Before the start of questions to the Minister for Education and Science, I was outlining the reasons that the Green Party opposes this Bill. The intervening hour and a quarter has not changed our position. This Bill seems to have been formed through the Department of Finance. The Department was asked to make savings and rather than think strategically of the needs of Irish agriculture, the civil servants in the Department have instead chosen to see what could be done administratively to make the savings being demanded of it. Ultimately, that lack of a strategic approach will be to the disadvantage of all involved in Irish agriculture, from the individual farmers to the consumer, in whose interest the issue of food quality rests, if there is no confidence in how food is produced and how high quality food is marketed, not only in Ireland but abroad.
The Government must be taken to task for that lack of a strategic approach. I highlighted how food agencies have been far too timid in challenging other aspects of Government policy outside incineration and their effect in undermining food quality in Ireland. However, it seems that for those involved in the administration of Irish agriculture, the best strategy has always been to keep one's head down rather than be innovative and bring about changes for the betterment of Irish agriculture and the quality of Irish food. It is not unfair to say that the Department of Agriculture and Food, in its previous forms, when it included the Department of the Marine, was traditionally the most conservative of Departments. As we face a new century and the new reality of the accession of ten new countries into the European Union and the challenge of where food is likely to be produced within the Single Market of the European Union, rather than face that challenge the Government is instead deciding to retreat into a shell, returning to traditional formats and failing to look at the innovative approaches that we need to produce different and better types of Irish food that can be marketed differently.
From a green perspective, the ultimate disappointment with this Bill is that the organic sector is once again being left aside in how it is valued within the agricultural sector and how it is likely to be promoted. It is particularly disappointing from the Minister's point of view since, to be fair, at least in the past 18 months, because of changes proposed to the Common Agricultural Policy and the nature of negotiations going on in the World Trade Organisation, the Minister has been coming around to the realisation, and articulating in this House, that we need better quality Irish food achieved through better support for the organic sector. Yet in front of us we have a Bill that totally negates that approach. The Minister's words in this House ring ever more hollow because of a failure to follow through with an appropriate administrative structure. The Green Party believes that, if we truly wish to support the organic element in agriculture and its horticultural component, there must be a specified, stand-alone agency. Bord Glas is the obvious vehicle to help that movement forward. The Minister, in summing up this debate when we finish Second Stage, might argue against many of those points.
Aside from what he is proposing in the Bill, which is ultimately administrative, the real challenge facing the Minister, who has been in office for such a long time, is the mind-set that permeates agriculture. On Tuesday, the Irish Farmers Association held a large-scale lobby on the effects of the nitrates directive. On the surface, trying to live up to the directive will cause inconvenience because it requires new practices in agriculture and involves costs. An innovative Government would have risen to this challenge. Rather than placing the burden on the agricultural community by stating it must live with the costs, it would have structured the introduction of the directive in such a way as to combine appropriate incentives with recognition that current farming practices, particularly the use of nitrates and nitrate loads on many farms, cannot continue.
The leadership style chosen by the Irish Farmers Association is an issue, but part of the problem lies in the Department's lack of willingness to properly interact with and confront the relevant issues to ensure the introduction of the necessary changes, whether for environmental purposes or to sustain agriculture in the future. The silence of the Government on this issue is disappointing.
It is important from a food quality as much as a water point of view that we get the nitrates directive right. Ultimately, the disappointment and anger expressed by the farming community is matched and mirrored in the disappointment of many citizens who believe we have a high quality environment which we should do our utmost to enhance and protect. The food quality agencies have been silent on this matter and have shown an unwillingness to state what needs to be stated on these issues.
Part of the reason for establishing stand-alone State agencies, as articulated by Ministers in the past, is the freedom to make policy and statements which would not politically compromise Ministers or Governments. The conservatism of the Department of Agriculture and Food appears to be matched by the conservatism of food agencies such as Bord Bia. If the Minister was intent on shaking up the food marketing and quality elements of State bodies, he should have adopted Deputy Upton's position of establishing a wide-ranging organisation encompassing all elements of food.
There is a fear that separating fishing from the food promotion element of Enterprise Ireland, and submerging Bord Glas in Bord Bia creates two-headed monsters, to the extent that the interests represented by Bord Glas, namely, those of the horticultural industries, will not only take a back seat, but may disappear from the screen. Those of us who oppose the Bill and the merger of these two bodies believe the move will not deliver a new super-agency, but that Bord Bia will do what it has always done, with the same emphasis and priorities. The Minister has yet to articulate how the interests represented by Bord Glas will be represented in the new body.
Like other speakers, I am loath to address the composition of a board whose establishment I oppose in the first instance. It needs to be re-emphasised, however, that the commitment of Government towards gender equality and balance in State bodies and agencies in general is mealy-mouthed and needs to be specified. I am disappointed that we suddenly appear to have lost sight of the 40% quota, which has been stated Government policy since the mid-1990s. As the finance spokesperson of the Green Party, I have been arguing with the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Finance, on the issue of gender balance on the board of the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority. One continually hears the argument that it is difficult to find qualified women in various areas. The Green Party and many members of the Opposition will not accept that argument from the Minister in this case because the growth in part-time farming on family farms has resulted in female dominance in the area of food marketing.
If ever there was a case for specifying a gender quota on a State body, this is it. I would even argue that the new body should be the first State agency with a majority of female representation given the manner in which the industry has developed in recent years. That is particularly true of the horticultural sector and for this reason I ask the Minister to specify a quota for female representation on the board should the Bill be enacted.
To allay the fears I have expressed, the Minister should also give appropriate recognition to the role of the horticultural industry by specifying that the new body include a quota of persons who are involved in that sector. The same should apply with regard to organic activities and marketing. If the Minister fails to specify the areas which should be represented on the board, the final result will be the appointment of a group of people by the Minister, some of whom will have direct experience of the general agriculture industry, but many of them will have the coincidental advantage of membership of the Government parties. In such circumstances, we would not know whether the board selected would benefit agriculture and society.
The Green Party opposes the Bill because it is motivated by cost and administrative considerations inspired by the Department of Finance. It also fails to appreciate and enhance the role of horticulture in the agriculture industry. If a new body and administrative structure for the board are established, they must recognise the contribution of women as well as those involved in horticulture and organic industries. Only then should the marketing element be considered in the formation of the board.
While I am not optimistic that the Minister will accept any of my proposals, it is important to place on record that the Government cannot take pride in this Bill, and the House should not be spending time on it. Instead, the Government should introduce more productive legislation on other aspects of the agriculture industry.