Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 8 May 2014

Vol. 840 No. 3

Other Questions

Question No. 6 replied to with Written Answers.

Farms Data

Seán Kyne


7. Deputy Seán Kyne asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the context of the favourable tax reliefs to make the process of passing farms from one generation to the next as inexpensive and easy as possible, the number of farms that have been transferred to younger farmers in the past two years; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20337/14]

This relates to land mobility and the various tax reliefs in place to allow or make easier the passing of farms from one generation to another. What is the number of farms which have transferred to young farmers in the past two years, and will the Minister make a statement on the matter?

One of the major challenges facing the agriculture sector is its age profile. Central Statistics Office, CSO, data indicates that the average age of farmers rose from 50 to 54 between 2000 and 2010. More than half were aged 55 years or older, whereas more than a quarter were aged over 65 years. The number of farmers under 35 years more than halved to less than 6% of farmers.

There are a number of taxation measures available to help minimise the taxation implications of intergenerational farm transfer. I have ongoing and detailed consultation with the Minister for Finance to ensure the continuing effectiveness these measures, which include stamp duty exemption on transfers of land to young trained farmers, which was extended in budget 2012 for a further three year period until 31 December 2015; agricultural relief from capital acquisitions tax, whereby the market value of agricultural property is reduced by 90%; and retirement relief from capital gains tax, CGT, where an individual over 55 years disposes of some or all of his or her agricultural assets, including land, once certain criteria are met. Whereas definitive statistics on the number of farms that have been transferred to younger farmers are not available, a good indication of these is the number of farmers claiming retirement relief from CGT. For the two most recent years for which data are available, there were approximately 740 claimants in 2011, with provisional data for 2012 indicating around 610 claimants.

We have an ongoing review of all agricultural taxation measures with the Department of Finance, and we are trying to ensure we maintain the value of supports to the agricultural sector into the future while recalibrating it for the challenges we currently face. Over the past 30 years, with every budget there have been new decisions affecting agriculture which add to previous issues. We will examine a more strategic approach to agricultural taxation so as to deal with matters like generational change, challenges from climate change, income supports, land transfers and other key issues to be addressed.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

I have ongoing contact with the Minister for Finance to ensure that tax policy continues to reflect the Government’s commitment to agriculture and, in particular, to the objectives of smart, green, growth outlined in the Food Harvest 2020 strategy. A review of tax measures in the farming sector, a joint initiative between my Department and the Department of Finance, was announced in budget 2014 and is now under way. Among the key policy areas identified for examination in the course of the review are encouraging and attracting young farmers and new entrants to farming and succession and earlier lifetime transfers within families.

The purpose of the review is to analyse the benefits of the various tax measures to the agriculture sector and the wider economy versus the costs, i.e. value for money to the economy. The overall objective is not to change the level of support to the sector through the tax system but rather to maximise the benefits of the existing level of support and to ensure tax policy aligns with the objectives set out in Food Harvest 2020. There has been a good response to the request for written submissions and the next phase of the public consultation will involve meetings with key stakeholders. The recommendations of the review will be considered in the context of budget 2015 and will influence tax policy in the agriculture sector for a number of years to come.

I thank the Minister for the reply. When a review takes place in every Department, there is concern about elements being removed. I know the Minister is very much committed to young farmers, and he has stated as much and acted upon it in a number of ways. I am sure this review will ensure the best supports can be made available for young farmers and the transfer of land.

The Minister is aware of the report from Macra na Feirme on land mobility and succession in Ireland, which lists a number of statistics that have been used by the Minister regarding succession and the lack of identification of successors. The main reasons for lack of farming succession are a lack of children in 29% of cases, no decision on which child to receive a transfer in 24% of cases and family members not being interested in 20% of cases. There has been a major increase in the number of young farmers in our agricultural colleges, so the commitment to taking over farms in the sector is still significant.

Another issue that is raised is the potential for relationship breakdown, which is a concern for families in advance of making a decision before a transfer. Is the Minister concerned about land mobility having an impact on Harvest 2020 and the potential for growth in the agricultural sector?

