Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Questions (54)

Charlie McConalogue


54. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the contingencies being operationalised and supports that will be in place to safeguard farmers, fishermen and the agrifood sector here for all scenarios, including a no-deal hard Brexit, by the 29 March 2019 deadline; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14214/19]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

This question requests the Minister to give details of all the contingencies being operationalised and the supports that will be in place to safeguard Irish farmers, fishermen and the agrifood sector for all scenarios, including a no-deal hard Brexit by the 12 April deadline. As we know, the deadline has been extended from 29 March to 12 April on the basis that the withdrawal agreement is passed in the House of Commons, which looks increasingly unlikely. To date, we have not seen any detail from the Minister regarding what contingencies or supports will be in place for the agrifood and the marine sector. I hope that at long last, he will be in a position today to bring some clarity to his preparation in this regard and to the specific contingency plans that he has in place.

While ratification of the withdrawal agreement is still the Government's primary focus, and preparations are continuing for all scenarios, greater priority has of course been given recently to preparations for a no-deal Brexit.

My Department, as part of a whole-of-Government approach, has been very active in this regard. Regarding preparedness for import controls, we have been working with other Departments and agencies to have the necessary import control arrangements in place at our ports and airports in order to allow the Department to fulfil its legal obligations as efficiently as possible, while also ensuring the minimum possible disruption to trading arrangements.

The Department has also sharpened its Brexit communications strategy in order to keep stakeholders informed and to encourage them to take the necessary steps to allow their trading arrangements with the United Kingdom to continue. This is happening through increased engagement with stakeholders, an enhanced Brexit page on the Department's website, the circulation of focused trader notices, the establishment of a dedicated Brexit call centre and central email address, and the increased use of social media.

In order to help mitigate the impacts on the sector, I have introduced a number of budgetary measures over the past three years aimed at helping farmers and fishermen, at improving competitiveness, and at supporting market and product diversification. This included a €78 million package in budget 2019. This provided an additional €43 million given directly to farmers, including €23 million in additional funding for the areas of natural constraints, ANC, scheme and €20 million for the beef environmental efficiency pilot, which complements the €300 million beef data and genomics scheme.

More recently - including on the margins of last week's Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels - I have held bilateral discussions with Commissioner Hogan on the impact of Brexit and the need for comprehensive supports to be deployed, in particular to mitigate the impact on the beef sector. The common organisation of the markets, CMO, regulation, which was put in place under the Irish Presidency of the European Union in 2013, provides a comprehensive toolbox for dealing with market disruption. This includes intervention, aids to private storage and exceptional measures. The Commissioner has reiterated the European Union's readiness to respond and support Ireland, and we will remain in contact on these issues as the situation evolves.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

I also recently met fisheries Commissioner, Karmenu Vella, to discuss and share concerns about the potential serious impacts for Irish fishing fleets if they are excluded from UK waters in a no-deal Brexit situation. Commissioner Vella has already indicated that member states can have additional flexibility in the use of existing European Maritime and Fisheries Fund-funded programmes to support fishermen in the event of a hard Brexit. He has also indicated that the EU has the necessary legal framework to manage reciprocal arrangements after Brexit should the UK provide access to its waters to the end of 2019.

I thank the Minister for his response. While he may tell us he is increasingly engaging with stakeholders, unfortunately, he is not able to enlighten us any further on the specific contingencies or supports that will be in place in the event of a hard Brexit. For him to try to tell us that the beef scheme or the ANC scheme is somehow related to his Brexit response is a bit rich. Since October 2017 when budget 2018 was announced and published, he has been telling us consistently that the Brexit loan scheme he announced in that budget would be a key part of his response and preparation for a hard Brexit. Yet today, only a few weeks from 12 April and only three days from the original exit date, where is that loan scheme? It has not been delivered by him despite the fact that it was his response and first defence with respect to how he was going to do the devil and all to prepare for Brexit. Likewise, last August, we heard him indicate he was going to hire 300 sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, officers but in September he revised that down to 114. How many of those are available today? The Minister cannot tell us because they are not there. Again, we are totally unprepared.

The Minister is aware of the massive pressure the beef sector in particular is under. The British Government has outlined its proposed tariffs. It is long past time that the specific supports that will be available from the Irish Government and the European Commission were made clear to the agrifood sector and to farmers in particular. The Minister needs to front up and provide clarity on that now.

On the loan scheme to which the Deputy alludes, we have already had two successful forays in this area. We had the €150 million working capital scheme and the €300 million loan scheme. The next one, the details of which will be announced and available shortly, is for those who are contemplating capital investment. I take the observation the Deputy made that it is long awaited but he will appreciate, in the context of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, that the reality is that many businesses, agribusinesses included, have pressed a pause button until they see the certainty. The focus of the Government’s endeavour has been on trying to provide certainty in an area where we do not control the levers in terms of what the UK decisions will be. Our preference is that it would ratify a withdrawal agreement. I do not accept the Deputy’s rationale that it looks more unlikely. In fact, more recent developments might suggest that the withdrawal agreement might be moving back centre stage again in the context of deliberations in the UK Parliament but I am very satisfied that we are ready. The responses will be a collaborative endeavour between the Commission and the Government. The Deputy heard the Commissioner respond. We have discussed in detail what may be necessary but we will need to see what the practical fallout is.

I am glad to hear that the Minister is satisfied because I do not believe any others are, or certainly the agrifood sector is not. I am pointing out to the Minister nothing more than his own commentary since October 2017 on the loan scheme. He was the man selling it as a key panacea and measure by the Government to prepare for a hard Brexit. They were his own words. It was the first point he would make. Regardless of the issue or concern we would raise with him, his response was to the effect, "Don’t worry guys. I have this loan scheme coming". It is a bit rich, with the possibility of a hard Brexit only a couple of weeks away, that the scheme still has not arrived and that the Minister has not delivered on it. Unfortunately, that is symptomatic of the other preparations we have not seen from him.

When responding the Minister might update us on the 300 SPS veterinary officers he was to hire. Again, as recently as last September, he was telling us they would be in place in the event of a hard Brexit. I am aware he downgraded that figure to 116. How many of those are in place? That was another key measure he said would be in place.

The unfortunate reality is that the Government is not prepared for a hard Brexit. It has hoped for the best rather that prepared for the worst. Can the Minister clarify now the status of those veterinary officers?

In particular, we need absolute clarity in regard to the support packages that will be available to the agrifood sector in the event of a hard Brexit because it is already impacting on confidence and prices.

I assure the Deputy that, if the UK becomes a third country, the infrastructure that is required to keep trade moving at places like Rosslare, Dublin Port or Dublin Airport, and all of the necessary backup staff and front-line staff that will be necessary for that, will be in place to meet that contingency should it arise.

How many has the Department hired?

I will get the Deputy the exact figures but they are along the lines he has quoted in terms of the 120 between Rosslare and Dublin Port and the necessary backup staff, supervisory staff and veterinary expertise that would be necessary. I am satisfied we have that.

What we have been trying to do since 23 June is build resilience within the sector, inside and outside the farm gate, and I think we have succeeded in doing that. However, I would preface those comments by saying it is not possible in regard to Brexit preparedness to mitigate all of the downsides. I have always said there is no upside to Brexit. It is a damage limitation exercise in terms of our market exposure to the UK, of trying to work with State agencies to look at new market opportunities for business and of building resilience inside the farm gate in regard to areas of natural constraint, ANC, payments and a whole host of other initiatives. Brexit is a bad news story. It is about damage limitation in terms of what we have been able to do for the sector.