Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4)

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that discusses agricultural matters; and when it will next meet. [50203/19]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that discusses agricultural matters; and when it will next meet. [51861/19]

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Brendan Howlin

Question:

3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that discusses agricultural matters; and when it last met. [52727/19]

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Joan Burton

Question:

4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that discusses agricultural matters; and when it will next meet. [53004/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.

Issues relevant to the agriculture sector can arise, as required, at several Cabinet committees, including the Cabinet committee on the economy, which covers rural affairs; the Cabinet committee on Brexit, foreign and European affairs, which covers matters related to Brexit and trade; and the Cabinet committee on the environment, which covers issues relating to the environment, including climate action and biodiversity. Issues relating to agriculture are, of course, regularly discussed at full Cabinet meetings, where all formal decisions are made. The Cabinet committee on the economy most recently met on Wednesday, 4 September. The next meeting will be scheduled for early in the new year. The Cabinet committee on Brexit, foreign and European affairs most recently met on Monday, 9 December. The Cabinet committee on the environment most recently met on Monday, 2 December.

With regard to agriculture matters being discussed by a Cabinet committee, farmers have come to Dublin again this week to protest. We have seen much of this around the country with protests at various large supermarket retailers and distribution units. This is a reflection of the real frustration among farmers, in particular, beef farmers, about the complete absence of a future for them. They do not see any possibility of the sector recovering from the terrible position it is in.

We welcome the establishment of the beef task force and the lifting of the injunctions against farmers, which was one of the obstacles facing the task force. This is healthy and a move forward. It is clear, however, that the pace of progress does not reflect the urgency of the situation. There is a fundamental flaw in the supply chain. Part of this is an absence of price transparency. The Irish Farmers Journal had sight of leaked documents that show eye-watering margins.

Three of the supermarket chains make up 75% of the retail market in Ireland and they can make more than 50% on the retail price of beef and other meat products. At present, farmers lose 70 cent to 80 cent per kilo on beef. This is a major problem and unless we can get to grips with it we will have a huge difficulty. I understand that the standard answer will be that the Government cannot interfere in the market and that it will have to let the market rule but, ultimately, a monopoly and what is, in effect, a cartel are in place. Earlier this year, the vice president of the Irish Natura Hill Farmers Association pointed out to the Oireachtas committee that there were, in effect, a monopoly and a cartel operating to the detriment of the farming sector. Does the Taoiseach agree that legislation needs to be put in place on beef price transparency? Sinn Féin has a Bill in this regard. Will the Taoiseach support it? Will the Government bring a new sense of urgency to the beef task force to ensure it delivers for the sector? It is not just about the price of beef, it is about the viability of an entire farming sector.

An issue in respect of which I - no more than anybody else - have tabled hundreds of parliamentary questions since I entered the Dáil in 2011, is forestry. Those questions date right back to the misguided plan to sell off the harvesting rights of Coillte. In the interim, there has been, at a rhetorical level, an improvement in terms of the Government's official policy on forestry, particularly its importance in the context of climate change. However, in terms of delivery, we are in a worse position than we have ever been. The rate of new planting actually got worse over the past six years, as did the situation in terms of the type of trees we grow, namely, one species, Sitka spruce. The forestry sector is commercially focused rather than based on understanding the need for a sustainable model that would contribute to a sustainable environmental future. The Mackinnon report that was produced recently confirmed some of the points that I and others have been making about this matter for a long time. We are not taking forestry seriously. Will anything improve on this front? We have a target to plant 8,000 ha of trees. We have had targets similar to this or even higher in the past ten years. We never meet them and we are now down at an all-time low of approximately 3,000 ha a year, which is dismal. Will we move from paying rhetorical lip service to forestry and climate change to real delivery in terms of afforestation?

I am speaking as a member of the Fingal walkers. What is remarkable in walking all of the land of north County Dublin, which we have been doing on and off for 20 years, is the massive destruction of hedgerows and the development of super-large fields for grain growing in which there are no trees or hedgerows and everything has been chopped down to a height of 6 ft. The Taoiseach and I have knowledge of the area. It is clear that this may in the future be the pattern in the rest of Ireland. Farmers must try to make a living and they should be strongly supported by the Government in doing so but we have a problem with biodiversity. Last year, there were very bad fires in the forests around Killarney that resulted in significant destruction of trees and wildlife. In north County Dublin and, presumably, a lot of north Leinster, the EU is paying farmers to cut down hedgerows to make these very large fields, thereby completely destroying a significant percentage of the hedgerows, which are natural biodiversity corridors because, as has been stated, we do not have massive indigenous forests. We hope to have these but we do not have them at present. As the leader of the country, will the Taoiseach have a look at this matter in the context of how to address it? Obviously, the farmers' interests must be taken into account but so must our commitments in respect of biodiversity.

