I congratulate you, a Chathaoirligh, on your recent election and wish you a long and successful tenure in your high office.
This is a technical Bill and should not be controversial. It provides for a number of small but important amendments to the Milk Regulation of Supply) Act, 1994, which provided for the abolition of the Cork and the Dublin District Milk Boards and the establishment of the National Milk Agency to regulate the supply of milk for liquid consumption throughout the State. It also provided for the sale of the former boards' ancillary businesses and included certain provisions to protect the interests of the staff affected by the abolition of the former boards and the sale of the businesses.
I am pleased to say that, in all the most important respects, this Act has worked very well. The milk boards were abolished and their ancillary businesses sold as going concerns. The National Milk Agency was established and, I am glad to say, is operating very effectively. All the main objectives of the Act have been achieved.
The purpose of this Bill is to resolve a few small problems of a technical nature which have emerged over time and to make some small but important improvements in certain areas. The first amendment concerns the disposal of the businesses and assets of the former boards. In order to protect the interests of the staff and to maintain employment at the highest possible level consistent with economic viability, it was decided that the old milk boards' ancillary businesses should be sold as going concerns. The boards' businesses were overstaffed and making financial losses. A staff rationalisation programme was agreed with staff representatives which provided that a certain number would be offered voluntary early retirement and the remainder would transfer to the employ of the new owners on the sale of the businesses. I am pleased to say that the whole operation was completed without any compulsory redundancy.
As provided for in the Act, I established an interim board to oversee the management of the businesses in the period leading up to the sale and also to be responsible for the sale itself. The sale took place by tender. Progressive Genetic Cooperative Society, which was representative of the milk suppliers in the former Dublin board's region, were successful in acquiring the business of the former Dublin board while the former Cork board's business went to Pendine Investments Limited, a consortium comprising Progressive Genetics, Dairygold and the South Western Cattle Breeders Society. The interim board was advised that a better return could be achieved for the State by selling one of the assets, a premises in Cork city which had been the headquarters of the former Cork board, separately from the ancillary business. A small technical amendment to the Act is necessary to allow conclusion of the sale of this property purely for its asset value rather than as part of a going business concern.
The interim board consists of two civil servants from the Departments of Finance and Agriculture, Food and Forestry, respectively, and a chairman from the private sector. As Senators will have gathered from what I have already said, the work of this board is largely concluded. The board itself is of the view that the time for its dissolution is approaching and I accept this view. However, there are a few residual business matters still outstanding and it is not easy to establish a time scale for their completion.
The Act itself already makes provision for the abolition of the board but not for the conduct of any business it might leave unfinished. Rather than leaving the board in existence to deal with a trickle of outstanding business, I want to clear the way for its abolition by providing that any business it may leave unfinished, any assets unrealised or any liabilities undischarged, shall become the responsibility of my Department. I want to stress that I am very pleased with the way the interim board has carried out its work and this amendment is solely to ensure that there will be no lacunae after it is dissolved.
There are some amendments concerned with the election of producer representatives to the board of the National Milk Agency. Senators will remember that the Principal Act provides for the registration of milk producers who are party to a registered contract and the election of producer representatives to the board of the agency by those registered producers. However, when the contracts came to be registered it was noted that in some cases there was more than one person named as the producer and all parties to the contract were registered in the Register of Producers. This meant that, in some cases, there would be more than one person entitled to vote in respect of the same contract. This is obviously unfair. To remedy that, it is proposed to amend the Act to provide that, where more than one person is named as the producer in a contract, the person whose name appears first will be regarded as the principal producer and will be entitled to vote in an election of producer representatives. This is just a step which must be taken to ensure fairness in an election.
There is also the question of ensuring regional balance in the producer representation on the agency. At present, the industry is structured so that there is a number of large-scale pasteurisers, mostly in the eastern region, with a big number of suppliers. On the other hand, there is a considerably larger number of small-scale establishments in other regions with fewer suppliers. The agency has expressed the fear that. if the entire electorate is to form one constituency, the suppliers to the large-scale establishments will predominate in securing representation on the agency, to the virtual exclusion of suppliers to the small-scale firms. I accept this could be the case and, to prevent it, it is proposed to amend the Act to allow the electorate to be divided into constituencies.
Finally, there is the question of representation on the board of the agency. During the debate in the Dáil, the matter of representation by consumers on the agency was discussed. It was suggested that the existing number of such representatives be increased. I was pleased to agree that a provision be included in the Bill that the number of consumers should be not fewer than two which is twice the current representation. As the main role of the agency is to ensure the all year-round supply of drinking milk, it is appropriate that consumers, who are the main beneficiaries of such a system, would be adequately represented on the agency. I am of the view that two representatives would be of great benefit to the agency in carrying out its work.
The per capita consumption of drinking milk in Ireland is among the highest in the world. There are benefits from this both for the economy, given the important role of milk in Irish agriculture, and the health of our people, given the nutritional value of milk as a food product. We want to preserve this situation and that means ensuring an all year-round supply of fresh, high quality and reasonably priced milk for liquid consumption. It is in this context that I intend to increase consumer representation and am confident that this amendment will find favour with Senators. On Committee Stage, I will table a minor technical amendment which will tidy up, from a legal draftsman's view, the wording of the point relating to increased consumer representation.
These are the measures in the Bill before the House. They are relatively minor to the extent that they do not entail any changes of policy or any radical alteration in the means of achieving policy objectives. Nevertheless, they are important in ensuring the effective and efficient achievement of the goals already laid down.
I commend the Bill to the House.