Skip to main content
Normal View

Wednesday, 5 May 2004

Vote 31 — Agriculture and Food (Revised).

I welcome the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, and his officials. We have been asked to consider the Revised Estimates for the Department of Agriculture and Food. I suggest ten minutes be allotted for the opening remarks of each of the spokespersons. Is that agreed? Agreed. We will not hold members to it if they have to run a little over time.

I am pleased to have the opportunity of meeting with the select committee and discussing the 2004 Revised Estimates. I draw the committee's attention to the revised format for my Department's Vote as it appears in the 2004 Revised Book of Estimates. For the financial year 2004 I have streamlined Part II of the Vote and this has resulted in a reduction in the number of programme expenditure subheads from 33 to 13. The new format is designed to more accurately reflect the Department's main business goals and to facilitate a better match between the subheads and the main programmes of my Department.

Furthermore, the grouping of similar programmes and schemes within larger subheads will provide greater operational flexibility in managing the budget during 2004. It can be difficult to predict in advance expenditure on various programmes with accuracy because of their demand-led nature or because spending is dependent on the level of incidence of various animal diseases. This is in line with Government policy of delegating functions to Departments. The new Estimates format for 2004 was, in accordance with public financial procedures, considered and approved by the Committee of Public Accounts prior to publication.

I reassure Deputies that the type of information previously available to Deputies and the general public continues to be available in Part III of the Department's Vote which gives a detailed breakdown of scheme and programme allocations for 2003 and 2004. I hope Deputies find this new format useful in considering the 2004 Estimates. For 2004, the voted gross Estimate allocation for my Department is €1.405 million, which is up €97 million on the 2003 outturn. The corresponding net voted expenditure is €926 million, up €60 million on the corresponding 2003 outturn. The 2004 net allocation represents a 7% increase over the comparable figures for last year.

The Estimate contains a very substantial provision of €680 million for the four accompanying measures under the CAP rural development plan, or REPS, forestry, early retirement and compensatory allowances. This is up 14% on the 2003 outturn. The agri-environment programme, REPS, accounts for €260 million, which is an increase of 43% on the 2003 outturn. There is a provision of €116 million proposed for forestry, responsibility for which transferred to my Department on I January 2004. This is a 40% increase in funding for that sector.

The overall allocation for the agricultural elements of the national development plan and related schemes is up 42% on 2003 outturn. This includes various on-farm investment measures. While most areas of my Department receive increased allocations in 2004, the gross Estimate in 2004 also contains lower provisions for some areas, particularly for general disease control and market supports. These lower provisions are due to positive developments such as the ongoing improvements in the BSE situation and improved market conditions for agricultural products. The improvements in these areas are very welcome and will help to boost farm income generally.

In addition to the voted Estimate provisions, my Department is also responsible for very substantial sums of money paid to farmers and the food industry on behalf of the EU which are not included in the Vote. Expenditure on these payments amounted to €1.53 billion in 2003 which is of enormous importance to farmers, particularly in the beef, sheep and arable crop sectors. For the first time ever the Book of Estimates includes details of this expenditure in order to give the Dáil and the public a more comprehensive picture of the level of public expenditure devoted to agriculture. When voted and non-voted expenditures are taken into account, total public spending on agriculture and food is expected to reach approximately €3 billion in 2004. This is a very high level of public expenditure and underlines the continuing commitment of the Government to the Irish agrifood and forestry sectors.

In spite of the tremendous economic growth in the Irish economy over the past ten years, agriculture is a significant sector of the economy and remains more important to Ireland than to most other EU member states. The agrifood sector as a whole accounts for around 9% of GDP at factor cost, 9% of employment and 8.3% of Irish exports and, with a low import content, contributes a significant share of our total net foreign earnings from exports.

The Government is committed to the long-term development of agriculture, food, forestry and the rural economy. The core of this policy is maintaining family farms and preserving the rural environment as the basis of a thriving rural community and having a competitive agribusiness sector that serves the needs of national and international consumers.

The main priorities for my Department in the 2004 Estimates are: the protection of human and animal health; the implementation of the national development plan and the CAP rural development measures; and the provision of agricultural education, training and research. In these introductory remarks I will touch on each of the 13 programme subheads. Some of my comments will necessarily be very brief but we can take up points of particular interest to Deputies in the subsequent discussion.

Subhead B on research and training provides almost €26 million for expenditure on research, testing and training and reflects a commitment to helping the food industry to position itself for the challenge of competition. The main objective of this expenditure is to bring about an improvement in the quality of agricultural produce through the promotion of research and testing. This is reflected in the substantial allocation for research and development grants for the food sector as well as for Teagasc training under the national development plan. The funding under this subhead is additional to the general grant in aid allocation for Teagasc, part of which funds that organisation's research activity.

Food safety, animal health and welfare and plant health are included under subhead C. The 2004 allocation under subhead C amounts to just over €187 million. The protection of human and animal health continues to be a major priority in the context of the development of our agriculture and food sectors. Apart from the obvious need to protect consumers, the unassailable fact is that if our agrifood industry is to flourish, consumers both at home and abroad must have the full confidence in the methods used in the production and processing of food and that the controls in place ensure that only safe food products reach the marketplace.

The Estimates for this subhead are 24% lower than the outturn for 2003. As I have already mentioned, the lower provision is primarily due to the improved disease situation and the phasing out of Exchequer involvement in funding the disposal of meat and bonemeal.

I would like to comment on some of the major programmes in this area, beginning with BSE. As I said earlier, the 2004 allocation for BSE compensation is significantly lower than the 2003 outturn because of the continuing reduction in the incidence of the disease. The 45% reduction in case numbers between 2002 and 2003 and the continuing increase in the age profile of infected animals reflects the success of the enhanced control measures which were introduced in 1996 and 1997. While a very small number of animals born after 1997 have been identified, the trend remains overwhelmingly positive and I am confident this year will see a further significant reduction in the case numbers of BSE from the 182 identified in 2003.

There is no room for complacency, however, and we are continuing to test all animals over 30 months of age at meat factories as well as casualty and fallen animals over 24 months of age. All of our other controls also remain in place. For market purposes and for various other reasons, full herd depopulation remains an important part of our controls. Like all measures, it will be kept under review in light of scientific and other developments. However, the time has not yet arrived when the policy can be dispensed with without posing an unacceptably high risk to our third country beef and dairy markets. Recent events in Canada and in the United States highlight the continuing sensitivity of overseas markets to this disease.