Both the need for generational change and more land mobility are key challenges as part of the Food Harvest 2020 plan. This relates to improving productivity and getting younger farmers who are in many cases more dynamic, better educated, more ambitious and with a better understanding of the complex challenges surrounding food security, climate change, animal welfare and a series of other matters. If we are to plan for a growth period in agriculture, as we must, and if we want to be the leading country in terms of agricultural innovation, as we want to be, we need a new generation of farmer to be part of that story. We are doing much with the Common Agricultural Policy reform process and the use of taxation in budgets to try to achieve that generational change, which is clearly starting to happen anyway. There are now more young people in colleges than have ever been there before, with more university courses around agricultural science than we have seen before. The process is happening but we must encourage it.

I assure the Deputy that the taxation review, confirmed by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, is not an effort to save money. It is about redirecting and reshaping a package of taxation to ensure it can respond to modern problems.

Will the review be completed in time to enact budgetary changes for 2015?

Yes, that is the intention. We will not rush the process for the sake of getting it done. The intention is to have the review for the upcoming budget.

Agri-Environment Options Scheme Payments

Éamon Ó Cuív


8. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the date of the announcement of the agri-environment option scheme, AEOS; the date for the closure of receipt of applications for this scheme; the amount paid to farmers to date under AEOS 3; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20341/14]

From the time of the agri-environment option scheme, AEOS, 3 scheme was announced until first payment was made, what time span was involved?

The scheme was launched on 15 October 2012 with a closing date for receipt of applications of 30 November 2012, subsequently extended by me to 7 December 2012. These payments are subject to very stringent EU audit standards, which is to be expected given that these are co-funded schemes. All area-based schemes under the existing rural development programme are subject to EU regulations which require detailed administrative checks on all applications, including cross-checks with the land parcel identification system, to be completed before payments can issue.

These rigorous procedures, together with on-farm inspections, apply equally to AEOS 3, and are necessary to ensure that applications meet the scheme conditions and cross-compliance requirements.

Approximately 6,000 farmers were approved into the AEOS 3, with a contract commencement date of 1 May 2013, and under EU rules detailed administrative checks had to be completed before the first payments could issue. I am pleased to say that the prepayment validation checks have now been completed on all AEOS 3 applications. In accordance with those rules payments must issue in two tranches, with a first tranche of 75% of the amount due followed by a second tranche of 25%. Taking AEOS 1, 2 and 3 together, approximately 20,000 farmers are in the scheme.

AEOS 3 payments commenced last week and a total of €5.5 million issued to all cases that successfully cleared the administrative checks. Payments will continue over the coming weeks and officials in my Department are working to resolve any outstanding issues with a view to issuing remaining payments as soon as possible.

The time between the scheme being announced and the first payments being issued was one year and seven months. When will the 25% balance be paid?

I have explained why there is a delay. The Deputy has been a Minister and he has a pretty good understanding of how the schemes work. There is an application process after which the applications are validated and a series of checks are required before payments can issue. This is because a significant portion of the payments come through the European Commission. We simply cannot pay when we want to; we must pay when we get approval to do so. We pay as soon as we can, which is why payments are issuing at present. I expect the balancing payment to be made in the latter half of the year but I will come back to the Deputy with firm information.

Is it reasonable to presume that if the Minister announces the GLAS scheme in December 2014 payment will not issue until mid-2016 and no payments will be made in 2014 or 2015 and the second tranche of these payments would be likely to be made in 2017, and this is for farmers who join on the first day. Will everybody have to join the GLAS scheme on one day or will the application process be the same as it was for the REPS scheme whereby one can join over a period of time until all of the places are filled?

