Committee on Finance. - Rates on Agricultural Land (Relief) Bill, 1950—Second Stage.

I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time.

This Bill provides that the Rates on Agricultural Land (Relief) Act, 1946, shall apply to the local financial year ending on the 31st March, 1951. As Deputies are aware, the 1946 Act applied to the two financial years 1946-47 and 1947-48. Its operation was continued in the financial year 1948-49 by the Rates on Agricultural Land (Relief) Act, 1947, and in the financial year 1949-50 by the Rates on Agricultural Land (Relief) Act, 1948.

The Bill now before the House merely proposes to continue the 1946 Act for a further year. There is no new principle involved; all the Bill will do is to continue the agricultural grant on its present basis for the current year.

While I have no doubt that the great majority of the members of this House are familiar with this matter, it may be of some assistance if I give a brief outline of the history of the agricultural grant.

Provision for the agricultural grant was first made in the Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898. The grant was fixed at the sum of £599,011, which represented half the amount raised off agricultural land by poor rate and county cess in the previous year. The amount of the grant remained unaltered until 1925, when it was doubled. In 1931 a further sum of £750,000 was added, bringing the total to £1,948,022. Between 1932 and 1936 the grant was increased on two occasions and reduced on two occasions, the amount being fixed at £1,870,000 in respect of the year 1935-36. The basis of distribution was also changed in these years. The grant was continued at the figure of £1,870,000 until the 1946 Act came into operation in the financial year 1946-47.

Under the 1946 Act the arrangement by which a grant of a fixed amount was paid was terminated. The Act provided for a grant of such a sum as would be needed to give reliefs on the following basis:—

(1) A primary allowance at the rate of three-fifths of the general rate on land valuations not exceedind £20, and the first £20 of higher valuations.

(2) A supplementary allowance of one-fifth of the general rate on the whole of the land valuation above £20.

(3) An employment allowance calculated at the rate of 10/- in the £ on the land valuation above £20, subject to the limitation that the allowance does not exceed £6 10s. 0d. in respect of each man at work.

This meant that the grant would in future vary in amount according as the county rate and the number of men at work varied. The effect of the Act was that the grant, which since 1935-36 was fixed at £1,870,000, increased to £2,910,378 in 1946-47, to £3,175,726 in 1947-48, to £3,624,035 in 1948-49, and to £3,971,722 in the year 1949-50. The figure for 1949-50 shows an increase of about 112 per cent. as compared with 1945-46, the year preceding the coming into operation of the 1946 Act. The extent of the rate relief afforded by the grant is apparent from the fact that though the average gross rate in county health districts for 1949-50 was 22/7¾d. in the £, the average net rate assessed on agricultural land was 11/3½d. In other words, due to the operation of the grant, the rates payable by the farmers were slightly less than half what they would otherwise have been.

In view of the fact that the average general rate in the £ in county health districts is about the same as last year's figure, I expect that the grant in the current year will be roughly the same as in 1949-50. The total sum of £3,971,722 paid in 1949-50 was divided as follows:—Primary allowance, £2,667,760; supplementary allowance, £708,842; employment allowance, £583,565; amount paid to urban councils, £11,555.

As I explained at the outset, the present Bill does not propose to make any alteration in the basis of distribution of the agricultural grant. It is a continuing measure and the principles on which it is based have been accepted by Deputies on a number of occasions. These principles were very fully discussed and explained during the debate on the motion for the derating of agricultural land which was before the House last November. I do not think that Deputies will want me to go over all the ground that was covered on that occasion, even if the Ceann Comhairle allowed me to do so. Accordingly I feel that I can confidently ask the House to give this Bill a Second Reading.

There is a good deal of dissatisfaction in regard to the allocation of this grant as it affects workers employed on the land in that the rate relief is only applicable to workers employed for a continuous period of 12 months. Farmers who go in extensively for tillage have a good deal of seasonal work in which a very large number of men is employed, perhaps for a short period. I wonder if it would be possible for the Minister to consider some provision which would enable relief to be given in respect of casual labour?

Would the Parliamentary Secretary be in a position to tell us the means employed in checking on the number of workers who were returned by the farmer as persons employed on his holding? That matter has often puzzled me. There may be some means by which that can be done fairly accurately but I never knew exactly how it was done.

With regard to the matter raised by Deputy Cogan, that question has been raised on a number of occasions here. I think I may repeat the submission that was made, not alone by the Minister, in 1948, but, I think, by many of his predecessors, that the idea of the grant in respect of men employed on agricultural land was to encourage farmers to keep workers in employment for the whole year. I submit the same principle. It is to work against what Deputy Cogan suggests might be put in the Bill, namely, the provision of a grant in respect of casual labour. The intention is to encourage farmers to keep their workers continuously employed throughout the whole year and to try to ensure that that would be done.

With regard to Deputy Smith's question, I could not answer offhand, but I have been informed now that such information is submitted by the Garda Síochána and by the rate collectors.

Could the Parliamentary Secretary tell me if the actual forms that are completed by the landowner who is claiming relief are sent to the local Gardaí or to the rate collector for the purpose of having a check made, because I never had evidence of any check of that nature taking place at all?

I have not that particular information, but I am informed that the rate collector makes the submission.

Would the Parliamentary Secretary look it up? Where the workers are insured persons, what, if any, check is made with the national health insurance people?

If the Deputy is particularly interested in that, I will get that information.

I would be glad to be informed as to the exact method by which all this matter is checked.

There is very strict check on the matter. The local government auditor also has a further check and there is a check by the rate collector, who must certify in respect of each claim.

In addition, a large number are submitted to the Garda Síochána for certification. The numbers given under the national health insurance scheme are checked, too. There is a further check by the Department of Local Government auditor. There is a very strict and close check at the present time.

What is the point? Is it submitted that there is too strict a check?

I do not say that it is too strict.

I do not happen to be chairman of a county council at the moment. I am not in touch with the method in which it is done. I was merely asking this question for my own information.

I realise that but I was wondering if there was abuse on one side or another.

It lends itself to abuse, if not checked.

Question put and agreed to.