While the trend regarding BSE is positive across Europe, the ongoing concern about TSEs is reflected in the introduction of new EU measures to deal with scrapie, a disease of sheep, which is in the same family as BSE. Scrapie has existed for several hundred years and has no apparent human health implications. However, scientists fear that because of its clinical similarity to BSE there is a theoretical possibility that it could mask BSE in sheep. Research in this field is ongoing.

Against this background, and in the absence of horizontal EU rules at the time, my Department introduced a depopulation policy for sheep flocks infected with scrapie on a precautionary basis in late 2000. The regime has been modified in line with developing scientific knowledge and decisions at EU level. Accordingly, we now operate a partial depopulation regime based on genotyping of flocks.

A national genotyping programme has recently been launched. The programme is designed to assist farmers nationally in the selection of scrapie-resistant sheep for breeding by approving testing laboratories and providing a national certification system for scrapie-resistant sheep. Membership of this programme will become compulsory for flocks of high genetic merit from 1 April 2005. An accreditation system for recognising scrapie resistance in flocks is also being established.

I have decided to provide a financial kick start to applicants for the national genotyping programme in 2004 to encourage as widespread a participation as possible. This package will involve a payment of €10 for every test and €15 per test for animals which are part of a recognised breed improvement programme. I am also examining the feasibility of introducing, within the next 12 months or so, legislation banning the sale for breeding of rams which are not genotyped. These measures should ensure a healthy take-up of the programme not just among pedigree breeders, but among commercial farmers too.

I am providing €63.88 million for the operational costs of the TB and brucellosis eradication schemes.

These schemes are of major importance in controlling the spread of these diseases which, if they were not controlled, could pose very serious obstacles to our ability to trade in livestock and livestock products. The decrease in the 2004 allocation over 2003 is due mainly to the reduced incidence of these diseases. The number of reactors for both TB and brucellosis has been falling consistently over the past four to five years and it is hoped that this trend will continue. Some 99.5% of cattle pass the TB test each year but TB in wildlife continues to pose the greatest obstacle to further sustained progress.

Under the brucellosis eradication programme, monitoring of the disease is primarily by way of annual blood testing of all eligible animals in every herd. In 2003, just under 5 million blood samples were tested for brucellosis. Further monitoring for brucellosis is carried out by means of monthly testing of milk samples from each herd and blood sampling of cows in slaughter plants, which has proved very effective in disclosing a number of reactors that might otherwise have escaped the net.

I am confident that the incidence of brucellosis disease will continue to decline. I believe there is a broad agreement on the need to maintain the current level of testing and other arrangements we have in place. The existing eradication programme for brucellosis has been endorsed by EU food and veterinary experts who audited the programme in 1999 and again in 2002. Their reports indicated that the current regime should be maintained and that further time will be needed to reap the full effects of the current measures.

The bovine diseases levies were reduced by 25% with effect from 1 January 2004. The resulting annual saving to farmers will be approximately €5 million. Any further reductions will be conditional both on the continued progress on disease levels and securing adjustments to the complementary compensation schemes to the ongoing valuation system.

Also in subhead C, I am providing a sum of €14.7 million in 2004 for the implementation of CMMS and related activities. The expenditure includes capital funding of €6.9 million and current expenditure of €7.8 million. The principal aim of this scheme is to provide an effective cattle identification and tracing system and to underpin efforts to maintain our animal health status, which is vital for securing and retaining markets for Irish products and providing assurances to consumers on the origin and identification of beef.

Current expenditure under this subhead will cover the cost of operating the national bovine animal tagging and registration system; the ongoing maintenance and improvement of the cattle movement monitoring system, CMMS; and the publicity and promotion of the obligations and benefits of the scheme. Capital expenditure will cover the cost of upgrading and replacing computer equipment used to enter and transmit data to CMMS; the development and roll-out of the animal health computer system; the design and development of an Internet based generic animal movement system, AMS, which will ultimately replace CMMS; and providing a computerised traceability mechanism in respect of other species.

The new animal health computer system is currently being rolled out to district veterinary offices. The roll-out is a major undertaking, involving the training of more than 1,000 Department staff as well as staff in up to 550 private veterinary practices. The system provides greater efficiencies in the gathering and use of data and incorporates private veterinary practitioners and the Department's blood testing laboratory, thereby facilitating the direct electronic capture of test data in respect of all animals. The greater availability of data enables the Department to process disease test results more speedily and efficiently and enhances its ability to manage disease testing programmes through improved management reporting, analysis and investigation capability.

From the outset, the system will share data with a number of other departmental systems, including the cattle movement monitoring system and the bovine tagging and registration system, thereby providing a complete picture of an animal's life cycle.

A sum of €20 million is being provided in 2004 for temporary veterinary inspectors, TVIs. The bulk of this allocation will be used to fund the engagement of temporary veterinary inspectors to undertake meat inspection work at export approved slaughter plants. This is an important element of our food safety programme. Expenditure on TVIs engaged on meat inspection work has been under close review in recent times and, following consultation with interested parties, new arrangements have been put in place to facilitate more efficient and flexible deployment of TVIs and to secure operating economies in the process. Under the new arrangements, a range of varying shift periods will allow TVI working times to be better matched to the operations of a plant, giving a better economic utilisation of resources. The new procedures will be reviewed after a year in operation and there is scope for further economies to be made in the provision of the TVI service in meat plants.

Subhead D, which amounts to just over €31 million, covers technical and ancillary costs associated with market intervention and the operation of the FEOGA account through which all EU financed direct payments to farmers are paid. The subhead also deals with IT expenditure associated with the land parcelling system. The intervention mechanism is now less active than in the past because of the strong market in the beef sector. Intervention should also be of reduced importance in the dairy sector following the introduction of the dairy cow premium in the milk sector.

Subhead E provides €231.5 million for direct compensatory allowance payments to almost 100,000 farmers in disadvantaged areas. This is the old headage scheme. This scheme is of major importance to farmers in the disadvantaged areas. The objective of the measure is to compensate farmers for the natural disadvantages associated with farming in these areas and encourage them to remain in farming and sustain a vibrant rural economy. Expenditure on the scheme has increased by almost 50% from €157 million in 1999 to an estimated €231.5 million this year.

The allocation in subhead F for REPS for 2004 is €260 million, compared with expenditure of €182 million in 2003. The objectives of the REPS are: to encourage farming practices and production methods which reflect the need for environmental conservation and protection; to protect wildlife habitats and endangered species of flora and fauna; and to produce high quality food in an extensive and environmentally friendly manner. The provision for REPS is an increase of over €77 million or 43% on the 2003 outturn and it confirms that funding for this scheme is a priority for me. This very significant level of funding will allow for an increase in the number of farmers participating in the scheme and for payment of the increased rates agreed under the Sustaining Progress agreement. One example of the size of increase is that the maximum basic payment of €6,040 in REPS 1 and 2 will, subject to EU approval, increase to €8,550 in REPS 3. That is a very significant increase of 42%.