In recent weeks, the Taoiseach has rolled out what is already a highly negative campaign on his behalf and on that of his party. Who he thinks he is impressing with this is anyone's guess. One part of this negative campaign is the ridiculous claim that everyone who supported a proposal for more investment in public transport, including a major improvement in rural public transport services, is plotting and scheming to do down rural Ireland. The Taoiseach has stated this in the House and elsewhere. The Taoiseach even went to north Meath and said that the dastardly Fianna Fáil Party was going to scrap local roads by means of a sinister process called reprofiling. The pettiness is striking because even for what is a very petty Government, this may be the first time ever the Opposition has been attacked by a Government for quoting the Minister for Finance. The current Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and almost every other member of the Government has mentioned the fact that its own massive overspending has required reprofiling of capital plans. This continues apace. I hope the Taoiseach keeps the absurd attack going because all it does is reinforce how the Fine Gael Party is now so out of ideas that all it can do is continue to make up attacks against the Opposition. This is another example of the Government trying to distract attention from a crisis that has arisen on its watch. Farmers have been promised urgent action in respect of their income and the crisis relating to viability. This is another example of a slow and very limited response. No one is stating that the Taoiseach can go out and set higher prices. What is being asked for is urgent and co-ordinated action to address the fact the critical primary producers are getting squeezed by an unfair market. The beef task force was supposed to drive forward action. It was announced at the start of September but did not meet for the first time until the beginning of December. It is not due to meet again until next month. When will the pace of this work increase? What proposals have been prepared to address the continued weakness of sterling and the imminence of a less open trading regime with our largest market?

I thank the Deputies for their questions and contributions. I assure the House that the Government is deeply committed to fully supporting and developing Ireland's beef sector and to protecting the incomes of beef farmers. As we all understand, the Government does not have a role to play in determining the price that beef farmers get from factories. However, I would like to see an increase in the price being paid to farmers in order that they will receive a price in line with the EU average. At present, they do not. Certainly, I support greater transparency on price. In this context, I will give indications from Meat Industry Ireland that market conditions are improving. This is being reflected in some price increases for farmers though not enough to date.

The Government provides significant financial assistance to the beef sector to encourage greater efficiencies and productivity. We have done this through a series of measures, including the €300 million beef data and genomics programme, €20 million for the beef environmental efficiency pilot in 2019, €78 million drawn down through the beef exceptional aid measure and the restoration of the areas of natural constraints scheme to €250 million. A total of €85 million in targeted schemes supporting sustainable beef farming is provided in budget 2020. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, €85 million has been set aside for beef farmers, with the possibility of further funding depending on the impact. However, the Government will work hard over the coming months to secure a trade deal with the UK that will continue to give our farmers free access to the British market, which is so important to them.

Particularly at this time of the year, the basic payment scheme is fundamentally important to farmers in order to maintain cashflow. The commencement of the basic payment scheme balancing payment will bring the total paid to more than 120,000 farmers under the 2019 scheme to date to €1.14 billion. The implementation of the agreement reached between beef stakeholders on 15 September is important in terms of providing immediate benefit to producers as well as the introduction of a range of strategic measures that seek to tackle structural imbalances in the sector. The agreement provided for an immediate increase in the range of bonuses. It increased the level of bonuses being paid on certain animals, as well as significantly increasing the number of animals eligible for bonuses.

The cumulative impact is that over 70% of all steer and heifers slaughtered are now eligible for a bonus on top of the basic price paid.

On forestry, Deputies will be aware that roughly 11% of Ireland is now under forest, which is the highest level in 350 years, but it is still very low by European standards. We have set the objective to plant an additional 400 million trees between now and 2030. There are good incentives in place for farmers and landowners to get involved in forestry but uptake is disappointing. I would like to see not only farmers but all major landowners plant an acre or a hectare of trees, ideally native trees. We are willing to provide financial assistance for them to do that. The planting of more trees, including native trees, will have to form part of the new Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, which will arise at European level in the next couple of months or year or so and the climate action measures being taken at European level through the European green deal.

On the issue of hedgerows, which was raised by Deputy Burton, I will have to come back to her with a more detailed reply. I do know that many hedgerows are protected but not all are. Hedgerows are, of course, habitats in their own right. They allow animals to travel and they act as corridors between habitats, as the Deputy mentioned. There are payments to maintain and nurture hedgerows under GLAS, but again perhaps we could enhance them. I think I have covered all of the other questions in my replies.