The Deputy is a great man to try to sow worry into farmers' minds. We will give more detail of the GLAS scheme next week when we have further publication of the details of the rural development programme. When the GLAS scheme is up and running it will spend approximately €250 million or €260 million a year. It is a huge scheme. We will try to get as many farmers into it as early as we can and we will try to get payments out as early as we can. The timelines outlined by the Deputy are not necessarily the case. We want to get the GLAS scheme out there as soon as we can, but we must get approval from the European Commission for our rural development programme first. We hope to submit the rural development programme to the Commission for consideration by mid-summer, hopefully by the end of June, which is why we will publish a close to finalised document next week to seek final submissions and comments. At some stage in the latter part of the year we hope to get approval for it, after which we will move to open the GLAS scheme as soon as we can. We will try to accept as many farmers into it as we can from day one, which means we need to give time for the application process because there is much work involved in the applications. We will try to move from these applications to actual payments for the work the farmers must do for them as soon as possible afterwards.

Common Agricultural Policy Reform

Éamon Ó Cuív


9. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the timelines for informing the EU on final national decisions on Pillars 1 and 2 of the Common Agricultural Policy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20339/14]

This is a very straightforward question. I understand there are timelines for informing the European Commission on Pillars 1 and 2. Will the Minister confirm these timelines?

It is a very fair question. We are in the process of finalising Pillars 1 and 2 at present. The more complex element is Pillar 2 with regard to rural development funding, which is approximately €4 billion, 46% of which comes from the Exchequer. We hope to have it finalised so we can send a package for approval by the Commission for Pillars 1 and 2 by the end of June. I believe the deadline required by the Commission is the end of July but I am open to be corrected on this. We would like to get in a bit before this and we should be in a position to do so. The Commission will then go through the procedure of assessing what is quite a complex rural development programme from our perspective. We are already discussing some aspects of the rural development programme with the Commission to ensure the rules allow us to do what we want to do. I suspect its assessment of our rural development programme will take a number of months and this will impact on when we can open big schemes such as GLAS following this approval. I hope it will be by the end of the year so we can get information out to farmers as soon as possible.

Is it intended to run a public consultation process in June with farmers on the total package of the final draft proposals on Pillars 1 and 2, particularly in view of the fact time is on the Minister's side? Until farmers see the total package there is no way they can make a judgment on whether they think it is fair. Such a consultation process would allow farmers to give feedback to the Minister so he can make final amendments to the aggregate plan.

We have had more consultation with farmers and other stakeholders on this CAP reform than on any other agriculture reform. I have spent much time meeting farming organisations and meeting farmers who are not members of farming organisations. We have had a written submission process as well as multiple consultation processes. Next week we will publish a very close to final document as a result of all of this consultation. I do not expect we will open this up to broad consultation and start the process all over again. I know the Deputy would like to do this and he has been trying to do it at some of the meetings he has had with farmers.

He has raised a hope that we can fundamentally change direction at the last minute-----

-----which we cannot do.

We will not see a whole series of very public stakeholder meetings in the weeks before we finalise a document. We will publish what we have next week and stakeholders, farmers and farming organisations will have an opportunity, if they wish, to express concerns about it. We are at the 11th hour in finalising a comprehensive submission. This has been a two-year process, and my officials would argue it has been a four-year process, and we are at the very end of it.

The Minister published his Pillar 2 proposals in a very vague draft format and it is very hard to get information from him on spending. It was published at the beginning of the year. How many public meetings which farmers could attend has the Minister held since it was published? Will the Minister give a further idea of the public consultation he will have on the total package?

Until now, the Minister has said: "Here is Pillar 1, but we will not tell you what Pillar 2 is; here is a vague version as we do not know what the exact detail is." However, the devil is often in the detail.

That is not true. People are very clear on it.

I must ask the Deputy to conclude.

Is the Minister telling me that the figure is fixed for 80% of farmers in commonages and that 80% of farmers will have to join the scheme on the same day?

No; the Deputy said that, not me.

It is in the Minister's document.

I call the Minister for a final reply.

The consultation process has been ongoing for well over one year. The Deputy only decided to engage in the last few months. That is his problem.

That is not true; I have been engaging in it.

No, the Deputy has not.

That is an untruth.

