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Tuesday, 25 Sep 2012

Other Questions

Fishing Industry Development

Questions (51)

Clare Daly

Question:

51. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the actions he intends to take in relation to developing a sustainable fisheries policy, following the Our Ocean Wealth Report. [40385/12]

View answer

Oral answers (20 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

I am delighted Deputy Clare Daly is showing an interest in our ocean wealth.

The Minister has some neck.

That is not to suggest that she should not be doing so. I am pleased with her interest in this area. During the summer we launched a document, Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth, which is going to be as strategic for our ocean resources as the Food Harvest 2020 document, which was launched by the previous Government, is for the food industry. Essentially, the document to which I refer provides a roadmap for the making of decisions in respect of areas such as seafood development, fishing, cruise liner traffic, shipping, ocean energy, marine tourism and so many others.

It is a business plan to bring about a turnover for the economy of €6.4 billion by 2020 from our ocean resource. In my view, we can surpass that target if we realise the full potential of this resource.

Deputy Clare Daly asked a specific question about the sustainable fisheries policy. That is where the ambition of the ocean wealth strategy meets the Common Fisheries Policy. We are in the process of renegotiating a Common Fisheries Policy. In my view, the current Common Fisheries Policy has been an abject failure in many ways. It has facilitated - in fact, encouraged - our fishermen to employ a discards policy, which means they must dump large quantities of fish over the sides of boats. Up to 40% of the fish caught in Irish waters is thrown over the side because fishermen do not have a quota to land it and sell it. They have no option because they cannot avoid catching such fish in their nets when they are fishing for other species. In other cases they catch too many fish in a haul and must throw some of them back into the water.

I will have to interrupt the Minister.

That type of immoral waste cannot continue. We are working with the industry to use technical measures as well as new fishing methods to avoid by-catch.

The remainder of the Minister's reply will appear in the Official Report.

We are also working with the European Commission and other member states to establish an anti-discards policy over the next three to four years, which I think will be very effective, along with a series of other policies on sustainability.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

On 31 July a new national integrated marine plan, Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth, was launched by the Taoiseach and myself. The plan sets targets for 2020 and 2030 for each marine sector and outlines 39 actions to be taken to facilitate this development. I expect Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth to act as the framework to be referenced with regard to development in each marine sector in the same way that Food Harvest 2020 is seen as the driver and is referenced with regard to development in the food industry. I also expect it to complement and augment the measures that will flow from the reformed Common Fisheries Policy, which is currently being reviewed and may be completed over the course of the Irish Presidency of the European Union, which commences in January 2013.

Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth sets out the roadmap for the Government's vision, high-level goals and integrated actions across policy, governance and business to enable our marine potential to be fully realised. My overarching goal for the new CFP is the development of a sustainable, profitable and self-reliant industry that protects and enhances the social and economic fabric of rural coastal communities dependent on the seafood sector, while balancing these objectives with the need to deliver a sustainable and eco-centred fisheries landscape for future generations. In the current economic climate, we need a policy that both simplifies and reduces the administrative burden while at the same time strengthening and supporting the industry's capacity to maximise employment in coastal communities dependent on fishing. In particular, I will be pursuing initiatives that will deliver and sustain jobs in coastal communities rather than those that promote a concentration of wealth and delivery of excessive profits for a few big international businesses. I support a system that maintains strong economic links between national quotas and the traditional fishing communities that these quotas were allocated to assist.

To my mind, the objectives I have set for the new CFP and the national ocean wealth initiative are compatible, and they will both contribute significantly to harnessing to a greater extent the economic and social benefits of our marine economy. To that end, I will continue to work with all stakeholders, both nationally and internationally, to deliver on the common goals which are in Ireland's best interests.

