This is a Bill which was introduced in the term of the last Government and is being followed on by the present Government. I have listened with interest to the debate both here and in the other House. I wish I could share the optimism that has been running generally through the debate because I do not feel it will be the success that many speakers on both sides of the political scene have indicated. Some Senators on this side of the House might feel that, since it was introduced by our Government, they would have to support it. Even when it was introduced by the Government, which I wholeheartedly supported during the last term, I was not enthusiastic about it because, quite honestly, I would like to put on the record of this House that I would forecast it as a failure. I believe it will fail. Agriculture has been referred to down the years, during my lifetime and long beforehand, as the backbone of the nation, our principal industry, one to which we should have paid greater attention in the past. There were lost opportunities because we had not brought into farming the technology that was becoming available in our lifetime.
The services of the county committees of agriculture throughout the country have been underrated in many respects. Some people may say they have been abused; but, no matter what service is available, naturally you will have some abuse. But I believe they have adequately and superbly paid for the efforts, time and money put into them over the years. This will bring a fundamental change in our chief industry. Our advisers will be put in a new role. They will now be seen as tax collectors; and, no matter what you call the charge, it will still be seen by the farmer as an additional tax he has to pay. My fear is that fewer farmers will avail of the service in the future, and I believe that in the long run we will lose millions of pounds instead of gathering in £1 million from the farmers.
The Minister said that it was costing £28 million for the total service — £23 million from both central and local Government, the other £5 million, so far as I know, coming from the EC grants. The service was provided for 70,000 farmers, 29,000 of them according to the Minister — and I am sure the Minister is correct — with an intensive service and with almost 170,000 farm visits at a cost of £7 million. We are talking about the expenditure of £7 million on the service of our main industry and we are asking that £1 million of that £7 million be recouped. If this were to happen in industry there would be an outcry. It is happening in the farming industry and it has been tossed around for so long that people may be inclined to slide over it. But I would like to put on the record of this House my forecast that, whatever Government bring it in, we will in the future regret it. My reason for saying that is that we will not save £1 million; we will lose far more money, because many farmers particularly at this time, are finding that to stay in business, to educate their children, to provide for their families they must diversify.
I am not too worried about the 29,000 farmers. I am not too clear whether the 170,000 farm visits were to the 29,000 farmers or to the 70,000 farmers. I do not think it was too clear from what the Minister said; at least, it was not too clear in the way I read it. That is only a minor matter.
I would like to have seen the Minister go further and categorise the 41,000 farmers who are using the service because the 29,000 can obtain a service anyway in the commercial area. They do not have to come to ACOT. Very many of them may turn to the commercial area where there is ample advice available, for payment, of course. Many of the 29,000 farmers may feel that they may get a better service outside of ACOT. No doubt they will have a look at it depending on what the charge will be. There has been absolutely no indication from the Minister as to what the charge might be.
My concern is about the 41,000 farmers that the Minister did not categorise and did not give us any details about and, indeed, maybe many other farmers who are not mentioned in the Minister's figures at all. Because of the times we are living in, with butter mountains, milk lakes and radiation of vegetables and the supermarkets one does not know in farming, what direction one must take next.
Many farmers have now to diversify. This is a time when they will need advice and the services of ACOT. Indeed, many farmers who never availed of it before will need it now and we are going to charge them at the very worst time in their whole operation, when they find that they must diversify because the income is not coming from the farming they have been used to doing. Now they must turn their attention to maybe a half acre or an acre of cabbage or carrots to supplement an income from a dairy farm or a sheep farm.
Perhaps I have mentioned the wrong one there. The forecast is that sheep farming is the up and coming thing and they are all advised to keep sheep. All right, we are now advising farmers that sheep is the business to be in. If a farmer who has been operating outside the sheep area over the years now finds that to educate his children he must have a look at the rearing and fattening of sheep and he knows nothing about it, he will then need the advice of the ACOT services or some other body. While he or his father, who operated that land beforehand, could have had this service free of charge, we are now asking that man to pay for the service at a time when he is finding the going rough.
This will bring about the most fundamental change in farming in our time. I wonder if the idea of charging has been gone into sufficiently or have we looked at the effect it has had in other areas. Take the other portion of our island, for instance. Northern Ireland. ADAS have suggested a charge which has come into operation in Great Britain but it has not yet come into operation in Northern Ireland. In a recent survey there, it was found that 16 per cent of the farmers who are now availing of the service will, if charges come into operation, avail of it.
This is a frightening figure. We are dealing with the same land. Whatever comparison can be made with the Continent — Germany or France, for example, about which there were comparisons made in the other House — I believe the greatest comparison is on our own island, where we have it in Northern Ireland. A survey which was carried out indicates that no more than 16 per cent of those availing of the service today will avail of it if the charges that are now in operation in Great Britain come into operation in Northern Ireland. The Minister should take a very strong look at that survey to see if he can make a comparison with that and, indeed, many parts of this country.
I do not know what the charge will be. I hear certain figures being tossed around, a charge of £50 per annum for perhaps a package deal rather than a charge for every time the service is requested. Has the Minister or, indeed, his predecessor, looked at what it would cost ACOT to implement the charge? How will it be operated? I assume it will be left to the individual areas to operate it as they see fit. But if one area operates it on a charge per phone call, or charge per visit, what will be the cost of that? Who will collect it? Are we not then putting our advisers as pointsmen out in the field.
