The purpose of this Bill is to provide for the winding-up of the Land Commission and the transfer of its residual functions to the Minister for Agriculture and Food.
It is not necessary for me to go into the history of the Land Commission. We all acknowledge that it is an ancient institution that has been closely associated with the land situation in this country for over 100 years. The Land Commission was originally set up in 1881 as a rent fixing body under the Land Law (Ireland) Act of that year. It subsequently developed by law into a tenant-purchase agency and as such was the body responsible for the dismantling of the landlord system and the conversion of tenants into proprietors. Ultimately, it embarked on a countrywide programme of land structural reform and became a great purchaser and distributor of land. Its prime objective at this stage was to relieve congestion. This objective was to be attained through the enlargement and rearrangement of small holdings and through migration.
No one can deny that the Land Commission was effective in pursuing its aims. The figures speak for themselves. Since 1923 over 108,000 tenants were assisted in purchasing almost three million acres and over two million acres were distributed among uneconomic small-holders, migrants and others. In addition, the Land Commission carried out extensive improvement works. It built houses and outoffices, it carried out drainage, reclamation and fencing and it provided roads and water supplies.
By the end of the 1970s, however, the traditional activity of the Land Commission — that of acquiring and redistributing land — was running into difficulties. In the first place there were by this time very few large estates available for acquisition. The Land Commission could, of course, have continued to acquire smaller unused farms but such acquisitions had very little impact on structural improvement. Indeed, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the effort and costs involved in acquiring these smaller properties could not be justified in terms of results. In the second place land prices had risen at an unprecedented rate during the seventies and were by this time far in excess of what the Land Commission could recover on allotment. The level of subsidy involved in resale was putting an increasing and unacceptable burden on the Exchequer.
An interdepartmental committee set up to examine the land question concluded that the policy of acquisition and redistribution executed by the Land Commission had outlived its usefulness and should be abandoned. Acquisition ceased in 1983 and the Bill before the House is designed to give statutory effect to this position.
Briefly the Bill provides for the dissolution of the Land Commission, i.e., the abolition of the offices of the judicial commissioner and the lay commissioners; the revocation of the power of the State to compulsorily take over land, except by exchange, for land settlement purposes, the transfer to the President of the High Court of the jurisdictions vested in the office of the judicial commissioner and in the appeal tribunal, the transfer to the Minister for Agriculture and Food of certain functions of the commission and the three lay commissioners, the transfer to the Minister of all land and other property vested in the Commission, with the exception of fishing rights and fisheries which will be transferred to the Central Fisheries Board and the payment of compensation to the lay commissioners.
I should like to make clear at this stage that the dissolution of the Land Commission does not mean the end of all services in relation to land settlement. Apart from the acquisition and division of land all the other services will continue. These include the disposal of the small area of land remaining on hands the revesting in the names of the new owners of land already allotted/and of land yet to be allotted the exercise of statutory control over the subdivision of farms and over the purchase of land by non-qualified persons, mainly companies and non-EC nationals, the promotion of group purchase and leasing of land as well as provision of assistance for schemes for rearrangement and commonage division, and miscellaneous statutory and other obligations, such as the collection of annuities, custody of title documents, the management of lands awaiting disposal and responsibilities of the offices of Examiner of Title and the Public Trustee. These services will be discharged by a special unit of the Department under the aegis of the Minister.
I would like to say a few words about two of these services in particular, the division of commonages and leasing. A considerable area of land is held in common particularly in the west of Ireland. We all know that such land is generally neglected with the result that productivity is low. There also is a greater risk of animal disease where herds are inter-mixing freely. It is desirable from the point of view of better land use and the control of disease that these commonages be divided between the various shareholders involved and the new plots incorporated into the shareholders' existing holdings.
Some years ago the Department mounted a campaign to encourage farmers in this direction. The response has been highly gratifying. Over the past ten years the total number of commonages divided was 389 among 2,074 shareholders and involving an area of 14,697 hectares. As there is still a considerable area to be divided, the Department will continue to give advice and assistance in relation to commonage division.
Owner-occupiership has been the dominant form of land tenure in this country for over 80 years. While ownership has advantages it also has a downside in the sense that it prevents movement in land. In an effort to liberalise the system the Government set about popularising the concept of medium and long term leasing some years ago. To this end legislation was introduced removing any disabilities which a lessor might suffer through leasing. Following the enactment of this legislation, there was an upsurge in the amount of land being leased. Of late, however, the movement has slowed down. Recent measures by the Government should help to revive interest in it.