I thank the Minister. I am not sure why he questions my interest in this subject. It may be because there are not too many women who are out fishing alongside fishermen or it could be because I represent a Dublin constituency. However, it is a Dublin constituency which has important harbours such as Balbriggan, Skerries, Loughshinny and Rush. Thankfully, I am blessed in that there are a number of people in the constituency who have taken a great interest in our ocean wealth precisely because existing fisheries policy has devastated small coastal communities and the potential of our fisheries industry needs to be developed. It has been alleged by some of those people that much of the information in the report is not well researched and some of the information about eco-tourism is not based on any substantial research and not properly grounded. The issue of regulation and the need for independent observation and collection of data is crucial, but this is not happening. A total of 250 big trawlers are run by syndicates and, to a great extent, there is not adequate and proper information on what fish they are catching and discarding. Where are the Minister's proposals to fund a direct monitoring team? That could be done relatively cheaply; approximately €7.5 million would provide an independent observer regime to gather the data which could be used to develop a fisheries policy. I know the Minister is interested in fish farming, which is an important but small part of an overall policy for sustainable fishing.

I am very interested in fish farming but I am also absolutely committed to the broader fishing industry. I am upbeat about the industry because it has a bright future. However, we need to manage both it and our fish stocks in a sustainable way. Some of the stocks are currently in the process of recovery. For example, many of the fishermen whom Deputy Daly knows are fishing in the Irish Sea and they will know that a cod recovery plan is in place there.

With regard to the Deputy's point about the collection of data, in many ways the European Commission uses Ireland and the Marine Institute as the example of how data should be collected. The Marine Institute is independent of the fishing industry and it has credibility within the industry. One of the reasons for Ireland's significant quota increases in a series of species last year was that the Marine Institute played a central role in last December's negotiations on the annual quota allocations or TACs, total allowable catches, for the Irish fishing fleet. We will continue to take a scientific approach to the management of fish stocks. We will not be catching fish that are not there.

We will, where possible, put measures in place to ensure stocks can recover and the fishing industry can grow. We are unusual in Europe in that only some 20% of the fish caught in the waters we control are caught by Irish boats, with the remaining 80% being caught by foreign fleets. We are obliged to collect the data from all of these boats. As such, we have strongly supported the Commission's proposal for electronic logbooks, for example, which would allow us to gather the data as quickly as possible from the many fleets that come in and out of Irish waters at different times. It is a complex job. Only this morning we made the case to the Commission that the European Fisheries Fund should support countries such as Ireland to put improved data collection systems in place to manage our fish stocks.

The Minister has touched on precisely the point I am making. Despite the presence of foreign trawlers in our waters, some 250 of them run by syndicates engaged in this type of activity, we do not have an effective, independent observation regime in place. A mere 1% of the €750 million European Fisheries Fund would support 250 jobs in such a capacity, collecting the data and informing future policy. In addition, we must enhance the area of eco-tourism. A difficulty in this regard, however, is that our ocean wealth is not properly researched. Activities such as recreational fishing which have been well exploited and developed in Britain have not been given the same prominence here.

I reject the contention that our ocean wealth has not been properly researched. If one includes the Attorney General's office, ten Departments were involved in putting this report together. For the first time, we have an integrated maritime strategy which involves all of the relevant Departments working collectively. I chair the implementation group which meets on a bimonthly basis to discuss a range of issues relating to our ocean resource and how we can best obtain value from it. We are taking a proactive approach with a view to realising the ambition expressed in the report. In fact, I hope to upgrade some of the targets set out in that document for the various sectors.

On the issue of data collection and enforcement of the rules in terms of quotas, catches and so on, this is primarily a matter for the Naval Service, in co-operation with the Marine Institute and the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority. These bodies are rigorous in policing the implementation of the rules, but the reality is that we are talking about a vast amount of space to be patrolled. When boats are coming into Irish waters for eight or ten hours but without ever coming closer than 150 miles from shore, they are difficult to monitor and police. That is why the introduction of electronic logbooks is so important.

What is the current valuation of the total allowable catch and discards allocated to non-Irish fishing operations within our waters?

The valuation of Ireland's total allowable catch went beyond €250 million for the first time last year.

That is not what I asked.

I am getting to the Deputy's question. The value of fish caught in Irish waters by non-Irish vessels represents some 20% of that total. In fact, it probably represents slightly more in value terms if one takes mackerel into account. The value of the catch for other fleets in our waters would be up to some €800 million.

