The purpose of this Bill is to give effect to the Government's decision to amalgamate An Foras Talúntais and ACOT and to transfer the functions of the two bodies to a new single Authority with responsibility for agricultural advisory, training, education and research services. The Bill was passed by Dáil Éireann on 25 May.
As this House is aware, radical changes are taking place in agriculture. Increased productivity through improved technology has created surpluses in a number of products both in the European Community and elsewhere. It is vital that we meet these changes in agriculture in a positive, constructive and developmental way. We simply cannot continue to supply services just because they were effective and relevant in the past. We must respond to the challenge of the new circumstances by tailoring our services to the development needs of the agriculture and food industry.
Teagasc will be responsible for maintaining the knowledge base of our most important industry and for disseminating that knowledge to the primary producers, through training and advice, and to the food processing sector, through research and development.
A strong, vibrant agriculture and food sector is central to the well-being of the economy. In this situation, Teagasc will be required to provide the services relevant to the developmental needs of the sector. This Bill provides the framework for the establishment of the organisation which will contribute to the fullest development of the agriculture and food industries.
One of the objectives of the Government is to ensure better co-ordination and cost-effectiveness of agricultural research, training and advisory services.
The main purpose of this Bill is to put in place, by combining the considerable resources of the existing organisations, a strong, unified structure for the effective delivery of the support services vital for the agriculture and food industry. This body will be a powerful aid to the industry in its response to the difficulties — and, indeed, the opportunities — which the rapidly changing developments in agriculture are bringing.
At the same time, given the constraints on the Exchequer, there is an overriding need to apply the resources that can be made available in the most efficient and effective way. A single body should ensure that any duplication or overlapping of services will be eliminated and that resources are not wasted in unnecessary administration.
These considerations led to the Government's decision to amalgamate An Foras and ACOT. In taking that decision, the Government were mindful of the excellent services provided and the invaluable contributions made by both organisations over the years to the development of agriculture and the economy as a whole. An Foras Talúntais have earned a worldwide reputation for the excellence of their research. The improvements since the early Sixties in the production and quality of our primary farm products — in dairying, beef, pig production, crop husbandry and horticulture, for example — have been dramatic. ACOT, for their part, transformed the former county advisory services and the education services of my Department into an integrated, tightly organised national body. In particular, they have, through the certificate in farming, achieved a major breakthrough in the training of farm entrants. I confidently expect that the commitment and service to the farming community and to the food industry, which AFT and ACOT provided over the years, will continue under Teagasc.
I now turn to the major provisions of the Bill. In brief, it provides for the transfer of the existing functions, responsibilities, assets and liabilities of An Foras and ACOT to a new Authority — Teagasc — The Agriculture and Food Development Authority.
This Irish name, meaning teaching or instruction, will, in my view, provide an appropriate short title for an organisation whose objective will be to transmit scientific and technological information to the agriculture and food industries. The Bill, in outlining the functions of Teagasc in section 4, places special emphasis on the training of young farmers and in research in the food sector. In singling out these priorities, the Government recognise the complementarity of these aims and also that the food processing sector is faced with changing consumer preferences and greater competition on home and export markets. The priority to be given to entrants into farming will not mean the exclusion of the advisory services, as has been suggested, but rather will ensure that the advisory service will be utilised by fully trained farmers in a cost-effective way.
Provision is made for Teagasc to be governed by a chairman and ten ordinary members. The chairman and five of the ordinary members will be appointed by the Minister for Agriculture and Food on the basis of appropriate experience or qualifications. The remaining five will be appointed by the Minister on the nomination of such organisations which the Minister determines are representative of persons engaged in agriculture and food industries or in its promotion or development. The latter provision reflects an amendment proposed by me during the passage of the Bill by the Dáil. It strikes a balance between the Government's desire to appoint the best possible membership from the industry and the traditional practice of representative organisations nominating persons for appointment. In deciding on the composition of the Authority, the Government's concern is that it should not be unwieldy in size but should consist of persons of the highest calibre in order to discharge its responsibilities in an effective, business-like manner. Because of constraints on the Exchequer an important thrust in Government policy is that bodies such as Teagasc should have a strong commercial orientation and receive a good measure of funding from the industry. Teagasc will be expected to secure funding from the agriculture and food sector to the maximum degree possible by gearing their services to the essential commercial development needs of the industry.
I have deliberately extended the definition of agriculture in section 1 to includeinter alia“Agricultural Economics and Rural Development”. I have, as is now generally known, drawn up plans for a comprehensive integrated rural development programme and I initiated recently a pilot scheme in 11 selected areas throughout the country. The Bill in section 6, enables Teagasc to charge for any of their services, though charges in the case of education, training or advice will require ministerial approval because of the wider policy implications that such charges might have. Charges in appropriate circumstances should establish an effective professional relationship between producer and adviser, ensure that the services are of the highest professional standards and are relevant to the needs of the users. The Bill also provides that the new Authority, with the consent of the Minister and the Minister for Finance, may engage in activities outside the State. Both An Foras and ACOT have, over the years, built up a considerable reservoir of technical, scientific and other expertise and have earned a wide reputation overseas through their participation in international consultancies and other projects. No doubt further opportunities for income generation will emerge in the future.
