Before we commence, I remind Senators that they may each speak only once on Report Stage, except to propose an amendment and reply to the discussion on it. Also, on Report Stage, each amendment must be seconded.
Land Bill 2004: Report and Final Stages.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 3, between lines 31 and 32, to insert the following:
"(2) Within 10 days of the commencement of this section, the Minister shall consult with the Minister for Finance as to the feasibility of increasing the threshold amount in subsection (1) to €500.”.
I welcome the Minister back to the House for the Report Stage debate. I was disappointed that we were not allowed to raise this issue on Committee Stage. The Minister is proposing to write off everything below €200 due in land annuity bills, including arrears. We propose to increase the threshold to under €500. We want this Bill to be a success. The Minister recognised that when she addressed the House. It has the capacity to be good legislation. However, as it stands, it is mediocre. I wish to afford the Minister the opportunity to make it good legislation and a worthwhile exercise.
The indication is that it costs the Department more to collect these annuities, approximately €200,000, than is gained from collecting them. The same would apply if our amendment to increase the threshold to under €500 were accepted. It would bring approximately another 1,000 farmers on board and save much money and time, releasing Department officials to carry out other more important duties.
The Minister said she wants the Bill to be a success. I also want the Bill to be a success. I formally propose the threshold be increased to under €500. It would be of benefit to smaller farmers who are under tremendous pressure. There is a flight from the land on a daily basis. We want to help smaller farmers, keep them on the land, enable them to compete and keep them in rural Ireland. Not only will agriculture benefit, but the whole fabric of rural society will benefit if those farmers and their families are kept on the land. The Department will make savings towards the cost of collections and the amendment will also make the Bill more attractive.
This is a different amendment from that ruled out of order on Committee Stage.
I second the amendment.
Tá an Seanadóir níos cliste inniu agus sin an fáth go bhfuil an leasú os ár gcomhair. Tá mé ag iarraidh, áfach, an rud ceart a dhéanamh do na feirmeoirí. Bhí seansanna acu cheanna leis seo a dhéanamh agus fuair siad tacaíocht ó mo chomhghleacaí. Ní féidir seo a dhéanamh níos fearr.
Senator Coonan's proposal would only increase eligibility for the write-off to another 1,000 farmers. My predecessor had discussions with the relevant Departments and nothing better can be provided with regard to this deal. The legislation must provide the best deal possible for farmers while ensuring justification and equitable balance between the taxpayer and the annuitant. The Government has gone beyond the commitment given in the Sustaining Progress agreement "significantly to reduce the burden of land purchase annuities for substantial numbers of farmers". The burden will be removed for 4,500 farmers.
I appreciate Senator Coonan's point and his amendment carries some merit. However, I am not in a position to allow the proposed provision to proceed.
The farmers whom we want to help the most are those most in need of such help. The category of farmers affected by the provisions of this amendment is in dire need. These farmers need help in order to stay on the land and to maintain the fabric of rural Ireland by keeping their families on the land. I want this Bill to be successful as it includes many good provisions. If the Minister for Agriculture and Food were to yield on this amendment, however, the Bill would be more attractive. Some 1,000 more farmers would be included and this would achieve the Minister's stated aim of making the Bill more attractive so that its provisions will be taken up by more farmers and farming families. The amendment affords the Minister the opportunity to achieve this. Why would the Minister go against her objective? The inclusion of 1,000 extra farmers would have a significant impact on those farmers' lives and businesses and on the rural community.
Acceptance of this amendment would double the lack of resource from the land annuitant to the State. As I indicated on Committee Stage, these people are not necessarily those with significant arrears. This was on the basis of a fair system where, despite a 50% write-off and a review of repayments, significant arrears still exist. It is unjustifiable on the basis of the asset that has been accrued and because there is better access to financial assistance such as loans or mortgages through the private sector rather than the State sector. It is best that the Government tries to address and bring to finality the issue of annuitants. I appreciate the Senator's point but I cannot accept his amendment.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 4, between lines 10 and 11, to insert the following:
"(2) Within 10 days of the commencement of this section, the Minister, following consultation with the Minister for Finance shall lay a Report before both Houses of the Oireachtas indicating the grounds in favour of reducing the percentage payable in subsection (1) to 50%.”.
I second the amendment.
