Ceisteanna—Questions. Priority Questions. - Live Cattle Trade.

Willie Penrose

Ceist:

2 Mr. Penrose asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food the steps, if any, he has taken to reopen the live cattle trade to Egypt and Libya; the communications, if any, he has with his counterpart in Egypt and Libya; the number of visits he has made to Egypt and Libya to help secure these important markets; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23558/97]

Paul Connaughton

Ceist:

3 Mr. Connaughton asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food the steps, if any, he has taken during the past four weeks to reopen the live cattle exports to Egypt; if his attention has been drawn to the steep decline in cattle prices both at marts and in factories; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23575/97]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 and 3 together.

As I explained in the Dáil debate on 8 October last, it has been a priority for me to ensure that the BSE related restrictions on our live cattle trade to Egypt are removed. A commitment in principle to reopen the market for Irish cattle was communicated on 4 June to my predecessor, subject to agreement on a number of conditions. Discussions at technical level were necessary in relation to these conditions. Veterinary delegations from Ireland visited on two occasions in August and the Ambassador in Cairo remained in constant contact with the Egyptian authorities. Final agreement on reopening the market was delayed, however, due to increased concerns in Egypt relating to food imports generally. In view of this I contacted the Egyptian Deputy Premier and Minister for Agriculture, Dr. Wally, and met him in Cairo on 28 September. I also met the Minister for Trade and Supply, Dr. Goweily.

As a result of my meetings, the Egyptian authorities agreed to consider accepting a trial shipment of live cattle from Ireland. The formulation of a proposal which would allay the concerns of the Egyptian authorities necessitated a detailed veterinary and engineering assessment of quarantine and slaughtering facilities in Egypt. This was completed in early November and a comprehensive proposal, drawn up by my Department in conjunction with the Irish Livestock Exporters' Association was forwarded by me to Dr. Wally on 20 November. This proposal is now being considered by the Egyptian authorities and I am keeping in close contact with developments.

As regards Libya, contact continues to be maintained at diplomatic and political level to have the ban on cattle imports, imposed in March 1996, lifted. A technical delegation from Libya visited this country earlier in the year and shortly after returning to office, I wrote to my Libyan counterpart to emphasise the control measures in place in Ireland. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Keeffe, met the Libyan Minister for Agriculture in Rome in November and discussed lifting the ban. I have also made clear that I am prepared to travel to Libya as soon as appropriate arrangements can be made. I will continue to avail of every opportunity to seek to have the ban lifted.

As far as cattle prices are concerned, I am fully aware of recent developments. The decline in prices is due in large measure to the protest action by UK farmers and the adverse effect of the UK announcement in relation to BSE and bone-in beef. In the short-term, the decision of the beef management committee on 12 December to accept 2,330 tonnes of Irish beef into intervention up to 16 January will help to stabilise the market. Some 7,000 steers will be required to meet this tender at prices ranging between 83 pence and 87 pence per pound. I will continue to press the EU Commission to have effective and flexible intervention in place for the spring period.

As regards the UK market difficulties, every effort has been made by the Taoiseach, other Government Ministers and myself to ensure unimpeded access for Irish beef to its market destination. In response, the UK authorities have taken firmer action and the position has improved to the extent that the protests are not preventing access to the market for Irish beef.

It is acknowledged that beef producers are in crisis and that live exports are critical to their livelihoods. Will the Minister agree that the fact that 140,000 fewer cattle were exported this year, as compared to the same period last year, is of critical importance in maintaining price? Will he also agree that factories are exploiting the absence of the live export trade to drop, in an unwarranted fashion, the price of cattle, that this is done in a cartel fashion and that it has led to a price fall of £75 per head in the past four to five weeks? Has there been any contact with the Irish Competition Authority about the reference made by the Minister's predecessor concerning the alleged factories cartels? What is the present position of that investigation?

I was at the Red Cow Inn when the Minister made a number of unequivocal commitments to farmers. There were no blockages at that time but the wheels have fallen off the wagon since. Have the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs taken a role in ensuring those markets are reopened? That question was often addressed to other people when they were in Government. Is there a concerted Government policy to exploit all the diplomatic channels at the disposal of the Government? Has the Taoiseach taken the opportunity to raise this matter with his counterparts? Has the Minister for Foreign Affairs done likewise? Has any action been taken to secure the live export market which is critical in the context of maintaining prices? One hundred thousand livestock farmers are teetering on the brink of extinction. This is the one question of critical importance that is being raised at all farmers' meetings.

There is a need for a live trade. It provides access to additional markets and competition on the domestic market. A thriving live trade is always reflected in prices at marts throughout the country. During my last period in office up to 400,000 head of live cattle were exported. When I returned to office that trade had disappeared and I have been seeking to have it reopened. The commercial reality is that if one has merchandise to sell one has to find somebody to purchase it. The Department has been assisting the trade in every conceivable way through our ambassadors and diplomatic staff and by visiting the countries concerned. The Taoiseach has assisted in that regard, as has the Minister for Foreign Affairs. As recently as a week ago the Minister for Foreign Affairs was in Algeria , and at the top of his agenda was the beef trade to that country. I visited Egypt and, on 3 January next the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Deputy McDaid will visit Egypt. I met the Iranian Ambassador last week. Every possible avenue is being explored to help our vital cattle and beef industry.

My predecessor referred the matter of prices paid by factories to the Competition Authority. I have made contact with the Competition Authority on a number of occasions since then, but it is not yet in a position to make any report on the matter. I can only assume it is ineffective in relation to this. I have pursued a different avenue with the factory representatives and farming organisations. Officials at the most senior level at my Department and farming representatives are quite positive as to the outcome of those meetings. I expect that in the new year there will be a far more transparent operation in place.

Reading between the lines it seems that the Minister is far from optimistic about opening the Egyptian trade. He has a very downbeat approach to a huge problem. I am beginning to see a hidden agenda in the Department of Agriculture and Food in the context of the live cattle trade. It is alleged that at a meeting with a group of young farmers on 19 November the Minister said that as far as he was concerned the Egyptian live trade was not worth our while, that it was worth only 17p a pound for Irish meat and that it would be more worthwhile to send cattle to the meat processing plants in Ireland. Is that the Minister's view? If so, instead of being farmer oriented as an Irish Minister for Agriculture should be, the Minister is factory oriented. That means that every farmer who is depending on the Minister already has one hand tied behind his back. I want the Minister to clear the air. From the manner in which the Minister answered Deputy Penrose's question I do not believe the live trade to Egypt will reopen. The Minister does not seem optimistic. That would not be too bad if we thought he was doing his best, but given what he is alleged to have said to young farmers, it seems he is against the live trade to Egypt.

When I was in office only a couple of years ago we had a thriving live cattle trade. By the time I returned to office my predecessor had allowed it to dry up. I am now seeking to have the live trade reopened. The Government provided finance to get the Purbeck ferry into operation, and that has carried several thousand small cattle to the Continent. In addition, I assisted in getting the live trade to the Lebanon opened up — again, for one reason or another, my predecessor abandoned the cattle industry in that country. Only two weeks ago 2,000 live cattle were exported to the Lebanon, and a further 2,000 will be on their way within the next couple of weeks. Every possible avenue is being explored to ensure a resumption of the live trade which was tragically allowed to go out of existence while I was out of office. As far as I am concerned, we will return to the situation that existed when I was last in office, and that will happen very quickly.

The Minister did not answer my allegation. Did the Minister say what I have attributed to him at the meeting in question? If he did, we have a big problem here.

What the Deputy alleged is a lot of nonsense.