I unreservedly welcome the Bill. It is the first initiative in the area of land tenure legislation since 1965. Our Irish land tenure system has its own peculiarities, and one of its most outstanding oddities is the 11-months letting system. This is an oddity in that, by and large, it deploys the land given to its tenure in a very inefficient manner. Because of its leading feature, which is insecurity of tenure, land farmed under it is badly managed and often abused. This is the natural upshot because the lessor every year in letting the land will look for the highest bidder, while the lessee will always try to get as much as possible out of the land because he knows he may not be there for very long. It always happens then that the principles of good husbandry like fertiliser use, seeding, weed control, boundary maintenance and so on are all ignored. That is only natural because of the very nature of the system.
The proper context in which to view this abuse and waste of resources is in relation to the well-compiled statistic that one million acres of agricultural land in the Republic are farmed under this shortterm letting system, about one-twelfth of all the usable land in the State. God has finished making land in Ireland, as he has finished making it everywhere else, but when we consider the pivotal economic role of agriculture in this country, it would be only mild to describe this as an awful waste.
The Bill under discussion provides in a very imaginative way for a new set of procedures which should shift land letting in our system to a much more long-term arrangement. This can be only for the good. It formalises an arrangement in a legal framework by which the lessee can, by agreement with the lessor, rent the land for an agreed long term of three years, five years, ten years or whatever, with legally guaranteed security of tenure which helps to lead to better management, greater output, better income and a contribution to greater exports which will boost the national income. The advantages for the lessor, on the other hand, are an agreed arrangement on price over the period of the lease and an almost certain guarantee that the land will appreciate in value over the period to a greater degree than would otherwise happen, because of better husbandry and lack of abuse. Benefits are the lessor's tenure security and the guarantee that the holding will be handed back on the expiry of the lease with no strings attached. There can be no legal claims for burdens placed or compensation for disturbance, which can be a feature of our existing renting system.
The selling of this new but eminently commonsense idea as part of our land tenure system is absolutely crucial. We, as public representatives, have a very special responsibility to encourage it in the national interest. Others, too, have a pivotal responsibility — the farming and the rural organisations, the co-operatives, the agricultural advisory services, people providing agricultural consultancy and people like auctioneers and solicitors who play an extremely important role in advising and arranging such lettings.
Ranged against the advice and blandishments towards this new departure will be the traditional attitudes more entrenched in the farming side than in any other walk of life in Ireland. There will be many older landowners who will view entering into a long-term lease as being tantamount to giving away their land. There will be the general fear that the formula under discussion will lead to the placing of legal burdens or incumbrances, the fear of attracting unfavourable notice from the Land Commission, the fear of what such a contract might do to the eligibility for old age pensions or social welfare payments.
Some will express the fear — many genuinely, more no doubt mischievously — that long-term tenancies amount to a new form of landlordism. Where this fear is genuinely expressed, it is not surprising in that we are only about three generations away from the land war.
I greatly welcome the Minister's provisions that render most of these fears groundless. There is an assurance that the Land Commission will not seek to acquire any lands which are the subject of the new lease arrangements and that they will not accept any claims for tenancies in respect of tenancies made recently or from now on. The amendment of provisions of the old Land Acts which could lead to the placing of legal burdens or other such complications under the new lease as proposed is particularly welcome, to dispel the fear a lessor may have that long-term tenancy might establish a right of at least limited ownership by a person renting the land.
Most welcome, too, is the fact that the Minister has ensured that the Minister for Social Welfare included in the recent Social Welfare Bill provision for new rules of assessment of means for old age pension and social welfare payments to be brought into effect where land is being leased. This provision will give a very favourable regime of means testing to an old age pensioner or to a social welfare recipient who would opt to lease his or her land, usually to a much younger person.
The Minister has gone the full distance in his legislative proposals to protect the interests of both parties, as far as that is possible under the law. The fears that are rooted in attitudes and very often understandable prejudices, must be dispelled by careful explanation and by the united effort of all of us charged with responsibility to give a lead in the interest of progress.
I congratulate the Minister on the provision in the Bill which places a special responsibility on officers of the Land Commission who are to be employed in selling the measure and assisting where difficulties arise. We can only hope that will be followed by similar leads elsewhere.
I would now like to turn to the area of future legislation on land structure reform. I have no doubt that the Minister will, in the near future, bring such legislation before the Houses of the Oireachtas. I will bore nobody if I restate the general situation of land use and its various products in the economy. Despite problems with the Common Agricultural Policy and surpluses in the highly consumer-oriented affluent society markets to which we sell most of our products, nothing still holds a greater potential for growth or potential to add to, greatly to enhance the national income by export earnings, than the produce of our land. But our peculiar structural set up and the attitudes built into it are a greater blocking mechanism and an agent for stymieing growth than bad business activity among our farmers, bad husbandry and the lack of the entrepreneurial drive. Nevertheless, agriculture still accounts for almost one-fifth of the gross national product. It accounts for at least one-third of all exports. Twenty per cent of the workforce are directly engaged in farming. Thousands of people are employed outside the area of primary agriculture in the agri-related areas such as food processing, transportation, engineering and so on. Against this background of inescapable and central importance to all our livelihoods we have the most immobile and often very peculiar land structure set up. That is, of course, a natural corollary of our particular land history.