Does that include discards?

No, because discards are not included in the total allowable catch - that is the point.

That is a separate debate.

It involves fishing in our waters.

If one does not have a quota, one cannot catch fish. That is the essence of the problem.

Disadvantaged Areas Scheme Eligibility

Questions (52, 54, 61)

Michael Moynihan

Question:

52. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the timeline for the receipt of applications in respect of derogation in stocking density under the disadvantaged areas scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40425/12]

View answer

Timmy Dooley

Question:

54. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the date on which payments will be made under the disadvantaged areas scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40427/12]

View answer

Niall Collins

Question:

61. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the expected savings from changes to the stocking density ratio in the disadvantaged area scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40419/12]

View answer

Oral answers (42 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 52, 54 and 61 together.

The budgeted expenditure under the 2012 disadvantaged areas scheme, DAS, was reduced from €220 million to €190 million. To make the necessary savings it was proposed to make technical adjustments to the scheme criteria to ensure the aid payment is focused on farmers whose farming enterprises are situated exclusively in disadvantaged areas scheme areas and are making a significant contribution to achieving the objectives of the scheme. These are defined in the governing European Union legislation as follows - to ensure continued agricultural land use and thereby contribute to the maintenance of a viable rural community; to maintain the countryside; to maintain and promote sustainable farming systems which, in particular, take account of environmental protection measures.

It was decided that real efforts should be made to focus the scheme on those farmers who are most actively contributing to achieving the aims of the scheme, namely, ensuring continued agricultural land use thereby contributing to the maintenance of viable rural communities, maintaining the countryside and maintaining and promoting sustainable farming systems which take account of environmental protection measures. As the disadvantaged areas scheme is co-funded as part of the rural development plan, the approval of the European Commission was required. Following protracted discussions, the necessary approval was granted last August.

Payments will start issuing tomorrow, on schedule. These payments are worth in the region of €150 million to 70,000 farmers and payment runs will continue on an ongoing basis, with individual cases being paid as their eligibility is confirmed.

In terms of savings for 2012, it is too early to give precise figures. Given the approach taken in adjusting the terms and conditions of the 2012 scheme, with the changes designed to better focus the scheme on the more active farmers, namely, those who are contributing most to achieving the aims of the scheme, and the options of six possible forms of derogation, it remains to be seen what will be the precise outcome for the scheme in 2012 in terms of savings. The need for applicants to maintain a minimum of 0.15 livestock units per forage hectare for six consecutive months, while also achieving an annual stocking average of 0.15 livestock units per forage hectare, means that some applicants will not become eligible until later in the year. Furthermore, farmers who met the 0.3 livestock units per forage hectare in 2011 or will receive a derogation may have decided not to buy the required stock this year for whatever reason. However, while those farmers who have yet to satisfy the average stocking density of 0.15 livestock units per forage hectare for the year have the remaining months of the year to do so, such cases can only be cleared for payment once this requirement has been confirmed. Therefore, we must wait until closer to the end of this year to quantify savings.

Last year, we could have taken the option taken by the previous Government, namely, reduce the payment per hectare to all farmers or reduce the number of hectare for which farmers could apply for a payment. However, we decided not to take that approach and opted for a more intelligent approach. We have been successful in maintaining full payment in disadvantaged areas for farmers who farm all year round, even where they have low stocking rates. We introduced new criteria last year with a view to removing from the system farmers who while farming in, for example, County Kildare, were taking land in, for example, County Sligo to enable them to draw down payments. We reduced payments to farmers with land both inside and outside disadvantaged areas on a ratio that was in accordance with the amount of land they hand in disadvantaged areas. We also changed the stocking rate following consultations with farming organisations on what would be the appropriate stocking rate. We wished to keep the rate as low as possible while ensuring it was also reasonable. We also discussed for how many months in one year farmers would be required to have stock to qualify as being actively involved in farming rather than having flocks of sheep being passed from one farmer to another for the minimum period required to qualify for a disadvantaged area payment, namely, three months. That practice is a luxury we can no longer afford. We wish to focus the limited funding available to us on farmers who are actively farming. If some farmers were caught out unfairly by the change in criteria last year, they have access to a generous derogation system. I understand more than half of those who are seeking a derogation have been granted one. If a person is not satisfied with a decision not to grant him or her a derogation, he or she can avail of an independent appeals mechanism. If anything, we will not make the savings we were hoping to make in the disadvantaged areas scheme.