There has been considerable discussion over the past several months on the adequacy of the Exchequer funding for the research, advisory and training services. I explained, during the Dáil debate on the Bill, that the Estimates provision for AFT-ACOT services was based on certain expectations which did not fully materialise and accordingly I gave the undertaking that if there are any initial temporary difficulties it will be my purpose to ensure that Teagasc will not lack for essential funds to enable them to become an efficient, cost effective agency to service the agriculture and food industry.
In the Dáil debate the view was expressed that the Bill was unduly restrictive in relation to the Authority's functions in veterinary research. The restrictions were removed, however, by my tabling and appropriate amendment on Committee Stage which allows Teagasc wider scope in these areas of research.
On the question of staff, it will be seen, from section 8, that, on the date of establishment of Teagasc, staff members of An Foras and ACOT will be transferred to and become members of it. Such transfers of staff will be on the basis that their terms and conditions of service shall not be less favourable then those applying before transfer.
Allowing for the inevitable staff reductions following the formation of a single agency, the new Authority will be formidable in size with a diverse range of important functions and nationwide distribution of staff and resources. Their Exchequer funding requirements remain substantial. It is important, therefore, that a proper balance should be struck between, on the one hand, the exercise of effective overall policy and financial control by the Minister and, on the other hand, scope for Teagasc to implement their mandate. Section 13 accordingly provides for arrangements, on the lines of those in the Labour Services Act which covers the broadly analogous area of industrial training, whereby Teagasc will be required to furnish the Minister with an advance report of their planned activities and associated cost estimates for each year. The report will indicate the main areas of intended resource allocation as between research, training and advisory work and will require the approval of the Ministers for Agriculture and Food and Finance. This mechanism will enable an adequate measure of central policy control while leaving Teagasc with the requisite degree of freedom and flexibility to carry out their work. Under section 19 the Minister may give a direction to Teagasc to carry out, or not carry out, specified activities.
In addition to the amalgamation of An Foras and ACOT the Bill provides, in section 20, for the abolition of the county committees of agriculture. The policy considerations which led to the decision to amalgamate An Foras and ACOT made it necessary also to review the position of the committees, particularly in view of the linkages with ACOT under present legislation. The fact must be faced that, since the transfer to ACOT in 1980 of the committees' responsibilities for farm training and advice, the committees' scope for playing an active role in agricultural development work has become increasingly attenuated, particularly under the developments of the CAP and the pressure on national funding. The position now is that over 70 per cent of committee expenditure has been absorbed in travelling expenses of the members and payment to ACOT for administrative services.
The Government have looked at the situation in the light of the general thrust of their rationalisation objectives and the need to shed any layer of public administration where possible. They decided that in the integrated organisation of the agricultural services, the continued maintenance of the county committee structures could no longer be warranted on cost-effective criteria. Hence, the Bill provides in section 20 for the dissolution of the committees. Given the long-standing place of the committees in the local agricultural scene, that decision was not taken without a measure of regret. Over the years, since their establishment in 1931, they have rendered a special service to Irish agriculture of which the Government were mindful. However, I am sure that the new Authority will want to have available to them constant access to the best practical advice at local level and will make appropriate arrangements accordingly.
In section 22 the Bill provides for the transfer to the Minister of the assets and liabilities of each committee on the date the legislation comes into effect. Any sum remaining after the discharge of liabilities will be disposed of in a manner acceptable also to the Minister for the Environment since the committee funds have been derived in roughly equal measure from county council contributions and Exchequer grants.
The legislation will have the consequence of terminating the statutory obligation on the councils to make annual contributions towards the cost of the agricultural services provided in the counties. The Government have directed that administrative arrangements be made to compensate for the loss of funding to agriculture through an appropriate transfer from the rates support grant provision in the Environment Vote. The revised system will have beneficial effects in assisting the rationalisation of the local authority finances and eliminating wasteful administration in transfers of moneys from county councils through the committees of agriculture to ACOT.
During the course of Committee Stage in the Dáil, I showed that I was prepared to take account of any suggestions to make Teagasc a more effective body. The Bill as passed by Dáil Éireann shows this.
There is one other issue on which I have been reflecting since the Dáil debate concluded, namely the question of Teagasc establishing subsidiaries generally, not merely wholly-owned as is currently provided in the Bill.
I want Teagasc to be as commercially oriented as possible in their operations. I have now decided, therefore, to table an amendment in the Seanad to remove the restriction to subsidiaries being wholly-owned. This will enable Teagasc to establish joint ventures with commercial interests, with, as already provided for in the Bill in relation to subsidiaries, ministerial consent. I am sure this amendment will be generally welcomed.
In summary then, the objectives behind the Government's decision to establish a new Authority are,
—to bring together the education, training, advisory and research services under unified management for greater efficiency,
—to deliver the specific services that are crucial to the success of the agriculture and food industry in the competitive environment in which it will have to operate in the coming years,
—to get the best value for money for the Exchequer on the resources at the disposal of Teagasc.
The Bill provides, in the Government's view, the most appropriate and effective framework within which these objectives can be realised in a dynamic and cost-effective manner to the future benefit of the agriculture and food industry and consequently to the economy as a whole.
I commend this Bill to the House.