The 2004 allocation will bring the total spend on REPS to well over €1.3 billion since the scheme was introduced in 1994. The REP scheme has brought benefits to every rural community in Ireland and I take this opportunity to urge all farmers to carefully consider the benefits of participation. This is particularly relevant in the run-up to the introduction of the single payment from January next.

The bulk of subhead G relates to the early retirement scheme — €84 million — with provision also for the current installation aid scheme under the NDP and its predecessor scheme under the Operational Programme for Agriculture Rural Development and Forestry 1994-1999. Both of these schemes are aimed at improving the age structure of Irish farming. There are of course a number of measures under the tax system which also contribute to this objective.

Subhead H provides funding for the Department's various investment grant programmes under the national development plan and other similar measures. For 2004, a sum of €51 million is being provided compared to an outturn of €36 million for 2003. This represents a 42% increase. The range of measures covered by this subhead include on-farm investment, the development of the horticulture sector and equine and cattle breeding infrastructures. It also covers the marketing and processing grants scheme as well as providing grant assistance for the fitting out of the racing academy and centre of education facility which provides for the education and training of young people who wish to work with horses.

The largest element in the subhead relates to the farm waste management scheme, a major agricultural development measure which is particularly important from an environmental perspective. The revised terms and conditions of the scheme, introduced under Sustaining Progress, came into effect from 1 January this year and will do much to accelerate progress under the scheme.

Subhead I relates to forestry. The 2004 forestry provision, at approximately €116 million, represents an increase of €33 million or 40% over the corresponding 2003 provision. The primary focus of this allocation will be directed specifically at the maintenance of a viable planting programme which will fund up to 12,000 hectares of new forestry planting.

Essentially, forestry represents a long-term land use option from the time of planting to felling of the final crop. This creates a need for certainty and long-term planning, in particular. To promote a strong basis for the development of forestry and fulfil a commitment made by the Government in Sustaining Progress, I recently appointed consultants to review the strategic development of the sector. This review will take into account the existing strategy, the impact of reform of the CAP, including the single payment entitlement, current funding methods and structures as well as national and international market and environmental developments. It will be a relatively quick study to be submitted to me by September this year. It is my intention that the review of the strategy will allow us to plan for sustainable development of the sector on a sound and value for money basis. I am convinced that the increased planting programme, when taken with the relaunch of the structural support measures such as roads, reconstitution, the neighbour wood and native woodland schemes, will boost confidence in the sector and provide a good, positive basis for the strategic review.

The 2004 allocation to Teagasc for non-capital purposes amounts to €117 million, which includes a sum of €16 million for pensions. While no funding for capital development purposes is being directly provided from the Exchequer in 2004, Teagasc will be able to use part of the retained proceeds from the sale of its assets in 2003 and 2004 to fund its capital programme this year. This enables the full grant-in-aid provision for general expenses of €90 million for 2004 to go towards current expenditure.

Teagasc has an important role to play in supporting the Government's strategy for the development of the agriculture and food industries and provides a range of important services. Substantial Exchequer resources are provided each year to enable it to provide first class research, training and advisory services for farmers and the food industry. The total funding provided by my Department for non-capital purposes has increased significantly in recent years, from €82 million in 2000 to €117 million this year. Furthermore, in the period 2000-03, my Department allocated a cumulative total of almost €27 million to enable Teagasc to implement major capital development programmes at the training colleges and its research centres. The resulting upgrading of the training facilities, taken in conjunction with the recent mainstreaming of agricultural education and the national accreditation of all Teagasc training programmes, has arrested the downward trend in enrolments and augurs well for the future. Capital expenditure undertaken in the research area has greatly assisted Teagasc's efforts to develop world class research centres and strengthen its research capabilities generally.

Subheads K and L provide for payment of the annual grant-in-aid to Bord Bia and Bord Glas. The Bill to amalgamate Bord Bia and Bord Glas has now passed all Stages in the Houses. The strengthened body will bring new impetus to the promotion and marketing of Irish food and horticulture at home and abroad. We can now effectively pool our resources to promote Ireland as the food island of the world and exploit our strong environmental image for the benefit of our food sector at home and overseas.

The food industry has made significant strides in recent years and agri-food exports are now worth over €6.8 billion. State funding along the lines provided for in these subheads, as well as that provided for food research under the food institutional research measures and capital investment under the marketing and processing grant measure, has enabled it to keep up with ever changing consumer trends and demands through investment in research and development, training, marketing and promotion as well as in plant and equipment.

Subhead M covers my Department's food aid contributions to the World Food Programme, WFP. Our total projected contribution in 2004 is €4.83 million which includes a contribution towards the WFP's conference scheduled to be held in Dublin this summer. All our food aid is given in the form of untied cash donations to the WFP which uses the money to feed the hungry in the most effective way possible.

The overall increase in appropriations-in-aid in 2004 is due largely to the inclusion of expected EU receipts under forestry and the NDP structural measures. There are, however, reduced EU refunds expected as a consequence of lower expenditure on BSE and market supports, arising from expected improvements in the disease situation and markets for our main agricultural products.

Overall, the Revised 2004 Estimates represent a balanced package of measures to support the agri-food industry. Significant increases have been provided for in key areas of expenditure, including REPS, forestry and on-farm investments. Savings in other areas arise because of the success of our animal disease measures. The Estimates, therefore, serve to underline the strong commitment of the Government to the agri-food sector. In 2003 aggregate farm incomes grew by 5% to approximately €2.6 billion. In addition, farm households obtained around 60% of their total income from off-farm sources. Direct payments of €1.6 billion from my Department accounted for 63% of farm income in 2003, an average of €13,000 per farmer.

As we go through the year, we will put in place the arrangements for the implementation of the single farm payment which will commence on 1 January 2005. This will absorb €1.3 billion of the existing direct payments. This is a major change in our payment system and will be a significant organisational challenge. We are facing a period of major adaptation and change at farm and processing levels and for the Administration. The early decision to opt for full decoupling, where Ireland has given a lead to the European Union, allows us to move ahead with certainty.

I have ensured top priority is given in my Department to preparing for the change-over to the single payment system. It is my intention that each farmer will be notified of his or her single farm payment entitlements as soon as possible this year. Given the nature of the transition, it is inevitable that certain anomalies and technical issues will arise. We will address these to the best of our ability and have been diligent in bringing them to the attention of the European Commission.