Amost 95 per cent of all usable land is owner-occupied. That must be the highest degree of owner occupancy, I would say, in the world. While this is excellent in itself, it has one major drawback: it leads to poor land mobility from older management to younger people who would like to take up farming. Twenty five per cent of holdings are still held by people who are 65 years of age. That is quite remarkable. The average in EEC countries for holdings being held by people of 65 years or over is approximately 7 per cent. This has obvious economic social ramifications in that it perpetuates the wrong attitude, which places greater emphasis on ownership rather than usage. Regarding the size of our farms, even today 30 per cent of farms nationally are under 30 acres. That figure hides certain provincial variations. For instance, in my own province of Connacht, or even including the three Ulster counties, over 50 per cent of farms are under 30 acres. This is in an area where land is poorest and the climate is less kind. That may have been forgotten by the Department of Social Welfare in their recent onslaught on the small farmers' dole in the west. All of those farms, with a few exceptions, must be seen as uneconomic and not yielding anything close to a comparable income. Indeed most farms under 50 acres in the State — they account for 60 per cent of all farms in the country — must be seen as uneconomic or as nearly so as makes no difference. One could go on for days enumerating the various deficiencies and problems in our whole land structure.
We might ask ourselves what has been done in the past or what is being done now about the whole area of land structure reform: indeed might I say until the Minister, Deputy Connaughton, came along very little or almost nothing. The Irish Land Commission, which is supposed to act as the Government's agent of land structure reform and land redistribution, has been moribund for years. Since the publication of a Government While Paper on land policy by the previous Government in 1980 which found that the traditional role of the commission of acquiring land and redistribution to local congests no longer met current needs — that recommendation was adopted, at least unofficially, as then Government policy — the meaningful role of the Land Commission has died.
I would advise the Minister in the proposals he will be bringing forward, to scrap the Land Commission. I would urge him to establish a completely new land agency which would promote and carry out a radical reform programme which is what we need. That would have to be carried out within the constitutional framework which guarantees the rights of private property. I am sure all sides of the House would agree that the State must have power to regulate the land market especially where the interests of farmers who are below or about the economic margins are concerned and those farmers who have a potential for increased output and who maintain a family in conditions of economic viability. Their interests must be seen as paramount as against the interests of people who wish only to acquire land for social status or for speculation or just as an inflation hedge. New laws on land tenure must put such purchasers at some financial disadvantage while purchases for genuine family farm expansion or for the establishment of a young competent farmer in business must be put at a positive financial advantage. I am sure that the Government and the Minister will take a careful look at how best this can be done and bring forward the appropriate legislative proposals.
The inter-departmental final report on Land Structure Reform published in 1978 is an excellent document with many proposals and options in this area. I would suggest that careful note be taken of them. I would urge that on the establishment of a completely new land agency to replace the Land Commission it be given full charge to implement public land policy. I do not believe that entrusting such powers to the Land Commission would work. The Land Commission, in the past, has been shown to have been dogged by slow procedures, by a legalistic approach that at times almost amounted to a judicial approach. Such approaches have earned the Land Commission many critics. If it takes three years on average for the Land Commission to acquire a holding and a further average of three years to redistribute it, whatever the legal or administrative difficulties that lead to that kind of delay it is only natural that a small farmer who has been waiting for many years for an augmentation of his holding cannot readily understand that.
First, I would urge that a new land agency would retain most of the powers vested in the Land Commission at present but that such an agency would have up-dated powers. It should have separate and well-staffed sections to deal in an up-to-date and urgent manner with group purchases, with the rearrangement of fragmented holdings, long term leasing as we discussed it here today, with farm retirement and with inter-family farm transfers. Such an agency must be set apart from politics. It must be seen to be impartial. It should have full powers to administer public policy in the land area. It should have an executive at least of people with particular competence. Such people should be competent or expert in farming, in the agri-business and of course in public administration.
I do not make any of those suggestions from any standpoint of being anti-Land Commission. There has been much criticism of the Land Commission during this debate. I fully agree that during the 100 years of its existence it has done an immense amount of good work. It has acquired and redistributed many of the great estates in the country. It has created thousands of viable holdings and indeed it has contributed in a major way to creating one of the most stable rural societies in the world in this country. It is just that its procedures have become outmoded with the passage of time and its functions no longer meet today's needs. The very name "Commission" smacks of the nineteenth century. Gladstone in England had a marvellous penchant for establishing commissions to look into all kinds of problems and social ills throughout the kingdom and throughout the colonies, and the Irish Land Commission is a product of that age of reform.
In conclusion, and without engaging in flattery I would like to congratulate the Minister on his public attitude towards land reform, especially in the area of land structure reform. Unlike most of his predecessors who failed to grasp this nettle, he is the one who has publicly pinned his colours to the mast in stating that he recognises many of the deficiencies in our system. He has the will and the imagination and he wants to have the power to change much of what is wrong in our total land owning and land structure set-up.
Senator McDonald quoted Fintan Lalor. In the nineteenth century Fintan Lalor was looking at the land problem in terms of landlordism and the land war and he said: "There exists in every Irish cottage a man who will bark for Home Rule but he will bite for land." We have many powerful people in public life in this country, now and in the past, who were willing to bark about what was wrong with our land system and our land structure but very few of them were willing to bite on the very difficult bullet of what we would need to do to reform it. Without engaging in flattery I believe the Minister has the courage and the imagination to bite on that all-important bullet. He has certainly the support of people like me in that area and in that quest.