he will have the interests of the Irish farmers and Irish agriculture at heart when he goes behind his desk to do his work.

I would like to make a few points in relation to this scheme. I, too, am very dissatisfied that the grants have not been paid before now. They were supposed to be paid in January. Farmers have had to keep over calves they might otherwise have sold, because they have not received their grants. We were told that the grants would be paid come 1 April. April has come and gone and the grants still have not been paid. I would urge the Minister to take immediate action to ensure that the grants that farmers are entitled to will be paid without further delay because it is causing problems in many areas, with farmers having to hold over their stock and not being able to make provision for replacement stock and so on. I know the Minister will appreciate the problems.

The scheme itself is putting £37 million into circulation in the Irish cattle industry. It is a good scheme even though it might not be so good for the people who have to buy in calves, because they have to pay that little bit extra for them. Nevertheless I think the country in general will benefit from it. As I said, it is putting £37 million into circulation, which is nothing to be scoffed at in these hard times.

I have two questions in relation to the scheme. There is a fear abroad that calves which qualify for the £22 grant will not be allowed into Northern Ireland. I would like the Minister to clarify that, if he can. The problem is that the tag has to be affixed to the right ear. If that were to be the case it would be very serious for the cattle industry at a later stage. They may gain £22 now but when it comes to selling the animals farmers will lose far more if those calves will not be allowed into Northern Ireland. That is a fear that is abroad at the present time and I feel that the Minister should clarify the situation.

The other point is in relation to off-farm employment. When this scheme was announced it was said to be an EEC scheme; that it was being paid for by EEC funds and it would not cost the Government here anything. Now I understand that people who are applying for the grant are being asked for particulars of income from off-farm employment. I think that is very wrong. I do not think they should be asked. The £22 grant should be paid and, that is it. I would like the Minister to clarify these two points and to give us a guarantee here tonight that payments will be made before long. His colleague, Deputy Connaughton, announced a month ago that the grants would be paid in April. Unfortunately April has come and gone and there is no money as yet coming from the Department of Agriculture. I hope the Minister will send us home happy this evening with some good news.

I thank Senators Kiely and Hussey for their very kind remarks. It is only fair, especially in the case of Senator Hussey, that I should reciprocate. These two gentlemen have served their people well, and when he was Minister of State I feel Senator Hussey acquitted himself admirably.

I would like to thank both Senators for their contributions, which afford me the opportunity to make a few points about the background and operation of the calf premium scheme.

First, the calf scheme is 100 per cent funded by the EEC. Unless our system of operation meets Commission requirements and satisfies the Community auditors, we could have expenditure disallowed and the Irish Exchequer would be called on to foot the bill. When the scheme was introduced last May, we had no statutory herd book system or on-farm tagging by farmers as is the case in Northern Ireland. At the time, the only option was to have calves tagged and certificates issued by my Department staff at local centres such as marts. The House will be aware that the Department revised those arrangements and that the present position is that farmers are required to keep a calf register for calves born after 1 January 1983 and to tag their own calves with special calf scheme eartags available from the A.I. bodies. I would, therefore, make the point that there is a difference in treatment of 1982 calves and those born in 1983 and that the administrative and control procedures for the former are, of necessity, more complex. With regard to the tagging and the equipment generally a small number of the pliers, perhaps 80 of the total of 26,000 were faulty. By and large now they are working effectively. If Senator Kiely has particular problems in this area then perhaps he will communicate with me.

Second, I would like to put the calf scheme in context. My Department dealt with about 100,000 applications under livestock schemes in 1979. The introduction since then, however, of the EEC ewe, suckler cow and calf premium schemes and the calved heifer scheme means that the Department will deal with 350,000 applications this year, three-and-a-half times as many as in 1979, and will pay out a total of over £103 million under the various headage schemes for 1983. The calf scheme accounts for £37½ million of this. Each scheme has its own rules and requirements as regards payments and it is not possible to give preference to one without creating problems on another.

Third, as calves born between 20 May and 30 June 1982 were not six months old until 1 January 1983 and as premium only then became due, applications for premium could not be accepted any earlier than January. Although application forms were posted out in December 1982, completed applications kept arriving at the local offices of my Department up to the first weeks of February. As a result of this late return of applications by some farmers, check inspections of calves could not start until mid-February and were not completed until the end of March.

As a result field inspections and processing of claims in my Department's local offices were delayed. Also the setting up of a computer payments system for the 1982 calves was delayed due to lack of programming staff arising from the restrictions on public service recruitment.

I can report nevertheless that considerable progress is being made. Looking in the first place at the calves born between 20 May and 30 June 1982, I can tell the House that work on the computer payments system covering them is now nearing completion. It is expected that payments in respect of these calves will start before the end of this month and will be completed before the end of June. Payments in respect of these calves will start before the end of this month and will be completed before the end of June. Paymen's will therefore be a few weeks later than the April date announced by my predecessor last December, and was mentioned by the Minister, Deputy Connaughton.

Looking next at the calves born between 1 July 1982 and 30 December 1982, the position here is that applications will be accepted in June when all such calves are six months old. Inspections will take place in the months July to October and payments on these calves will commence in October.

Moving on then to the calves born in the peak period since 1 January 1983 applications will also be accepted for these calves in June. The 1983 calves and calf registers will be inspected during the months July to October, but to comply with EEC requirements payment cannot be made until after the calves reach six months of age in late 1983. Those payments should commence in February 1984. The question may be asked why applications cannot be accepted from farmers as soon as the calves they own have all reached six months of age. In answering this question I would refer back to my remarks about the enormous growth in the number of livestock scheme applications being dealt with by my Department and the staffing problems arising from that growth.

There is only one way to tackle those problems and that is to rationalise procedures as effectively as possible within the Department so that the extra numbers of staff needed for field inspections, local offices and computer operations are kept to the minimum. This means combining application forms for different schemes, doing inspections under as many different livestock schemes as possible on one visit to each farm, and combining details of as many such schemes as possible on the input documents processed in the local offices and sent for payment to the computer.

In the period ahead a single application form will cover the disadvantaged areas cattle schemes, the suckler cow premium and the calf premium: a single visit to each farm will cover these three schemes and where applicable also the calved heifer scheme. A single input document covering the three schemes will also be processed in the local offices and paid on by the computer. Only by combining forms, inspections and work processes in this way can we cope with the situation. And bearing in mind that the 55,000 applicants under the suckler cow premium scheme—who will also undoubtedly be applying under the calf premium scheme and, in many cases, under the disadvantaged areas and calved heifer schemes—cannot apply for premium until 15 June each year under the EEC regulations governing that scheme, we can see that June is the earliest possible date for completing a combined application form for all schemes. This approach enables applications to be dealt with rationally, and inspections of all farms in district electoral divisions to be carried out at the one time on a planned basis. This keeps travelling costs under control and enables payment of grants to be dealt with as economically as possible.

Finally, on the point made about off-farm income, I will have that investigated. I would like to say also that the continuity of the scheme is a source of concern to all of us and is under consideration in the price negotiations. The EEC Commission have made a proposal to this effect and this is being opposed by a number of member states. The Minister, Deputy Deasy, is continuing to press for an extension of this very valuable premium scheme as part of the package.

Has the Minister any comment in relation to the export of those calves to Northern Ireland at a later date, or the banning of imports to Northern Ireland, as a result of the eartags on the right ear? This is a rumour that is rife at the moment.

My information is that that is not correct. But again, if a rumour is rife, it is doing quite a lot of damage. I will have that clarified and publicity given to it.

That should be done.

It would be damaging for parts of the country and this should clear the air on that.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.55 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 10 May 1983.