Please allow the Minister to reply.

The Deputy has engaged only in the last few months.

I engaged from the very beginning, from the time I was appointed Fianna Fáil spokesperson on agriculture. I have since gone around the country. I have always said I cannot judge it until I receive the full package.

Does he want me to answer his question?

The Minister knows the answer, but he tried to trick people, with the old spider and the fly trick, into accepting his Pillar 1 proposal. He then came up with this rubbish Pillar 2 proposal.

Please, Deputy; I want some respect. I call on the Minister to conclude.

The Deputy is getting agitated.

I am very agitated.

The Deputy is grandstanding.

The Minister is mistreating the vast majority of farmers.

The Chair is on his feet. Will the Deputy, please, resume his seat?

The Minister is absolutely mistreating them. He is trying to keep a very unfair system in place.

The Deputy is out of order.

The Minister will not engage in debate and has not been attending public meetings because he is afraid that he might be challenged. He does not have the answers to why his system is totally unfair.

The Deputy has had his say. I will have to suspend the sitting if this continues. I ask the Minister to conclude.

I attended a public meeting in Cashel last week at which we debated these issues.

I know. It took us three months to get the Minister to a public meeting and I understand only 60 people turned up to hear him.

I want no further interruptions.

For the information of the House, I attended a whole series of public meetings at which the big policy issues were debated and discussed.

There were four meetings in the whole process.

As far as I can remember, the Deputy did not turn up at any of them.

The Minister is now avoiding the issue.

I had extensive public meetings at the point in the process when big policy decisions were being made. I received a mandate from farmers to pursue a certain direction and we achieved all of the targets we set for ourselves following the achievement of that mandate from farmers. We have been following through on a consultation process as these policy decisions must be implemented effectively. We have organised and facilitated public meetings at which departmental officials have explained to farmers how the policy decisions we have taken are likely to affect them and be implemented. My officials have done a good job in that regard. The Deputy is trying to open up a political policy debate.

He has missed the boat.

That is the reality and why he is so upset.

I will keep at it.

Agriculture Scheme Payments

Éamon Ó Cuív


10. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he will introduce an interim compensation scheme for farmers who were compulsorily de-stocked in the Twelve Bens-Maam Turks complex in Connemara and who have either left the REP scheme or have had their payments ceased by the National Parks and Wildlife Service; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20342/14]

REPS and NPWS payments have been stopped for farmers in the Twelve Bens region. Farmers who were forced to de-stock have been left without sheep or payments. I want to know when the Minister will introduce an interim payment for these farmers. I know that Deputy Seán Kyne will fully support me in making this demand.

Deputy Seán Kyne has been raising this issue for quite some time, both with me and my colleague, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan. The discussions we have had with him have produced a good result, as of yesterday.

Will the Minister answer the question I tabled?

Please allow the Minister to reply.

The Twelve Bens-Maam Turks complex in Connemara is an important habitat that has suffered from overgrazing by sheep. Commonage framework plans had been introduced in 2002, but by 2008 it was clear that further restrictions were required to allow habitat regeneration to occur. The need for a more vigorous conservation effort was underlined by a European Court of Justice ruling in the matter.

One of the steps taken to address the issue was a requirement that all farmers in the complex participate in either the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, or a national scheme operated by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. In so far as REPS participants were concerned, it was necessary for the permitted number of grazing animals be adjusted in individual REPS plans. While my Department was not in a position to compensate for additional restrictions being put in place, the National Parks and Wildlife Service agreed to make a top-up payment of €2,000 per annum to REPS farmers for a five year period.

Both my Department and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht have worked in partnership on this matter. My Department has fully honoured the five year voluntary REPS contracts completed by farmers in the Twelve Bens-Maam Turks area of Connemara. I further understand that, as of yesterday, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has resolved any final outstanding matter and is in the process of making contact with those directly affected.

I recognise Deputy Seán Kyne's input into this matter, for which I thank him. He has been speaking to me about the issue for months and we finally have a resolution, as I hope the farmers concerned will recognise.