There is a precedent for this amendment in that previous proposed legislation by a former Minister for Agriculture and Food allowed for a 50% write-off of annuities. We all want to make the Bill more attractive. The Government is putting forward a lesser proposal than on the previous occasion, which did not prove successful and was not taken up by the desired amount of farmers. The Bill should offer provisions at least as attractive as those previously available. This amendment deals only with annuity, not arrears. As I pointed out regarding the previous amendment, the cost to the Department of the collection of arrears is outweighing the benefits. If one allows for what the Department will lose by dropping the provision to 50%, thus making it more attractive to farmers, even including the collection cost, it is of benefit to the Department.
In view of the Minister's refusal to increase the threshold as proposed in the first amendment, I shall press this amendment. The legislation must be attractive for the farming community and we must finally get rid of the land annuities. The Minister spoke about arrears in her reply to the last amendment but she has overlooked a point. When this contract was given by the Land Commission to farmers, there was a period of high interest rates. The Minister observed that rates were on occasion in excess of 11%; they were periodically in excess of 18% and 20%. Much of the money accrued over those years was interest payments by farmers.
The Minister also spoke about assets. It is important to recognise that the members of the farming community who took possession of land from land divisions put significant investment into that land to modernise, reclaim and make it productive. This increased the standard of living in rural Ireland and also the standard of food produced. The Minister must give due recognition to this achievement. I propose, therefore, that the write-off rate be set at 50% rather than the 25% proposed in the Bill.
I am sorry to disappoint Senator Coonan. I like the inclusion of the words "following consultation with the Minister for Finance" in the amendment but even if I were to accept it, the Department of Finance would not approve its provision.
This issue was negotiated by my predecessor. The value of land has increased considerably and the annuities are comparatively minor. A write-off for 4,500 farmers represents the fairest possible provision by my Department. The Department did its best to deal with arrears by offering re-negotiated deals to farmers in difficulty but no effort was made by some of the latter. As is common, people leave matters to the last minute, when pressure is applied, before dealing with their affairs. Each of us may be guilty of taking such a lackadaisical approach. I appreciate Senator Coonan's argument in attempting to attract more farmers to the Bill's provisions but the 25% write-off is as fair as the Department can be on this occasion. I do not wish to be disingenuous to Members by saying I could find myself in a position where the Senator's proposal would be acceptable.
I support the Minister for Agriculture and Food although I appreciate Senator Coonan's point. I have also read the IFA's submission. The Minister is correct about the value of land today in comparison to its value when the Land Commission stopped buying. At that time, land was valued at £1,500 per acre at most. In the years prior to that, land was acquired by the Land Commission for as little as £300 to £600 per acre. When one considers the value of land today, it is unfortunate Senator Coonan is taking the line he is, although I can understand it. It is the taxpayer who picks up the tab, whether capital or interest is lost. The deal being offered in this Bill is extremely generous and fair, relative to the value of land today as against when it was bought or given. We should support it.
In the context of today's land values, the Senator's comments are amazing. Much of the land has decreased significantly in value and many farms have been withdrawn from sale in the past 12 months because nobody wants to buy them. Unless one is a big business person, looking for a holiday home or wants to get into farming as a pastime——
In the Tipperary newspapers last week it was reported that people were advised to pull out.
I did not interrupt the Senator so he should allow me the floor.
The Senator, without interruption.
I am amazed when I hear what people such as the Minister and Senator Callanan say about this matter. They are far removed from the reality of what is happening in agriculture with the ordinary farmer. The land is worth nothing to the ordinary farmer if he is to continue as a farmer. He farms the land and its value is handed down from one generation to another. To the majority of farmers I speak about, the value of their land is insignificant in the context of this proposal. What is significant is what they must pay to stay on the land.
I am concerned about the farmers who want to stay on the land and raise their families on it. They want to be part of their community. When people speak of the value of people's houses in Dublin 4 being €2 million or €3 million, how does that affect their work or daily life? The Minister and Senator Callanan should join the real world. The value of the farmer's property does not apply. If he or she wants to stay on the land, he or she must farm it and hand it on to his or her son or whoever is next in line.
To return to this Bill, most farmers have paid enormous interest rates over the years and have paid significant amounts of money off what they owe. The precedent for the previous proposal was 50%. I propose that the least we should do is follow precedent and set the annuities at 50% rather than the 75% mentioned in the Bill.