Apart from the introduction of the single payment system, enlargement represents both the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity for Irish agriculture in the years ahead. Agriculture is still a dominant sector in a number of the new member states and out of a population of 74 million in those states, almost four million are employed in agriculture. The challenge stems from the obvious difficulties in assimilating the ten new member states into the EU framework. The opportunities arise from the impetus to economic growth and job creation which will result from enlargement and the new alliances which can be built to defend the CAP from its many detractors. As Ireland is a major exporter of agricultural products, the promise of new markets is of particular significance for our producers.

We are on the threshold of a new era. By this time next year we will be operating within a Union of 25 member states and well on our way to implementing a fundamentally reformed CAP. We can meet these challenges and, with increased expenditure under the various and relevant programmes, should be able to compete in the new enlarged European Union.

I thank the Minister for his presentation.

I call Deputy Timmins to make his opening statement.

I apologise for being a few minutes late. Farm incomes have fallen by 12% in real terms in the past two years. Since Deputy Walsh became Minister for Agriculture and Food in 1997, farm incomes in real terms have decreased by 25%. While I realise there is an onus on the Minister to talk up the industry, regardless of how one looks at this, it is a terrible indictment on this Administration and the previous one. At a time when incomes in the wider economy have increased dramatically, for farmers they have decreased based on figures from the Central Statistics Office. Farmers are voting with their feet.

By and large we produce for export. We must have quality products and we must have markets. I am disappointed in these Estimates, particularly from the point of view of developing a quality product. While I acknowledge advances made in genotyping sheep, there is no increase in funding for training and research or for Teagasc as outlined in subheads B and J. Nor is there any increase in subheads K and L for marketing and for An Bord Bia. These areas, which need to be addressed, have not been addressed in these Estimates. What is the Minister's view on the suggestion I made during Question Time in the Dáil and also during the debate on the An Bord Bia Bill that An Bord Bia should have a person located in the US?

The Minister pointed to a 10% increase in the Estimates. Including the adjustments for the return of forestry there has been an increase of approximately €33 million compared with last year. However, most of the 10% increase in the Estimates is made up by the inclusion of forestry and allowing for the adjustments. In real terms there has been no increase. The Minister had scope to manoeuvre due to the welcome improvements in the incidence of BSE, but his presentation amounts to a disguise job.

I agree with the Minister about the importance of animal health. Does he not agree that the present policy of culling full herds following the discovery of BSE has given rise to the advent of Johne's disease, which in time may have the potential to be far more devastating than BSE ever was? Regardless of the pressures the Minister and his Department may be under from baby food companies etc., it is time to reconsider a policy that has no basis in scientific fact. As is the case in several other EU countries, the French food safety authority stated that the policy of full-herd culling has no scientific basis. We may be creating a bigger problem than we are addressing.

Subhead E deals with the income supports for disadvantaged areas. An Agreed Programme for Government contains a line inserted by the Progressive Democrats that commits the Government to consider the feasibility of extending the disadvantaged area to the entire BMW region. I would like this matter nailed down. I believe the Taoiseach gave the impression in the Dáil in as clear a manner as he possibly could, which was not totally clear but almost clear, that this was a dead duck — if I may use that poultry pun. We need not dwell on it any longer. Is the same applicable to Monaghan? I would be anxious to let those in Laois and Offaly know where they stand in the coming weeks. I would not like them to think they had been sold a pup.

I already mentioned the forestry issue. I wish to ask about some items missing from the Minister's speech. Does the Minister have a view on the removal of rural development from the remit of his Department? Would he agree that with a fund of €36 million to €40 million becoming available under modulation, it would be desirable that the rural development section be returned to the Department, especially given that in recent years, both in the EU and at home, it has operated hand in glove with it? I could see no good reason to remove it in the first place.

The Minister does not have direct responsibility for the nitrates directive and may have chosen not to mention it for that reason. What is the state of his discussions with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government? Can we take it that the new proposals will be published in the next few weeks? These Estimates are quite generous in moving money from the BSE subhead to subhead H, which increased from €36 million to €51 million, to improve facilities for storage. Was the movement of money based on having an all-island approach of 210, 170 facilities or whatever? Does the Minister consider there is enough money if there is to be a whole country approach of 170 plus the derogations? If this was based on a figure of 210 facilities, I must surmise that there may not be enough funding and additional funding may be needed. The cost of constructing such facilities has increased in recent months.

I will deal with some of the finer details as we go through each of the subheads. On the issue of land mobility, the Minister mentioned early retirement. As the Minister is aware, a few thousand people on the early retirement scheme whose relatives did not get the land have been hard done by as a result of the mid-term review. Can we give them any solace? Land mobility is one of the bigger issues facing farmers. Given the numerous meetings the Minister attends, I am sure farmers have proposed to him that they should be allowed to buy adjacent land to make it more economically viable to upsize. Has the Government considered amending the capital gains tax on such transactions to facilitate land mobility?

I thank the Minister and his officials for his presentation. There have been two major developments since we considered the equivalent Estimates last year. These are the enlargement of the EU and full decoupling. From the beginning I favoured the decision to follow the decoupling route. The Minister referred to an increase in administration costs. I had hoped that one of the outcomes of full decoupling would have been a reduction in administration costs, which should be the case in theory. I accept what he said about the initial impact and organisational changes etc. What does the Minister believe will happen later on? Will there be further additional administration costs or will it level out? Should it not be a much simpler process?

Following on from that, what impact will this have on farmers in terms of bureaucracy? One of the marketing arms of the decoupling process was that it would simplify matters for the farmer. However, if administration costs are increasing, how will these two matters balance out in the future if not in the current Estimates?

What supports will exist and what allocation will be made to support farmers in the transition? I am thinking of simple measures such as having a free-phone hotline number to provide access to information. I have no doubt there will be confusion among the farming community in the initial stages of the transition. What has been allocated to ensure that the transition will be smooth, efficient and effective causing least distress to those involved?

I always like to discuss research and I am glad the Minister has made a commitment to this area. It is important to continue to realise the importance of emphasis on this area mainly because of the dramatic changes that are occurring in agriculture and in food consumption patterns. The obesity debate is one, which has not gone away — we are only at the beginning of that debate, with all the health implications that are clearly outlined. We must also deal with the glossy magazines and the tabloids advising us to lose two stones in two weeks, or whatever is appropriate to selling the magazine at the time.

There is an agricultural issue. The marketplace will move towards a food consumption pattern which will encourage people to overcome the obesity problem. The implication of that is the production of fewer high fat and high carbohydrate products. The Department of Agriculture and Food will have a very significant role in encouraging people to produce food to meet that market requirement. While there are many other research areas to consider, that will be a very important one.

