That Seanad Éireann,
in view of:—
the challenges facing Irish agriculture and the need to encourage the maximum transfer of farms into the ownership of young, qualified farmers;
the demographic challenge the current age profile of Irish agriculture presents;
the Programme for Government commitment to ‘Continue to offer a range of supports to young farmers entering agriculture — including education, taxation measures and direct start-up aid';
the commitment in the Rural Development Programme 2007-2013 to the rejuvenation of the Irish farming sector as a continued priority of Irish agricultural policy;
the disproportionate impact changes to the Disadvantaged Areas Scheme will have on farmers and their future viability;
condemns the Government's decision to suspend the Young Farmer's Installation Aid Scheme, the Early Retirement Scheme and to reduce the payments under the Disadvantage Areas Scheme;
and calls on the Government to:—
immediately restore the Young Farmer's Installation Aid Scheme;
immediately restore the Early Retirement Scheme and;
immediately reverse cutbacks to the Disadvantaged Areas Scheme.".
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Trevor Sargent, to the House.
This motion expresses the disappointment, anger, upset and outrage of thousands of farming families throughout the country arising from the budgetary announcement some weeks ago. If there had not been an October budget and if we were still awaiting the Minister's annual financial statement, we could be addressing many of the other valid and pressing matters of concern to the farming community this afternoon. We could, for example, discuss the drop in farm incomes, the collapse in milk prices, the problems facing the sheep sector, the problem with regard to farm pollution grants and the deadline imposed by the Department which will cause many farmers not to obtain badly needed grant aid. These pressing issues concerning farmers and the agricultural community have been to the fore in all public debates on agriculture in recent months.
We then had budget day when the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food combined to introduce a series of budgetary measures that are devastating for the farming community. We must all recognise that the country faces a genuine economic crisis. This side of the House would point out that the problems we face have arisen as a result of incorrect budgetary decisions taken in the past five or six years. Notwithstanding that, we are where we are and must work together to make progress and get out of this situation. The general economic view is that we should try to spread the burden in a fair and equitable fashion so that where there must be pain, it will be shared. All sectors of society recognise this, none more than the farming community.
Farming families throughout the country take weekly, monthly and annual budgetary decisions with regard to their family farms, their businesses, cutbacks, expansion and whatever. Farmers recognise the financial crisis as much as, if not more than, most. However, as a result of the budget, severe and unfair penalties are being imposed across the board. The income levy, for example, and its failure to take into account such matters as capital allowances may be a matter for another day, but it is a big burden on farming families.
The Fine Gael motion refers to a number of the budgetary measures causing such disquiet to farming families, young farmers in particular. I refer first to the young farmers' installation aid scheme. It must be a political aspiration of the Minister of State and his departmental colleagues to ensure a new generation of farmers and farming families emerge and that land is transferred to trained young farmers who will continue the proud record of Irish agriculture.
In the past 30 or 40 years, significant moneys have been invested in agriculture research, farm training facilities and Teagasc and its predecessor ACOT. We encouraged young farmers to take up agriculture courses, beginning with the 80-hour courses, followed by 120-hour courses and green certificate courses and now training has become more formal. At the end of training there was a possibility for young farmers to get a farm installation grant. That was welcome and was a genuine financial incentive which paid bills and enabled land and farms to be transferred to young trained people and a new era in agriculture to happen. The budgetary decision to discontinue the installation aid scheme was a bolt from the blue.
The same applies to the early retirement scheme. This scheme was introduced some time ago and has been very successful. It allowed retiring farmers to make financial arrangements to allow their lands to be leased or transferred into the hands of the new generation, something that should be encouraged. In a sense, the installation aid grant and the retirement scheme went hand in hand. Therefore, it is a double blow to unsuspecting families to have two significant income schemes withdrawn in a single budgetary announcement.
The final part of the Fine Gael motion refers to the cutbacks in the disadvantaged areas scheme. Since the entry of Ireland into the European Union in 1973, one of the most successful agri-schemes has been the scheme of support for disadvantaged areas. We all recall the campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s to extend the disadvantaged areas. No scheme is ever 100% successful, but from the agricultural perspective, the disadvantaged areas scheme gave help, support and financial assistance to those with the least opportunity, because of the quality of their lands, to generate sufficient income to keep their families farming. The significant cutbacks in the disadvantaged areas scheme is a bitter blow.
The Minister of State is attempting to chart a way forward in the horticultural area, the section for which he has departmental responsibility. We have debated horticulture previously and the Minister of State is the first to acknowledge that, for better or worse, it always will be only a small part of the broader agriculture budget and policy.
It is ironic that the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Sargent, is taking this debate given his role as a representative of the Green Party. My Fine Gael colleagues and I recall the megaphone campaign conducted during the previous general election to warn farming families that voting for Fine Gael would result in the Green Party entering Government by the back door. As it turned out, the Green Party was introduced to Government by Fianna Fáil, and good luck to it.
The Minister of State is present because the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Smith, is away on Government business. The Minister and Fianna Fáil wing, rather than the Green Party or Independent wings, of Government must take the blame for selling farming down the river in last month's budget. I appeal to the Minister of State to ask the Minister to reflect on his actions. The proposed cuts are minimal in the context of the overall savings required in the budget but the signals they send are devastating to the younger generation of farmers because they imply that Government policy will not guarantee certainty or long-term support. This is causing young farmers to question their futures in the industry. Last Thursday a meeting organised by Macra na Feirme was attended by hundreds of young farmers who expressed feelings of outrage. Crowds of 800 and more were attracted to public meetings organised by the IFA over the past several weeks and, again, feelings of despair and anger were widely aired.
While farmers are willing to take their fair share of the hardships required under the new economic dispensation, they are not prepared to lie down in the face of these unjust cuts. Notwithstanding that the Green Party is the junior party in Government, I hope the Minister of State will ask the Minister and his colleagues to reflect on what they have done. My party recognises that the nation's financial plight has to be alleviated. In advance of the Budget Statement, the Fine Gael Party spokesperson on finance, Deputy Bruton, presented an alternative economic analysis which accepted the need for financial restraint and pointed out the savings that could be made in terms of public service job cuts and salary caps. These were realistic proposals. We did not table this motion to seek money that does not exist or because we are unwilling to recognise the financial crisis facing the country. Agriculture is an important part of the economy but its future depends on young farmers being able to take over their family farms with the aid of installation grants and retirement schemes for their parents.
Over the past fortnight, my colleague, Deputy Creed, has consistently raised the issue of legitimate expectations. This issue deserves to be addressed in a legal analysis by the Department. Farmers who signed contracts to lease land and completed the appropriate training were in some cases unable to submit their application forms because the Revenue Commissioners failed to stamp their deeds. These people had a legitimate and genuine expectation of obtaining an installation grant for themselves and pensions for their parents but they have been left in the lurch. Their plight must be addressed in the near future.