Under the young farmers installation aid scheme a young farmer is entitled to a premium of £5,600 on taking over a farm for the first time. Up to now this farm would have had to be owned. Under new relaxations which have been introduced the farm may now be leased.
The pre-retirement scheme for farmers which was approved by the EC earlier this year, provides a generous pension for farmers over 55 years of age who sell or lease their farms to suitable applicants. It is considered that these two measures should give a major boost to leasing and farmer mobility.
It is, I believe, widely acknowledged that the Land Commission played a very positive role in maximising the number of families on the land in economic security. Unfortunately, the size of holding necessary to provide economic security where traditional farming enterprises are involved has increased significantly over the years and we must accept that to cling to a policy of land acquisition and redistribution would seriously undermine our own stated social policy in this area and would ultimately serve to reduce the number of family farms.
When the Bill was going through the Dáil Deputies on both sides of the House were concerned that there was no proposal for a new land policy to replace the traditional one. The main concern was to ensure that land coming on the market was channelled into the hands of young progressive farmers. This is an objective to which we all subscribe. Unfortunately, it is simpler in theory than implementation. For some time now the whole question of such a land policy has been under examination in the Department. In the course of this examination several options were put forward but it was felt that the exercising of any of them could create more problems than it would solve.
The basic fact is that any attempt to control the movement of land implies an interference with the right to free sale. As this right is written into the Constitution and is one that is highly valued by the farming community, any curtailment of it would not generally be acceptable.
In the end it was decided that the way to maintain family farms is to ensure that maximum benefit is derived from our membership of the European Community. The situation is, of course, being kept under review and if it emerges at some time in the future that too much land is being accumulated in two few hands remedial action will have to be considered.
On a broad front I think the whole question of land must be seen in the context of the Common Agricultural Policy. Despite its recent reform, or indeed perhaps because of this reform with its attendant production quotas and compensatory payments, I believe that now, more than ever, the way to preserve the family farm is not through the acquisition of additional land but by availing, to the maximum extent possible of EC backed schemes. In recent years a whole. range of structural measures have been put in place. These are aimed at improving the income situation of farmers. I cannot emphasise strongly enough that I think it would be in the best interests of farmers, and particularly the smaller ones, to avail of these measures to the full rather than be striving to acquire additional land.
Rural development is a new concept that has entered the agricultural vocabulary. I think this is a progressive concept that holds out great promise for the future. Farmers should no longer be seen as a group isolated from the other classes in society. Rather they are part of the broader community that makes up the rural scene. There are now a number of schemes aimed at improving the standard of living of this community. One of the most exciting of these schemes is the one that encourages investment in agritourism facilities. This scheme was launched last year and the response was so high that the funds allocated for it were committed inside a few months. As a result, a large number of applications had to be put on hold. I am hoping to get additional funding for this scheme shortly. This will enable many of the applications on hand to be processed so that work can begin under this scheme again.
Another scheme that attracted a good response was the alternative enterprise scheme. This provided generous grants for such enterprises as horses, deer, goats, rabbits and others. These are but some of the measures in operation aimed at improving conditions in rural Ireland. There are others. The effect of all these measures is to provide an opportunity to farmers and others living in the country to improve their standard of living. I am satisfied that this is the route that offers the greatest opportunities for our future.
The question of a land authority was raised in the course of the debate in the Dáil. I confess that I personally favour a body which would monitor the overall developments as regards land use in the country, with particular attention to agricultural and rural development aspects, and which could formulate ideas on the subject to convey to Ministers and to the Department. Indeed, I have asked that this idea be examined by the expert review group which is currently working on the new development programme for the agriculture sector in the context of theProgramme for Economic and Social Progress. I expect this group, which includes representatives of my Department and of the farming organisations participating in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress, to report within the next few months and I have no doubt that they will have given careful consideration to the point which I have asked them to examine.
I expect that in the light of all developments Senators will agree that the Land Commission is somewhat of an anachronism in today's world. That does not mean that it did not play its part in laying the foundation of a sound agricultural structure. Given all the constraints under which it had to operate its contribution to land settlement could only be described as monumental. I am sure that I am speaking on behalf of every Member of this House in acknowledging the great work and in paying tribute to the men and women who, down the years, gave themselves to this work with such zeal and dedication. The country owes them a deep debt of gratitude. As this "ancient institution" is being consigned to history I think an appropriate epitaph would besic transit gloria mundi.