I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I welcome the Minister to the House. I will begin by providing some background information on farm safety issues and fatalities on farms, of which not everyone may be aware. Unfortunately in the year to May, nine of the 17 recorded workplace deaths happened on farms or in the agricultural sector. The sector accounted for more than 50% of workplace fatalities but only accounts for 5% of the workforce.
There are also many non-fatal accidents. To provide one quick statistic on that, the Teagasc national survey for 2012 to 2017 showed that there were 2,814 accidents on Irish farms, which is to say that there were accidents on 11% of all farms surveyed. The amount of accidents - whether minor or otherwise, they are still accidents - which go unreported must also be factored in. It is up to individuals to report them and, as we can all appreciate, many accidents are never reported.
Based on what I have outlined and on my lifetime of involvement in agriculture - I was born on a farm and still farm part time - I was very aware of this issue when I came into the Seanad and beforehand, when I was on the council. One sees these figures, which are astounding, throughout one's life, especially when one has a vested interest. With what might be called a burst of enthusiasm or, perhaps, political naivety when I came in here I took on this issue, along with some other things, as something I believed I could do something about or something I could influence in order to help to reduce the figures I have mentioned.
I was appointed to the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. When we were setting out a work programme at the start of our term I proposed that farm safety be included on it. I thought I could start to achieve my goal from there. Unfortunately, I was informed on the day that I was at the wrong committee, that it was a matter for the Joint Committee on Business, Enterprise and Innovation, and that the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, and the Minister under whose aegis it falls had ultimate responsibility. I was told that it was outside the remit of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine to deal with farm safety. Despite this, on the three occasions on which I have been here for farm safety week, it has been the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine who has come before us. When one raises questions about farm safety, as often as not Teagasc is quoted or one is referred to Teagasc.
I began to look at this conundrum and as I carried out research and looked into it I saw that many agencies, both State agencies and NGOs, are doing good work but that many of the problems we have are caused by issues falling through the cracks and by a lack of co-ordination or contact between the various bodies, both State and non-State. I started research on this project 18 months ago and we are only discussing it today. During my research and studies I did a lot of reading up on the Road Safety Authority. At some stage the penny dropped with me. The reason for its success since its inception and formation in 2006 was that it provided a direct link between the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, which policed the roads, the Department of Transport, which was responsible for the roads and, to an extent, the Department which had authority over the HSA. The Road Safety Authority was formed in 2006. In that year there were 365 fatalities on our roads; in 2018 there were 147. Fatalities have more than halved.
What I am proposing is not identical, but it is based on this model. I am not saying that it will or can produce the same results, but it is a starting point. I want to make it clear that what I am proposing in this Bill, the farm safety agency I would like to see set up, is a starting point. I am quite prepared to meet with Members from all parties and none to work through the procedures in place. I would hope to do that on Committee Stage. I am prepared to look at amendments. I hope that people can improve the Bill. I will accept any constructive criticism or improvements to what I am proposing.
What I am proposing is a farm safety agency. This would be a body within the HSA. Some people to whom I have spoken have said that they like the idea, which they believe is good, has potential, and could make a difference, but ask whether we are setting up a new body, or "quango" as they are called in some circles. Section 2(1)(d) of the Bill refers specifically to, "a work programme prepared by the Agency and submitted to the Authority". The new section 35(1A) to the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 proposed in section 4 states, "Where the Authority considers it appropriate in the circumstances, additional functions conferred on it under this section may, in whole or in part or for specified purposes, be performed by the Agency under section 36A(3)(l)." This proposed new section in turn states, "There is established a body within the Authority to be known as [...] the Farm Safety Agency". I am not looking for a brand new body. I am not trying to reinvent the wheel. What I want to introduce is an agency within the Health and Safety Authority which would have sole responsibility for safety issues relating to farms and agriculture. This agency would not just be a sub-committee or forum, but an agency with statutory and legislative footing. It would, could and should create a link between the two interested and relevant Departments, namely, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation.
The reason a specific individual farm agency is needed, as opposed to the arrangements in place under the Health and Safety Authority, is that, as workplaces go, farms are unique and very different from the average industrial workplace. There are 140,000 family farms in Ireland; "family" being the operative word. The farmyard can be a playground for the younger generation or a focus of interest for the elder generation who like to be out and to see how things are going. By its nature, farming is very much dependent on the weather, which brings with it a lot of pressures. One can have three wet days in a season, such as the silage season in which we are in at the moment, and then one can have four days' work to do in one day when the fine weather comes. That is a pressure not felt in every other sector.
People will have heard me raising issues of farm income, subsidies and the lack of disposable income farmers have nowadays on numerous occasions. That lack of spendable money means that health and safety issues are often, although not always, put on the long finger. The money is just not there to spend on the necessary repairs to equipment and so on. In farming one is faced with the combination of machinery, animals and chemicals. There are many different dangers. It is a unique way to earn one's livelihood. There are a hell of a lot more possibilities for accidents to occur than in many other sectors. That is why it is so vitally important to have an agency that will look at this sector specifically, taking into consideration the risks and constraints I have mentioned, and which will make a link with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to incentivise, if needs be, some of the measures that need to be taken.
Having said that, while I am specifically proposing the formation of this agency, I am not touching upon, proposing or mentioning any policies that agency could or should enact. I will leave such matters to the agency when it is formed. As I said at the outset, I started out with the hope that I could influence policy direction in respect of farm safety but, because of the difficulties I encountered in my research, I quickly realised that an agency was needed to co-ordinate the good work being done. I do not want to be in any way critical of any of the personnel or agencies, whether Government or non-Government, who are doing fine work. We do not know whether the figures I have quoted would be a lot worse if it were not for the great work being done by the HSA, Teagasc, AgriKids, Agri Aware, Bord Bia and the farm representative bodies. I am not coming in here to be critical of anybody. I am coming in here to try to help all of those people who are working diligently. I am trying to start the conversation and to show that we care and will do something to help the many families who have been bereaved or whose family members have been incapacitated.
When there is a bereavement or serious injury on a farm it affects many people. For example, it affects the parents and the extended family if a young person is involved. If a farmer is involved, it affects the running of the business and, in turn, puts extra strain on those left behind. Given the nature of rural Ireland and the farm family set-up in rural Ireland, a farm fatality affects an entire community. It can bring down a parish or locality. The people affected come together and rally. Those helping out a family who have had some difficulty may be unable to do their own work and this puts extra pressure on their work. That in itself creates a chain reaction.
We need to have a frank and open debate on this topic. I hope I receive the support of the House. What I am proposing may not be what will come out at the other end, but at least we have to analyse it, look through it, go through it, tease it out and see its merits. I believe that after 18 months of work and research, this is a credible solution to the problem we have. It is a solution that can and will help to change the numbers I read out at the start. Some people may say it will be costly or may use money reasons to argue for why it may not work. I genuinely believe that it will be cost-effective and cost-efficient. I am not talking about setting up a brand new agency. It might involve sideways movements of staff. If it is efficient enough it might curtail or cut expenditure being spent by so many different bodies and agencies. In the long run, if we save a life or save people from injury, we would save money that would be spent indirectly through the health services and other supports. I do not think it will be any more expensive to operate but I believe it will be far more efficient and effective.