I note the investment in new laboratory equipment for Backweston. As the move is inevitable, it is positive that there will be state-of-the-art equipment in place. The Minister referred to the promotion of Ireland as the food island of the world. I would love to believe it was, but a damning independent report was published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation earlier this year arising from an inspection last October of pesticides and residues. I have spoken of this matter already. A number of serious issues were raised about the monitoring programme. It is worrying that only one of six proposals put forward in 1998 had been fully addressed when the FAO reviewed the issue in 2003. Systems for testing and monitoring pesticides and residues have not been put in place. If our references to Ireland's clean, green image are to be more than a mere mantra, we need data to back up our claims. If anybody from abroad decides to investigate, there will be problems. I welcome, therefore, the commitment to provide laboratory equipment. A reason for not having carried out the necessary work previously was the proposal to move the laboratory. While that may have provided an excuse in the past, we have a much larger picture to consider now in terms of ensuring our image as a clean, green food producing country is sustained.

The animal disease trends are very welcome, especially in the cases of TB and brucelosis. It is positive that the trends mean there is money which can be taken from this area and allocated elsewhere. I agree with Deputy Timmins that we should be very concerned about Johne's disease. I draw particular attention to it as it was not singled out by the Minister. We should be aware that the disease will cause concern.

There was a reference to forestry under the information society heading involving the implementation of the IForIS project. I am confused about the matter and seek clarification. There is an increased allocation under a separate forestry heading, which is very welcome as we must consider the forestry programme on a long-term basis. IForIS is mentioned under the separate heading also. Is there an information society allocation for any other agricultural area? Clearly, there is a need.

It is more important than ever that the spotlight remains on food aid donation. It is good that our donation has increased, albeit somewhat modestly. There are many anomalies in global trade agreements which impact negatively on those who are least able to fend for themselves. Europe has an opportunity to ensure that dumping on developing countries does not continue. This issue involves more than merely Estimates and allocations of money; it is about the political will to make decisions to ensure that developing countries are given the opportunity to fend for themselves.

I note the absence from the commentary of the Minister of references to genetically modified foods. Debate on this matter is being carried on in some detail in most other countries. There is no doubt that it will impact on our status in Ireland. While our decisions on genetically modified food will be very important, we have adopted a head in the sand attitude on this issue. There has been no consultation or debate here. I appreciate that the issue involves a number of Departments.

Sitting suspended at 3.55 p.m. and resumed at 4.10 p.m.

Before the suspension I had raised the issue of genetically modified foods and the need for debate and consultation on the issue. I realise it crosses the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Health and Children and Agriculture and Food. However, the implications for agriculture are substantial and should be addressed. My own approach to genetic engineering and technology is not narrow or restrictive but cautious. We would not like to find that multinational corporations had come in and taken over many of our basic production rights by stealth but that is the direction in which things are going. We need to exercise caution. In order to do this we need to have a substantial debate on the issue, to address it and provide the necessary funding to allow the debate to take place.

I am concerned about food safety and the accession countries. The Minister has pointed out the many marketing opportunities in the enlarged European Union. However, concern has been expressed about food safety standards in a number of the accession countries, an issue Commissioner Byrne has raised and one which will require vigilance for a considerable time to come. I would like to be assured that substantial funding will be provided to ensure our policing of imported products will be sustained at a high level and that we will not allow the importation of products which are of a poorer quality than that expected of Irish producers. The issue of labelling of foodstuffs will also be important in that context. Awareness of the issue and funding to ensure labels show country of origin will be important.

The issue of pork and bacon products has been debated at some length. In this regard, the large processors appear to be the only winners with food producers and consumers likely to be the losers. They are entitled to protection. There is sleight of hand labelling in this area, an issue on which I would like to see a more proactive stance being taken.

There is an anomaly between the standards which apply to producers for the home and export markets. When I use the word "standards", I mean their right to export. The rigour which applies in each case is identical, as far as I can see, and the standards are very high. At the same time, those inspected by local authority veterinary surgeons are only entitled to produce for the home market with the result that their market opportunities are limited and restricted. This anomaly must be removed. I hope account will be taken of this as it impinges on the ability of small producers to survive in the competitive environment into which we are now heading. If the anomaly persists, many small producers will be forced out of business for this and other reasons.

Positive moves have been made to ensure a gender balance on all State boards under the aegis of the Department. Nevertheless, I raise the important issue of women in farming, a matter to which I alluded last year and highlight again. The role of women in farming has been hugely significant and it is time there was an awareness and recognition of their input. Systems should be put in place to ensure it is acknowledged.

I thank the Minister and his officials for their presentation. One might get the impression from it that all is well in the farming sector and that its prospects are good. However, it has seen a 12% fall in incomes and more and more are leaving farming because of the unviability of many holdings. For many farmers the margin of profitability is so small that they cannot compete or survive. Urgent attention must be given to the sector, particularly in south-western and western coastal areas which have been hardest hit.

It is impossible to make a thorough response to the Estimates without seeing the detail. Until then, members of the select committee can only make a preliminary response. With the enlargement of the European Union, tens of millions of farmers will compete with the Irish farming sector, albeit from an unequal base. Unless we do something radical to address this difficulty and improve our competitiveness, we will face dark years.

Last year my party was the first to support full decoupling. Every other major party and the farming organisations came on board with that decision, which was the correct one. The Minister says he intends to send a notification as to when the single payment will be made. I assume it will be some time this summer. I hope that is possible because the uncertainty which exists must be removed and harmony among all sectors — Government, industry and political parties — must be restored.

I am encouraged by the Estimates in regard to disease eradication which are 24% lower than for 2003. As an Opposition spokesperson, I compliment all involved, including the Department. I recently met farmers from counties Armagh, Fermanagh and south Tyrone. There is concern about disease on that side of the Border and I want to know whether there is a major anomaly between disease free areas when compared to Border areas. To have the Executive in operation in the Six Counties, and to have co-operation as during the initial stages of BSE, would complement what else is being done. Is there a major difference in disease levels between counties north and south of the Border?

Another area of concern is the early retirement scheme, an area of negotiations on which we have always lobbied. Many members are acquainted with this issue on a personal level through knowing farmers in our constituencies. Given that there was not indexation linkage to the payments, although farmers might be in the scheme for five or six years, is there any mechanism to improve their situation? While farmers may have seemed to be getting decent pensions six years ago, the value is greatly reduced today. There is also a worry that the loss of quota for those with the least land is creating major difficulties.

On cattle traceability, I am on record as having welcomed this and believe it is to be welcomed across the EU. However, I reiterate that the competitive field is not equal. Countries from outside the EU which supply food to Ireland and Europe do not have traceable products whereas we do, and action must be taken on this. The monetary contribution of €4.83 million to the World Food Programme is very small compared to the size of the total budget, and this should be reconsidered.