Will the Minister explain how much money he will be paying farmers and under what conditions? They had their sheep numbers restricted in an AEOS or agri-environment options scheme plan but the restrictions have now been lifted. Can these farmers submit an amended AEOS plan since the restrictions no longer apply?

The changes were required in the case of REPS plans, not AEOS plans. That is my understanding. The payments being made will be managed by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, not my Department. The Deputy can table a question to the Minister, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, if he wants to obtain exact figures.

When an AEOS plan was submitted, it had to conform with the stocking levels laid down by the Department, but they are now redundant. They were removed at the end of last year. In view of the fact that these stocking limitations no longer apply, is it possible for farmers to submit an amended AEOS plan to increase their stocking numbers? That is the question and if the Minister does not know the answer, he might get somebody to send me the answer.

Yes, I will come back to the Deputy on that matter. We will certainly take a very practical approach to it. We are looking at changing commonage framework plans across the country. That process will probably be rolled out in the next 18 months. We cannot do it overnight; we will certainly not instruct farmers overnight. We will work with them in commonage areas to make the appropriate changes. If it has an impact on environmental schemes, we will have to take this into consideration. What farmers are being paid under the AEOS often has nothing to do with the stocking rate. However, if there are issues, we will address them. I will get somebody to come back to the Deputy on the matter.

I thank the Minister and acknowledge the negotiations he has had with the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, over a period to have this matter rectified. He indicated yesterday that he would instruct his Department to make the interim payment. Minimum and maximum figures were produced for commonages previously. When will farmers be consulted on the future of the commonage framework grants system?

This is a complex issue but one with which we have to deal. The discussion process is under way. We have been talking to farm organisations about the best way to do this. I have made it clear within the Department that we are not simply going to send letters to everybody in commonage areas instructing them that there is a change in the stocking rate on their commonage. As the two Deputies who have asked these questions know, within commonages there is a need for co-operation. Sometimes, however, this co-operation is difficult to obtain because of the personalities involved. Where possible, we will have to make changes in commonages where it is straightforward to do so. However, there will be some commonages where the challenges will take a little more time to overcome. If necessary, we will put a mediator in place to obtain full co-operation with the changes made. If the stocking rate changes, it impacts on everybody farming on a commonage and they have to act collectively. To answer the Deputy's question directly, it will take as long as it takes, but we are not going to rush and force farmers into a situation that is unacceptable to them. I expect the process to be rolled out in the next 12 to 18 months.

Food Labelling

Bernard Durkan


11. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the extent to which he remains satisfied regarding the adequacy of traceability provisions throughout the food sector with particular reference to the authenticity of labelling; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20335/14]

My question is on the absolute need for ongoing compliance with traceability regulations and for producers and consumers to be able to rely on traceability and authenticity.

Food labelling to inform consumers of the properties of pre-packaged food is governed by EU rules. The most important labelling rule is that the consumer should not be misled. The Minister for Health has overall responsibility for the general food labelling legislation. New EU food information regulations have extended the explicit compulsory origin labelling requirements to meats other than beef which already has that provision. The positive news for food producers and consumers in Ireland is that we will be extending next year through the European Union a country of origin requirement in the labelling of other meats, including fresh, chilled or frozen meat of swine, sheep, goats or poultry. Implementing rules were adopted on 13 December 2013 under Regulation 1337/2013 and will be applicable from 1 April 2015.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland, or FSAI, has overall responsibility under the aegis of the Minister for Health for the enforcement of food safety and labelling requirements in Ireland. It carries out its remit through service contracts with my Department and other agencies, including the Health Service Executive, or HSE. We have a whole series of inspection roles in factories, food service organisations and on farms. The horsemeat crisis last year was a good example of the effectiveness of our regime when a European fraud problem was exposed in Ireland first where we had the systems to do so. My Department has a presence at practically every level and works on a contractual basis and in partnership with the FSAI in most of those areas.