Mar a luaigh mé, is mór an trua é go bhfuil fearg ar an Seanadóir. Tá a fhios agam faoin bhrú millteanach atá ar na feirmeoirí, ach ag an am céanna, is margadh maith é seo. Dá bhrí sin, níl mé ábalta an leasú seo a ghlacadh.
I appreciate the Senator's sincerity. We are all sincere in our efforts to provide the best legislation. However, I am not in a position to accept the 50% write-off.
- Bannon, James.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Browne, Fergal.
- Burke, Paddy.
- Burke, Ulick.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Coonan, Noel.
- Cummins, Maurice.
- Feighan, Frank.
- Finucane, Michael.
- Hayes, Brian.
- McCarthy, Michael.
- McDowell, Derek.
- McHugh, Joe.
- Norris, David.
- O’Meara, Kathleen.
- Phelan, John.
- Quinn, Feargal.
- Ross, Shane.
- Ryan, Brendan.
- Bohan, Eddie.
- Brady, Cyprian.
- Brennan, Michael.
- Callanan, Peter.
- Cox, Margaret.
- Daly, Brendan.
- Dooley, Timmy.
- Feeney, Geraldine.
- Fitzgerald, Liam.
- Glynn, Camillus.
- Hanafin, John.
- Kenneally, Brendan.
- Kett, Tony.
- Kitt, Michael P.
- Leyden, Terry.
- MacSharry, Marc.
- Mansergh, Martin.
- Mooney, Paschal C.
- Moylan, Pat.
- O’Brien, Francis.
- O’Rourke, Mary.
- Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
- Ormonde, Ann.
- Phelan, Kieran.
- Scanlon, Eamon.
- Walsh, Kate.
- White, Mary M.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.
This is a technical amendment.
Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 are cognate on amendment No. 4 and all may be taken together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 4, line 24, to delete "Department" and substitute "Minister".
I wish to reiterate the case I made on Committee Stage regarding these amendments. I have obtained advice from senior counsel on this issue in the interim. The Department of Agriculture and Food is not a legal entity. The Minister is the legal corporate entity and, accordingly, the section should refer to moneys due by the Minister to a person. On Committee Stage the Minister stated:
My Department is the competent authority for purposes of EU funding. As many of the payments to farmers have been partially funded by the Exchequer and co-funded by the EU, the advice of the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel is that the Department is the correct legal entity.
This does not address the basic point I raised which is that under Irish law the Minister is the appropriate legal entity. The Public Service Management Act 1997 provided for Departments to be given legal status. Will the Minister clarify whether she is relying on that provision?
I second the amendment.
My Department is the competent authority for the purposes of EU funding. As many of the payments made to farmers are partially funded by the Exchequer and co-funded by the EU, the advice of the Parliamentary Counsel is "the Department" is the correct legal term.
That is similar to the response on Committee Stage. However, the amendments have been tabled in the context of Irish law. The Minister has not addressed the basic point. The Public Service Management Act 1997 provided for Departments to be given legal status and I seek clarity in this regard. Clearly, the Department is not a legal entity. The Labour Party has obtained legal opinion on this matter which is a fundamental point in the context of Irish law.
I support Senator McCarthy and am surprised the Minister is not accepting these amendments. Ministers, by and large, like to give the impression to farmers that it is they who are providing money. If the amendments were made, the Minister would get the credit rather than the Department. From that point of view, I find it surprising the Minister is not in favour.
The Minister is politically responsible. The Public Service Management Act is the Irish legislative measure by which it is determined that the Department is a legal entity. I have been advised that the inclusion in this legislation of the term "Department" is the best way to proceed.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 4, lines 33 and 34, after "payments" to insert "(other than payments discharged under section 2 or payments otherwise not recoverable in law)”.
This amendment has been changed somewhat since Committee Stage to clarify our intention in tabling it. There could be many instances in which there are arrears of annuity payments which are not recoverable. Such arrears might be statute barred or have been discharged under section 2 of the Bill. In such cases, arrears should not prevent the issue of a certificate for the purposes of section 5. As the Minister's response on Committee Stage, which I will not repeat, seemed to confuse and misunderstand the amendment, we have tabled it again. We maintain that future payments could not possibly be included as section 5 refers only to payments up to the date of the certificate.