I welcome Deputy Upton's contribution regarding women in farming and equality for what was and may still be 50% of the agricultural sector. Leadership should be provided from all spheres in regard to the appointment of women to boards. However, in the recent debate on the An Bord Bia (Amendment) Bill 2003, an amendment which attempted to achieve increased equality for women was voted down.

The issue of GM foods is one which will become increasingly prevalent. It has not been properly debated and the Government has been premature in the stance it has taken. From a health and safety perspective, the status enjoyed nationally and internationally by Irish produce could be called into question unless there are assurances from those with expertise and scientific knowledge in this area to convince us otherwise. The position adopted by the Government is premature. I thank the Minister for his contribution.

I welcome the Minister and his officials. The allocation of €26 million for research and training is welcome. It is important that funding of this magnitude is invested in this area, given the expansion of the EU, and the Department should be central to the development of food products.

I compliment the Minister and his Department on the drop in BSE figures, which shows that the action taken in 1996-97 is now paying off. The reduction in case numbers of approximately 45% is significant.

When does the Minister expect REPS III to come into force? What caused the significant increase in the provision for consultancy services? While it was not mentioned in the Minister's contribution, could he update the committee in regard to the export of live animals?

I welcome the Minister and his officials to the meeting and thank the Minister for his concise explanatory briefing. What uptake has there been in regard to the new farm waste management scheme? Like Deputy Carty, I am interested in the issue of live exports. When the Minister came into office, there was just one ship exporting live animals. What is the current position and how many ships are involved in such exports?

I wish to refer to the nitrates directive as it affects County Donegal, and the storage required in the context of a 24 week provision. This is unnecessary in regard to County Donegal because water quality in the county is among the best in Ireland. This has been overlooked and the county has been included with counties Cavan and Monaghan, the water quality of which would not be as good. The Minister should reconsider this. To back up my point, I have documentation from the county chemist, who obtained the information from the EPA.

The 24 week period is totally unworkable. Officials from the Department appeared before the committee some weeks ago to discuss the growing season. Up to November of last year, there was plenty of growth. However, weather conditions mean that while some days are not right for spreading slurry, permission might be granted for this. The Minister should take the example of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources in regard to the harvesting of shellfish. There were problems with algae bloom, for which the sea is constantly being tested. Farmers should be given some indications by the newspapers or the weather forecast as to when conditions are correct for spreading slurry. The growing season for different years is never the same. What is the Minister's view on sheep tagging and whether a flock number could be introduced?

Can we concentrate on the Estimates?

I also welcome the Minister and his team to the committee. I compliment him on his presentation. It was easily understood and, most important, shows an increase in the budget, which is very welcome. While reading the Estimates, it struck me forcibly that the Minister referred to Ireland being the food island of the world. While we may not be quite there yet, it is something to aim for. The Minister's action and the support he had in preserving Ireland from the ravages of disease when it was rampant in other places has played a vital part in pushing Ireland along that road. This is a small nation with a good reputation, even among the EU accession countries. We had the pleasure of visiting Slovenia recently and Ireland's reputation there is superb in respect of our farming methods and the great success our country has enjoyed since joining the EU.

Many people say there is uncertainty in farming. Perhaps that is true but it is due to the period of change we are experiencing in respect of decoupling and how it will work. Nevertheless, decoupling was the correct way to go, although it took farming organisations, with one exception, a long time to see the light. That might cause some uncertainty but I generally welcome the Estimates. I welcome and share the confidence about agriculture. We must be realistic in this day and age and young people are making decisions in that context. On well-run, well-managed and well-financed farms, young people will opt for a shorter day and time off.

A special type of people has been involved in agriculture who saw very rough times. We are glad to see our families with other options and while we hope some will follow the agriculture path we must be practical about it. It is a great way of life for a committed person. We have many committed people in agriculture today and the decisions and the leadership being given by the Minister helps. I have always been impressed by his command of his brief. He has lead us well and has successfully negotiated on our behalf. I am pleased with today's Estimates, for which I thank him.

I welcome the Minister and his officials to the meeting and thank him for his detailed outline of the Estimates for 2004. In his negotiations on single payments, particularly in regard to the concession he obtained from the Commission on forestry, has there been a considerable increase in the number of people applying to the Department for afforestation grants and what are the figures?

At nearly every farm meeting and during many discussions between farming organisations and this committee, people referred to the number of young people fleeing the land and not taking up farming. However, the increased provision in the Estimates for installation aid may indicate an increase in the numbers taking it up. Will the Minister provide a figure for the number of young people applying for installation aid, the increase this year and the projected increase?

Although it may be outside the remit of the Estimates, a case has come to my attention regarding the first farm retirement scheme and the very rigid conditions put in place at the time in 1994-95. It involves a widow who joined the scheme at that time. The Department has written to her looking for money back because she gave a two acre site to her son. Perhaps some of the regulations of the scheme need to be re-examined.

I congratulate the Minister on his handling of the agriculture brief and welcome the Estimates before us. As Deputy Wilkinson said, it is good to see an increase in the agriculture budget.

Does the Minister wish to reply to the general questions at this stage and then go through the subheads?

I am in your hands, Chairman. I thank Deputies for their comments and questions. Farming last year had an aggregate income increase of 5%. If one takes figures over the past decade, farm incomes have increased substantially. All the main relevant areas for supporting programmes in this year's Estimates are increased substantially and those figures are taken year on year. There is no question of forestry being introduced to fudge any of the figures. Where there is a reduction under any of the subheads, it is positive because it relates to the reduction in animal disease incidence and therefore there is a reduction in the cost of servicing them, which is to be welcomed.

Deputy Timmins raised a number of issues such as support for food promotion, concern in regard to animals disease, extending disadvantaged areas to the BMW region, rural development, the position on modulated funds and the nitrates directive. Deputy Upton raised matters such as the administrative subheads under which we might expect a substantial reduction due to full decoupling as well as a reduction in bureaucracy. She also asked what measures could be taken to help farmer clients in the initiation of a single farm payment.

The Deputy raised the question of obesity and the audit of the pesticide residue testing laboratory and its comments on our testing procedures. She also referred to the IForIS project under the information society allocation.

Deputy Ferris raised a number of issues, including the early retirement scheme, and the fact that there was no indexation. He referred to the issue of women in the composition of State boards and the degree of gender balance. Deputy Carty raised the issue of REPS III and when we might expect its introduction. He also referred to consultancy services and the increase in the allocation for such services.