We will make savings, although we may not achieve the target of €30 million. If we do not achieve this target, we will have to examine the issue in the context of the budget.

As the Minister is aware, no one objects to the change in the criteria as they apply to farmers from outside disadvantaged areas who are in receipt of payments under the disadvantaged areas payment scheme and vice versa. Having submitted a freedom of information request to the Department, I understand the savings achieved in that element of the scheme are tiny.

They all add up.

The major saving will be achieved from the change in stocking rates. How many letters issued to farmers on stocking density and how many of them responded by applying for a derogation? When will a decision be made on the preliminary round of applications for derogations? Many farmers need the money provided under the scheme. As a result of the Minister's actions, they will have to wait an inordinate length of time for their cheques.

I have pointed out about three times that people will not have to wait an inordinate length of time for their cheques. Many of those who qualify for a derogation will receive cheques this week. It would be helpful if the Deputy were to at least accept the facts as I outline them.

On the derogation, almost 9,500-----

Is it the case that those who will receive a cheque this week were not informed of that in writing?

The Minister has the floor.

They have applied for a derogation and if they qualify, they will receive a payment.

They will receive the payment without being informed that their appeal was successful.

Yes, if that is the case. I will provide the figures. Almost 9,500 applications were received, of which decisions have been made on-----

On the basis of how many letters?

Some 9,500 farmers applied for a derogation.

How many letters were issued indicating to farmers that they did not meet the stocking density requirements?

I do not have a precise figure on that.

I believe it is 10,000.

Given that 9,500 people sought a derogation, that figure appears to be reasonably accurate. What is the Deputy's point?

My point is that the vast majority of the people in question were not in the categories ascribed to them.

A fundamental misunderstanding has arisen and it needs to be clarified because Deputy Ó Cuív is either deliberately trying not to understand the position or has not read the rules. Those who apply for a disadvantaged areas scheme payment do not automatically qualify for payment. Applications are usually rejected because the applicant did not meet the stocking rate requirements for last year. Farmers who apply for a derogation are effectively asking me to make an exception for them. The reasons vary and include that they are full-time farmers or had good reason to have a low stocking rate last year, for example, owing to a death in the family, the farm being handed over to a son or daughter or they have particularly poor or stony land which prevents them from meeting the stocking rate requirement. They are seeking a derogation because they did not qualify for a payment. We have made decisions on approximately 4,000 of the 9,500 applications received for a derogation, while a further 950 applicants have been requested to furnish additional documentation because the Department requires greater clarity. Work continues apace on processing the balance of the cases. All applicants are being advised, in writing, of the success or otherwise of their applications and unsuccessful applicants are being afforded the opportunity of appeal to the DAS derogation appeals committee.

This committee will be chaired by Padraig Gibbons who has kindly agreed to chair it and whom I am confident will have much credibility with farmers, particularly in the west. Deputy Ó Cuív cannot have every which way. He cannot say we have to make savings but then look for us to make a derogation for everyone. We need to make savings but we are also trying to be fair to farmers. What I have tried to avoid doing is what the Deputy did in a previous Government which was to take money off everybody in disadvantaged areas because it was the easiest option.

This Government takes the money off the poorest on the most marginal land. The Minister's policy is to hit the guys on the hill and marginal land. He does not care about them because they just have poor land and in his numbers they do not stack up in production.

Where is the Deputy's evidence for that?

From all the Minister's actions.

The Deputy cannot back that claim up with facts.

Of the 4,000 decisions made, how many were in favour and how many were against derogation?

If farmers appeal to the independent appeals committee, is it likely they will have to wait until 2013 for payment before the committee has finished its hearings?