Section 13 provides that the Bill will be commenced by section or paragraph. The first section to be commenced will be section 2, which provides for the write-off and will remove from approximately 4,500 annuitants the burden of land purchase annuities and any requirement to obtain a certificate under section 5. Similarly, anyone who avails of the buy-out scheme under section 3 will not require a certificate under section 5. I have already advised the House that most transactions requiring a certificate will be commercial and involve the selling by annuitants in arrears of land for sums far in excess of the price paid when the land was allotted to them. There is no reason for such annuitants not to pay off arrears. Indeed, the taxpayer is entitled to see the State recoup all moneys due to it, particularly where individuals have gained substantially due to the significant increase in land values.
Furthermore, it is not the general practice of commercial lending institutions to remove burdens on land unless they receive full settlement of debts including interest payments and penalties owed. In the case of land annuities, there is no additional interest or penalty for late payment and it is equitable for the State to collect payments owing to it bearing in mind the burden on the taxpayer. I have previously advised the House that in the case of non-commercial transactions such as family settlements, an annuitant in arrears who is unable to repay should contact my Department without delay.
With the agreement of the House, I propose to extend the debate until 12.10 p.m.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 4, line 35, to delete "not more than" and substitute "on or after the day which is".
This is merely a drafting amendment which is designed to remove an ambiguity in the subsection. As drafted, the subsection provides that a certificate of the Minister must be dated not more than four months prior to the date of the instrument. The provision is somewhat ambiguous and could be open to the interpretation that the certificate must be dated prior to the instrument and also not more than four months prior to it. Amendment No. 8 makes clear that it is perfectly in order to produce a certificate which is dated after the date of the instrument. While I acknowledge the Minister's reply on Committee Stage, we have retabled the amendment to make our intention a little clearer. While our proposed wording is longer than the Minister's, it is clearer.
If the Senator is elected to the Dáil and his party forms a Government, I imagine he will look for the job of Attorney General. As I previously advised the House, I intend that the date of the instrument affecting property transactions shall not be more than four months after the date of the certificate. As the wording of the proposed amendment is confusing, I prefer to retain the clear and concise wording supplied by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel.
The Minister's wording is confusing and our amendment was tabled in the second instance in the interest of clarity.
I move amendment No. 9:
In page 4, between lines 36 and 37, to insert the following:
"(2) The Minister shall, on application by a person entitled to a certificate under subsection (1), issue such a certificate as soon as practicable after such an application.”.
On Committee Stage, the Minister did not like the phrase "as soon as practicable". The term "as soon as may be" provides more discretion. There is a strange omission from the section. While an individual is required to produce a certificate by the Minister under subsection (1), there is no obligation on the Minister to issue a certificate to a person entitled to it. It is entirely appropriate, fair and balanced to accept amendment No. 9 to evenly distribute responsibility in terms of issuing certificates.
This matter was discussed on Committee Stage and included reference to the phrase "as soon as practicable". It is my intention that following the buy-out the number of applicants for certificates will be very small. Even now, the Department issues subdivision consents within a few days of the receipt of a request. It is our clear intention on commencement of the legislation that the matter will be dealt with expeditiously. There is absolutely no reason that should not be so. The Senator has my personal commitment that I will ensure this is the case.
I thank the House for facilitating this legislation and acknowledge the contributions of Senators on all sides. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach, his staff, the staff of the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, the Attorney General and my new officials who have been working on this Bill for some time. I hope the legislation represents a good deal for farmers and the community. I urge Members to do their utmost to encourage farmers to participate in the buy-out scheme on commencement of the legislation as we will in the Department. Farmers should also be encouraged to prepare for any legal matters which may arise.
I thank Members for the warm welcome and good wishes they offered on my appointment. I look forward to the change of atmosphere in due course.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House and introducing the Bill. I thank her departmental officials also. The Minister dealt very fairly with the comments which were offered from all sides of the House. I thank Senators for contributing.
I thank the Minister and her officials for attending the House this and last week. The purpose of our amendments was to improve the quality of legislation, an objective to which we all aspire. I wish the Minister well in her new brief.
I thank the Minister and her officials for coming to the House and compliment them on the manner in which they dealt with the legislation before us. My regret is that what will be very good legislation could have been great had the Minister accepted our amendments. I remind the Minister that we will watch carefully to ensure she honours the commitments she has given us that the Department will not raid payments due to farmers from premium payments etc. for collection purposes. She said that would be a last resort. I wish to reiterate that we will be watching that carefully. A commitment has been given to the drawing up of a plan for farmers in arrears. We will be watching that also. The benefits of this legislation to GAA clubs and other community groups is to be welcomed.