Deputy Blaney raised the question of on-farm schemes with particular reference to the nitrates directive and mentioned that County Donegal was a cleaner place with better quality water than nearly any other county. He asked about the implications for farmers in the county and Ireland generally of the requirements for the storage and application of farm waste and sheep tagging.

Deputies Moynihan and Wilkinson mentioned several issues which I will address as best I can. First, live exports are vibrant. We exported over 221,000 head of cattle last year — an increase of 50% on the figure for the previous year — particularly calves and weanlings to mainland Europe, including Spain, France and the Netherlands. This trend is continuing, albeit at a lower level, but as anyone involved in farming knows, the price of calves and weanling stores is at an all-time high. Long may this continue.

Several Deputies mentioned animal transport and the lack of agreement at the last Council meeting on the issue. When there is no agreement, the status quo remains. We are continuing under the existing arrangement, with Ireland exporting livestock to Spain, northern Italy and the Netherlands. A relatively small number of adult cattle are being exported to the Lebanon. This will also continue.

Ireland applies higher standards than those required by the European Union, which is only right because we want to maintain our very high animal welfare status. We have provided for pre-inspection and if animals are sick, we will not allow them to be exported. Boats are also inspected and not allowed sail on high seas. We have approved 18 ferries in recent years, some of which are used while others are not. There are, therefore, adequate ferry arrangements for the transportation of animals. This is good for competition and an outlet for much of our stock. There are seven million head of livestock, of which we only use approximately 10%. We export the remaining 90%.

In mentioning forestry Deputy Timmins suggested there might be a fudging of the figures but that is not true. There is a substantial increase, a 40% increase on the figure for last year, which means we expect to plant at least 12,000 hectares, up from a figure of over 9,000 last year. We will also be able to provide for an increase in respect of forestry roads, reconstitution and neighbour wood schemes for local authorities. At this time of year members will notice planting in lay-bys and new road alignments which have done a huge amount to enhance the landscape along various roads. This does not affect the REP scheme in any way, the figure for which has increased, from €182 million last year to €260 million this year. The figure for on-farm investments in areas such as waste management has also been increased by over 40% this year on that for last year which, again, has nothing to do with forestry. As I said, reductions have been made in a number of areas for very positive reasons. There is a reduction in expenditure because we have fewer reactors and reduced costs for meat and bone meal disposal. The bottom line is that in a directly comparable assessment of the Estimates there is a 7% increase on the outturn for last year.

The new single farm payment scheme was mentioned. We should be in a position to indicate the single farm payment allocation by July this year. If farmers believe their payments are underestimated or there is another problem, they will be able to appeal to the Department for clarification and evaluation. We want to be in a position where we will be able to implement the scheme from early next year.

Members will note that some months ago, in preparation for problems and exceptional circumstances — what were termed force majeure cases — we ran advertisements in the newspapers and on the radio. Interestingly, only 2,000 farmers responded, even though it was in their own best interests to do so. We contacted all of the farming bodies, stating that surely there were more than 2,000 farmers who believed they had encountered a problem in the years 2000-02. We readvertised and eventually approximately 14,000 problem cases were submitted. We hope that if farmers do have a problem, they will at least bring it to the attention of the Department which will do its best to resolve it. I have established in Portlaoise an appeals group under the chairmanship of the former chairman of Glanbia, Mr. John Duggan, who will go through the cases of those who believe they are operating in exceptional circumstances or their case is covered by the term “force majeure”.

I expect the single farm payment scheme to run smoothly. As Deputy Upton said, it will certainly reduce the level of administration. However, that will not happen this year because the old schemes are still running. On top of this we must calculate the payment for everyone involved. There will be a huge amount of additional work involved but from next year onwards I expect a substantial reduction in the level of bureaucracy and administration generally. We used to receive approximately 450,000 applications under nine different schemes and over one million cheques were issued every year. This will be reduced to approximately 140,000 single applications and single payment cheques, a major reduction. The number of inspections will also be reduced as there will be no need to carry them out. I further expect a substantial reduction in administration costs. As a consequence, we will be able to reallocate funding to other areas such as food safety and promotion which Deputy Timmins mentioned.

Deputy Upton mentioned obesity which presents a major problem with which the Minister for Health and Children has been dealing specifically by raising awareness and trying to inculcate a better and more active lifestyle. He is trying to eliminate the tendency to watch television from the couch morning, noon and night. Some programmes are hardly worth bothering about but nowadays many young people live like this, which is a pity.

In response to the need, the Minister for Health and Children formally launched the national task force on obesity which is chaired by the chief executive of the Irish Sports Council, John Treacy. Hopefully, his task force will encourage a more active lifestyle and more out of door pursuits. Each member will be hoping the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism will allocate lottery funds for local pitches and sporting projects. There are some fine facilities in small villages that are contributing to a better lifestyle for younger people.

Deputy Upton raised the audit of laboratory services. Those audits are concerned about shortcomings in the system and do not dwell much on positive action that has been taken. The audit referred to does not reflect the progress made by the pesticide control service in the areas audited. Many improvements have taken place in recent years and there has been a major increase in the number of samples taken. Some time ago I was pleased to visit the laboratory in Abbotstown and present it with the ISO17025 because that is the highest accolade laboratories can get. In any event, the shortcoming pointed out by the audit are being taken in hand and dealt with because food safety and people's confidence in our testing in laboratory services is important.

Farmers in disadvantaged areas get substantially increased funding. I gave the figure earlier for compensatory payments which is double what the headage payment used to be. It is a substantial contribution to farmers incomes in disadvantaged areas. Reviews of the disadvantaged areas scheme have taken place three to four times since it was initiated. The BMW has been raised with the Commission on a number of occasions by me and the Department. The Court of Auditors has commented unfavourably and pointed out that if we want an increase in the area under the disadvantaged areas scheme the whole of the country will have to be reviewed. I suspect some areas that are already included may not wish to be reviewed. We shall continue to press the case for disadvantaged area status for the area about which Deputy Timmins is concerned. I hope that pressure will not impinge in any way on parts of Wicklow or other parts of the country that are already so designated.

On the question of support and aid for developing countries, we make a substantial contribution to helping such countries. This has been done in a practical way for many years by the missionaries from Ireland who educated and reformed many tribes and regimes throughout the world. We are still doing that, unfortunately less so in the missionary context but in terms of hard cash. In 2004, the total overseas development assistance will reach €480 million. That is the overall amount from the Departments of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Agriculture and Food and other Departments. In percentage terms this places Ireland as the seventh largest donor in the world.