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine wrote to 10,000 farmers asking them to state whether they were in the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, or the rural environmental protection scheme, REPs. The Department which actually runs these schemes could not match its own files as to which farmers were in AEOS and REPs.

What is the Deputy's point?

The Minister is holding up the hill farmers and those on marginal lands. He has created a huge bureaucracy which has little purpose and that will save him for very little moneys.

The Department then asked farmers if their lands were designated as a special area of conservation, SAC, special protection area, SPA, or a natural heritage area, NHA. However, the Department has maps of every inch of every farmers' land, as well as maps of every SAC, SPA and NHA. With all this technology, why could the Department not match this up? If it had, it could have given the derogations a long time ago. Will the Minister explain why the Department asked farmers for this information?

Of the 4,000 decisions made on derogation, how many were favourable to the farmer? When can we expect the independent appeals committee to complete all of its work? Why do we have the farcical situation of the State writing to farmers for information on schemes of which it was the originator and holds on its own files?

To be honest, the Deputy is trying to find fault where there is none.

There is a fault.

Regarding the timing of this, it is a bit ridiculous to ask when will the appeals be finished when they actually have not come in yet. We must wait and see how many appeals come in before we decide.

That is it – the farmers can wait.

One cannot decide how long it will take to hear appeals until one knows with how many appeals one has to deal. Will the Deputy ask a rational question?

Mair, a chapaill, agus gheobhaidh tú féar. Ar chuala tú é sin riamh?

I understand that more than half of the cases of derogations have been successful but I can get the exact figure for the Deputy later.

It is imminently sensible that if one is going to write to 10,000 farmers to outline the rules for qualification for the disadvantaged areas scheme, DAS, then one would use that opportunity also to check where they are farming, under what schemes, and so on.

Yet the Department knows that already.

I do not believe farmers have a significant problem with ticking a box as to whether they are farming in a commonage area if they are successfully getting a derogation. The Deputy is trying to create an issue where there is none.

I am not creating an issue because I am the one they come to when they have difficulties with the forms, particularly the older farmers. What they cannot understand is why the Department had to write to them when it already had the information. The Department knows from its area aid maps, which are satellite pictures and not maps in the conventional sense, exactly to the inch the eligible forage area of every farm in the country. All it had to do was superimpose those maps on the SAC, SPA, and NHA maps and then on the commonage framework maps. The Department also knows which farmers are in AEOS and REPS. Without even writing to the farmers, it could have gone through this information, granted the derogations and the farmers concerned could have got their cheques this week instead of having to wait due to the Minister's delays which hit the poorest, weakest and the vulnerable.

The whole point of doing this is so we are not hitting the poorest and the weakest. While the Deputy gets up on his soapbox, trying to create an impression that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is only interested in commercial farming, the facts do not bear it out. When one looks at the prioritisation measures under the AEOS, farmers in NHA areas, less-favoured areas, those coming out of REPS and using farm size as a basis have all been prioritised.

However, the Deputy would not even think to look at the detail. Instead, he is trying to paint a picture of a Minister who is only interested in commercial farming because he talks much about Food Harvest 2020, a significant policy. That is not the case. When one looks at how we put the budget together last year, one will see we have taken farmers out of the DAS who do not live in disadvantaged areas because they do not belong there.

It is a minimum saving. We agree on that.

The Deputy does not want to hear the facts.

We have focused our payments on small farmers in genuinely disadvantaged areas. It does not suit the Deputy's argument to look at the facts on what we have actually done and the choices we have had to make with the limited amount of money we have to spend. We have prioritised protecting the income of farmers in disadvantaged areas and, where appropriate, we have prioritised small farmers over larger farmers. We will continue to do this in disadvantaged areas.

Forestry Sector

Questions (53, 55, 60)

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

53. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his plans to sell off the Coillte Teo forest crop; the progress made regarding same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40408/12]

View answer

John Browne

Question:

55. Deputy John Browne asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the way he will ensure that the rural recreation aspect of the work of Coillte Teoranta will be protected in the event of the forest crop being sold to private interests; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40411/12]

View answer

Dara Calleary

Question:

60. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the steps that have been taken to ensure the continued viability of the timber industry here in the event that the forest crop is sold to private interests; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40414/12]

View answer

Oral answers (13 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 53, 55 and 60 together.