It is not a surprise that Ireland has probably the most stringent food safety regulations in the European Union because we export so much of the food we produce. Reputation for us is everything. We must protect the consumer and the reputation of our food industry and we are doing everything we can to ensure we do so as professionally and comprehensively as we can.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Inspections to ensure compliance with traceability and labelling legislation are carried out by a variety of inspection services provided by these agencies under the aforementioned contracts. In traceability, EU food hygiene regulations stipulate, among other things, that there should be "one up, one down" traceability at each point along the food chain and I am satisfied that food business operators in this country generally meet that standard. The onus of compliance with EU food safety regulations, including traceability requirements, rests in the first instance with food business operators. My Department maintains a permanent presence in approved slaughter plants. Regular visits are made to other Department-approved meat plants. The frequency of these inspections in plants other than slaughter plants, which focus primarily on food safety requirements, is determined by a risk assessment, as required under EU legislation, which is conducted for each plant. My Department has been able to reduce the number of inspections at non-slaughter meat plants, where there is no permanent supervisory presence, by moving to a more robust and rigorous targeted system of official controls, based on the risk assessments mentioned above.

Official controls and inspections levels are monitored independently by the EU Food and Veterinary Office and by the FSAI under service contract. Food business operators in Ireland are responsible inter alia for carrying out checks to ensure that their ingredients come from approved plants. In meat plants that operate under the supervision of the Department, official controls are conducted on these checks to verify their effectiveness. An annual audit of products, including imported products, is carried out in all cold stores approved by my Department. Labelling and documentary checks also form part of the routine checks conducted by Department officials. I assure the Deputy that in so far as my Department is concerned, I am fully committed to ensuring that all of the necessary labelling and traceability controls are deployed fully and effectively.

To what extent can we rely on the traceability and hygiene standards applicable throughout the European Union and with particular reference to food imports from third countries? Have any checks been made to identify weaknesses in the traceability regime throughout Europe?

Clearly, there was a breakdown last year, but that was because of blatant food fraud as opposed to a breakdown in the systems in place. Across the 28 member states of the European Union, we have comprehensive traceability requirements for the food industry. We have free movement of goods and food in the European Union but we also have a tight, strict system that is common to every country and which sets out the obligations on full traceability. One can have rules but if someone sets out to commit fraud and deliberately mislead, as happened in the case of horsemeat, one needs robust systems to expose it. That is why we have new systems in Ireland for DNA testing in the food industry which we never had before except on a pilot project basis. DNA testing is now carried out as part of the systematic food testing which takes place in Ireland. We will encourage the adoption of that approach in other European countries.

When the European Commission negotiates trade agreements with third countries outside the European Union, such as the recent agreement with Canada, a major aspect is a provision that the standards on traceability, safety, animal husbandry, hormones and genetically modified organisms which apply here also apply to producers exporting to the EU. The negotiation and inspection process involved is complex, which is why deals take a great deal of time to get across the line. We have been talking for three years about a potential trade deal with Mercosur countries in South America, but that has still gone nowhere. One of the reasons is the insistence that the standards which apply to food producers here are applied to food being brought into the European Union. There are some exceptions, but that is the principle behind the negotiations.

Is the Minister satisfied that the tests applied throughout the European Union are as stringent as the ones applied in Ireland? In the event that food is imported into Ireland from other member states, is it subjected to second round of tests to ensure compliance?

We go above and beyond what the European Union requires in terms of food safety controls as Ireland must be best in class. I am satisfied that the rules and regulations set out by the Commission are being implemented across the European Union. While there will always be mistakes, cases of food fraud and crises, it is our responsibility, as it is the responsibility of other member states, to minimise the likelihood of these events by putting proper inspection systems in place. The inspection systems in Ireland to enforce existing regulations and go beyond that to supervise processing facilities are there to protect the reputation of the Irish food industry. Where appropriate, we go beyond what the European Commission requires of us to ensure that we protect consumers not only in Ireland but in other parts of the world and protect the reputation of our industry which is a hugely valuable part of the Irish economy.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.