The more sensible approach to it would be a charge for a package deal but then you also have difficulties if you do it that way. If there is a package deal and you have a farmer who perhaps never availed of the service before and now finds that he must diversify because of the difficulties he is having with his bank account, and with keeping bread on the table, and he now finds that he must avail of it half way through the year must he also pay the £50? There are many farmers who will require three visits per year. Is one of those farmers required to pay the £50 the same as the farmer who has one visit per year or, indeed, the farmer who may resolve his difficulties by one phone call?
Much of the agricultural advice is given by telephone to somebody who, perhaps, has gone into a new area of farming because of necessity. Some morning he goes out and discovers a colour running through the leaves of his cabbage or whatever he has gone into. His fears can be allayed by a simple phone call. Will that phone call cost him £50 if his particular area office decide on a package deal of £50, or will there be a scaled down cost to that farmer? Will a ten minute or 20 minute conversation on the telephone cost him £50, or whatever the charge is? I believe we are running ourselves into more trouble for the sake of £1 million.
When we were attracting industry into this country in the sixties we thought we could not get big enough industries in. The bigger the industry, the greater the Government or the Minister shouted, the greater the banner headlines on the papers. What is the story there today? It is the industry with one, two, three or ten people employed that we are looking towards and that we are encouraging. What are we doing here? We are supplying a need through the ACOT services to the big man and we are eliminating the small person, or the person who is now getting into difficulties.
I feel so strongly about it that I do not think I can over emphasise the dangerous area that we are now getting into for the sake of a meagre £1 million in the greatest industry in the country, the industry we are depending on, the backbone of the nation. We are now asking them for £1 million but we may lose millions as time goes on. Can you imagine a full time farmer in the west of Ireland, a farmer on the dole, or many part time farmers who are unemployed, availing of a service that will cost them £50 and which is now free of charge?
I believe they will turn the other way. I do not know what they will do. We are doing nothing to help them out of their difficulties at the most crucial stage on agriculture, I suppose, in our life time. Farmers do not know which way to turn when they find themselves in difficulty or how they can diversify. They will have to pay for advice as to whether they should diversify at the worst time in their lives when they find that they have to diversify to stay in business, or become unemployed, or sell off their farms and change from one area to another.
I did not like it from the beginning. I have yet to be convinced that we will benefit from it. I see it bringing about the greatest change in the area of farming in this century. We are now advising that farmers should go into sheep. Many of them may be forced into taking the advice now being given from official quarters that sheep farming is the thing to be in. Many of them know nothing about sheep and they will need advice. They will need advice to decide whether they will even get into it. Will we charge them for that advice?
We are not going into the commercial area. Much of the advice we are giving through ACOT is not available in horticulture but in agriculture it is available in the commercial area. We are going half way into that. Can you be semi-commercial? I believe there will be a big fall-off in those availing of the service. There will be a slimming down in the utilisation of the service. That, no doubt, will bring a slimming down of the service. We will be moving further and further away from advising farmers on how to carry on business in this new world of technology and we will be leaving it open to those in the commercial field. You cannot be semi-commercial. You are either fully in the area, make the full charge and admit that you are doing it, or give the service free. We would be well advised to continue the service we have been giving.
I know of many people throughout the country who have had to go into part time poultry rearing to take one area. We have already cutback the service to those people. People going into poultry today must have 500 birds before we offer them the service. If a person sees the necessity to supplement his farm income, to rear a few turkeys for the Christmas trade, he either must go in over 500 and avail of the service, or do it without the service. If he decides on 200 or 300 turkeys, which would be sufficient for anybody who knows nothing about it, that service is not now available to him. Even without these charges that is not now available. I regretted that, when that decision was made. It was threatened a couple of years ago and it was made quite recently.
We are to do it in other areas now. I am not concerned about the 29,000 farmers who have had intensive service because, no matter what the charge is, they will avail of it and feel it is worth their while to pay it. I am sure the charge will not be excessive for them. They will get a return from it. It is the 41,000 I am concerned about. We do not know what category they are in or what service they got. Many of them may have availed of the phone-in service where the advisers are available at the end of a phone and many problems are resolved over the phone. Will that phone call cost £50 to the farmer? I know the Minister will say he can have a visit from the adviser for that, or he can have three visits in the year for that. He does not require it. He only needs a little advice on something he has been dealing with and now, with the new methods of growing, the new sprays and all the new angles in producing, he may need a little advice which he can get with a ten or 20 minute phone call. Will he have to pay £20, £30 or £50 for that phone call?
I am sorry I have had to go so hard on this, but I feel pretty strong about it. I come from an agricultural background. I have had to diversify and I know what I am talking about. I know the farmer needs the service most when he has to go into something that he is not used to. I am not in farming today but I still have an interest in it as I believe every Irish person has. It is the backbone of the nation and our greatest industry. I hope we are not doing ourselves harm and that we are not putting a nail in the coffin of the advisory service which has been so valuable to farmers down the years.