The Deputy will get my official answer, so I will deal with what I suspect will be-----

Why does the Minister not read it out like we used to do?

I would like to give the Deputy added value if I could.

When I was Minister, the official answer was my answer not the civil servants' answer. If I thought there was something in it that should not be there, then I took it out.

The Minister is in possession.

Will the Minister give us his answer? Presumably, his answer is the answer that will be in the record.

Sorry, Deputy but we do not have much time.

Maybe the Deputy might try and put me under pressure with his questions rather than heckling.

The Government has made a decision to look at the possibility of selling harvesting rights for Coillte forests. This autumn we are in a process of working with NewERA and the company to see how we might best do that in a way that would not damage the broader timber and forestry industry. This has been done in other countries, most recently in New South Wales in Australia.

We are looking at ways of meeting a commitment to the troika to realise value from State assets that do not have to be strategically in State ownership. We have made it clear in the case of Coillte that we will not be selling any Coillte lands or the company. However, we are looking at changing the ownership structure of the forests on the company's lands. This is a little bit like selling a crop ahead of time except for forestry it will involve a 50 to 80 year period. We have been through a valuation process for the commercial forestry estate. To protect the public interest we need to ensure, for example, the supply contracts that many private sawmill operators have with Coillte can be protected. We need to ensure public access to State-owned forests remains intact.

We need to do a series of other things to ensure we minimise job losses from this potential sale. That process is being worked through with the company and NewERA and we will seek any other advice we need to ensure we can do this in the most effective way next year to realise the full value of the asset and also to protect the public interest linked with it.

Has Coillte been consulted on this issue? What is its advice about the desirability of the Government policy in this regard? The Minister says the crop will strategically stay in ownership, but it will not. The most important thing in the forest is the crop which will not strategically stay in ownership. The Minister will be aware that, remarkably, our major mills are still at full production, despite the downturn in building here. This is because of the co-operation between Coillte Teoranta and the mills at the time of crisis when the housing market and the building sector collapsed. Is the Minister satisfied that if the crop was sold and there was a similar difficulty, we would have a similar happy result in the milling industry? If the Government sells the crop, who will have responsibility for replanting? What arrangements will be made and what consideration will be given to the impact of selling the crop and having harvesting activities outside of Coillte's control on rural recreational activities since some 45% of way-marked ways are through Coillte land? Will the Minister indicate what is the expected gross return for the crop? In other words, what is the total amount of money the Government expects to receive for the crop? Have discussions taken place with the troika about finding alternative ways to raise the same amount of money, as the Minister used to ask when in opposition?

That is a series of valid questions. The Deputy is correct in respect of the mills in that most commercial mills are at full production. Many of them obtain 80% or more of their timber from Coillte forests and many have long-term supply contracts in place with Coillte. We will need to protect these supply contracts to ensure that if the forest, not land, ownership structure changes, one can stitch it into any sales process. This has been done successfully in other parts of the world. If we cannot do this, naturally we will have difficulties. I am not in the business of supporting any process that would put the timber sector out of business, an industry that has survived through a rather different building recession in Ireland.

On the management of the crop, it may well be the case that Coillte will continue to manage its forests, but it will no longer own them on behalf of the State. A series of financing models for any new ownership structure may be considered, but one may find that at the end of the process, if it is concluded successfully, Coillte will be essentially on a contract to manage the 1 million hectares or so of trees and more or less continue what it does, except that its management could be obliged to have a commercial relationship with the new owner. I would be slow to move away from the current replanting obligation, whereby Coillte plants approximately 15 million trees per year. In other words, when Coillte harvests them, it must replace the crop by planting. I expect any new owner to have the same obligation.

What is the amount of money involved?

The valuations have differed. In truth, we will not know what the amount of money is until we go to the market, but the most recent valuation through NewERA is between €400 million and €600 million.

I regret I do not have time to call other Deputies, but I hope we will return to this issue.

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