The quality of our programmes is regarded internationally as extremely high. There are other schemes, such as Bóthar, which, from a practical point of view, are good. In Europe we are always to the forefront in trying to make a case for the least developed countries, those on the verge of starvation. Through our demands and support by Ireland the Everything but Arms proposal allows food products free access into the European Union. That is of tremendous benefit to those least developed countries, for which we get positive feedback. Recently I met a delegation from Mali who expressed tremendous gratitude and satisfaction at Ireland's leadership in this area. However it was concerned about the proposed reform of the sugar regime and considered that the regime in Europe is helpful to those least developed countries. Changes will have to be brought about cautiously. The least developed countries would not benefit while other countries with substantial economies, such as Brazil, would do so.

Deputy Timmins raised the question of modulated funds. These funds will become available from 2006 onwards and will amount to approximately €32 million. They will be distributed and facilitated by my Department. We have yet to agree with the social partners on the various schemes for modulated funds because they have to be done within certain parameters. We will get the views of our social partners and they will be fully co-ordinated and put in place for the benefit of rural communities.

Deputy Timmins said there was no increase in the funding of Teagasc. There has been an increase of 11% on the outturn for 2003 and the increase has been substantial when the last couple of years are taken into account. On top of that, money realised from the sales of assets, including its headquarters in Sandymount Avenue — which is moving to the research centre in Carlow — can be used for the exclusive benefit of Teagasc.

Deputy Upton raised the question of GMOs. That is an extremely sensitive issue and there are consumer concerns. A whole raft of safety and control measures have been put in place in recent years in connection with GMOs. In Ireland, we have been working assiduously to ensure consumer confidence and protection. We have interdepartmental inter-agency working groups at the Departments of Health and Children, Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Agriculture and Food and the Food Safety Authority. We want to ensure the various controls in place will be strictly adhered to.

The question of BSE was raised by a number of Deputies. There has been a significant reduction — some 45% — in the number of confirmed cases. In 2003 there were 182 confirmed cases compared with 333 the previous year and the pattern is continuing this year. In addition to the major reduction in the number of confirmed cases, the age profile of the positive cases is continuing to increase, with most cases being animals born before or during 1996. There is no way people in Ireland going to their butchers will get meat from animals born prior to 1996. We have to continue with our testing and monitoring. The reduction in figures is more impressive when account is taken of the huge amount of testing regimes for fallen animals and for all animals over 30 months of age. That was not the case up to a couple of years ago. When this is taken into account, I am extremely hopeful that we will be able to rid ourselves of this disease. Johne's disease is a cause of concern as there has been a significant increase in the incidence of the disease.

Herdowners should be extremely cautious when buying in cattle for depopulated herds. A few years ago herds were bought in from continental Europe with little or no control being exercised or few requirements for certification. Those who buy in from whatever location, be it inside or outside the country, should demand certification and assurances that the livestock is free of these exotic and difficult diseases. That is the least they should do to ensure the bio-security of their farms. It should be possible for veterinarians and the Department's district veterinary officers to ensure the relevant certification is provided.

The importation of meat products was raised by Deputy Upton among others. In this context, much has been achieved in labelling and control. Commissioner Byrne has responsibility for EU public health issues. His veterinary office has monitoring and surveillance systems in place. On food safety and the importation of meat, there is free circulation in the Single Market and uniform EU-wide controls on the production of and trade in meat and meat products. Meat imports from third countries must measure up to the same standards. Food and Veterinary Office personnel visit plants and production units in third countries to ensure the highest standards are met.

Ireland imports a relatively small quantity of beef, even though the issue is referred to now and again in the media. Total production stands at 550,000 tonnes while approximately 13,000 tonnes of beef is imported, some of which is re-exported as toppings and various consumer foods. Labelling is provided for in retail outlets but not in the catering trade. This presents a problem. Bord Bia has instituted Féile Bia, a voluntary scheme, while I have raised the issue in the European Union. It will be discussed at the next Council of Agriculture Ministers meeting next week when Commissioner Fischler will present a report on the labelling of beef products in catering outlets.

The nitrates directive was raised by most speakers. Since the early 1990s Departments and the social partners have been remiss in not implementing the directive. We could have had a transitional period when a limit of perhaps 210 or 230 kgs could have applied but this is no longer the case because of the non-implementation of the directive. As a result, Ireland was taken to the European Court which announced its decision six weeks ago. Ireland must now comply with the directive and put an action plan in place, in respect of which discussions are taking place between the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Agriculture and Food as well as Teagasc and the farming organisations. A further meeting between the representative organisations and the Departments involved will be held on 17 May. Ireland must submit an action plan to the European Commission by the end of June and a general limit of 170 kgs will apply which Ireland must accept because of the European Court decision but derogations may be sought up to October next.

I am confident that Ireland will be able to obtain a substantial derogation. The Government will seek a limit of up to 250 kgs. The reason I am so confident is that Denmark which prides itself on having a good quality environment and water supply has been granted a derogation with 230 kgs being an absolute minimum. Ireland will seek a limit of 250 kgs. An action plan is to be agreed between the relevant Departments and the social partners by the end of June with derogations to be sought by October.

In preparation for implementation of the nitrates directive the Government has made a substantial investment in on-farm buildings and waste treatment facilities. The relevant figures are listed in the subheads. In recent years €250 million has been invested in order to upgrade slurry disposal and storage systems on farms. Not alone has there been a substantial increase of over 40% this year in the overall figure, there has also been an increase in the ceiling for the number of labour units. This is a generous grant for on-farm buildings used for storage.

A sum of €1.3 billion has been invested in the REP scheme in which €260 million will be invested this year. Farmers are entitled to receive a sum of €8,500 under the scheme for adhering to good farming practice. Those participating in the organic REP scheme receive a sum of up to €18,000. The Department will issue a booklet in promoting the scheme. It is regrettable that farm leaders and spokespersons are not more positive in their attitude to it. The general griping is unfair to farmers who receive a nice allocation under the scheme.

The matter of clearance for REPS III was raised by Deputy Carty. I hope complete clearance will be granted shortly. The application forms and relevant data are ready to be issued. Anyone wishing to participate should now make an application.

A vote has been called in the Dáil. Do members wish to return to discuss the subheads?

I am happy enough with the discussion. I have outlined the issues of concern to me. On subhead J, I have asked for clarification regarding Teagasc. I may be misreading it but funding seems to be down by 3%. I am happy to finish our business now rather than return later.

If Deputies wish to table parliamentary questions on any issue, I will be pleased to supply any additional information sought.

I am always conscious that the minutes of meetings of this committee have been quoted regularly. There does not seem to be any scheme similar to the Punchestown project hidden in the subheads. I hope not.

I thank the Minister and his officials for attending today. I regret we had to suspend for a couple of votes but we still conducted a great deal of business.