I am sharing time with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon.
Covid-19 (Agriculture, Food and the Marine): Statements
Is that agreed? Agreed.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had far-reaching impacts and consequences. From our large towns and cities to the most remote parts of rural Ireland, the effects of this deadly disease visited many families and communities. The agrifood sector played a crucial role in keeping supply chains working, keeping the nation fed and driving food exports to ensure a balanced economy. The sector is the largest indigenous export sector and drove exports of some €13.2 billion in 2020 despite all the challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit.
The delivery of essential services to farmers, fishers and the food and forestry sectors was prioritised by the Department and its agencies throughout the course of the pandemic. The necessary steps have been taken to ensure that producers and processors can continue to operate effectively and keep supply lines open and that the Department and agencies can operate as effectively as possible. A committee which I chair, and which includes senior leadership from the agrifood State agencies, which meets to monitor progress on the implementation of strategy, met five times in 2020 and Covid has been a standing item on the agenda. The cross-Government response, the continuity of services to the sector, specific supports and the potential long-term impacts for the sector are discussed. While the challenges have been great, I am proud of the efforts of everyone in the sector to keep the supply chains moving throughout. We saw the rush for food at the start of the pandemic but the supply chain from farmers and fishers through to processors and on to the shelves remained intact.
Irish food supply chains have continued to operate effectively to ensure continuity and security of supply of safe, healthy food for consumers at home and abroad. In the context of the pandemic, primary responsibility for public health policy and implementation rests with the Department of Health and the HSE. In ongoing engagement with the food industry since my appointment as Minister, I have emphasised that the health and safety of workers must be the absolute priority. My Department is supporting the HSE and the Health and Safety Authority in monitoring the effective implementation of all relevant guidance in Department-approved food plants, including the specific HSE guidance for meat plants. My Department also supports the HSE in the context of local outbreak teams, and the standing committee which oversees a programme of serial testing of workers at larger food plants and in other businesses. The first cycle of serial testing at food production facilities started on 14 September 2020. A further four cycles were subsequently completed, and a sixth cycle is currently in progress.
My Department continues to provide any assistance requested by the HSE to facilitate this testing programme. My Department is also collaborating with other State agencies, university-based researchers and meat plant operators in further studies of risk factors and enhanced measures for risk mitigation for Covid-19 in meat processing plants. At a practical level, and on an ongoing basis, the industry is working to ensure that all the basic measures to reduce the risk of spreading the virus are being implemented correctly. They include, for example, ensuring that workers are reminded on a daily basis of the public health guidance, in a range of languages, screening questions and temperature check on entry every day, social distancing in canteens and locker rooms and adequate personal protective equipment, PPE, for all workers. There is no room for complacency on the threat posed by Covid-19. In the context of the virus it is vitally important that all our decisions and actions are led by public health advice.
The agrifood sector is an essential part of the economic and social fabric of the country, especially in rural and coastal areas. The Department is working with all the agrifood stakeholders to ensure that the sector, as our largest indigenous industry, is supported during these difficult times. A number of supports were introduced in the past year including a scheme of aids to private storage under the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, for certain dairy products, following a campaign by member states, spearheaded by Ireland. I secured an 11% increase in the Department's budget in October for the current year, which I am aiming primarily at supporting farm families in the coming months. Specifically, €50 million was provided for a support scheme for beef finishers who were severely impacted by the economic effects of Covid. I also brought forward balancing payments under the basic payment scheme, BPS, GLAS and the organic scheme and various practical flexibilities for applications for the main farm schemes.
On the fisheries side, the Covid-19 voluntary temporary fleet tie-up scheme for fishing vessels was introduced under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund Operational Programme 2014-20. A support scheme for rope mussel and oyster farmers was also introduced under the same programme, which was co-funded by the Exchequer and the European Union. Many of the horizontal supports available to individuals and businesses are also available to the agrifood sector, including the Covid-19 working capital loan scheme and the Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme, CGS, both of which are supported by the Department. The Department and its agencies, in consultation with stakeholders, will continue to monitor the impacts of the pandemic on the agrifood sector as the situation evolves and to provide appropriate supports.
Concern early in the pandemic that Covid-19 lockdown measures would lead to a significant reduction in food demand throughout 2020, thankfully, did not materialise. Due to the pandemic, food consumption outside the home fell substantially, but this was somewhat although not entirely offset by increased consumption at home. However, the lockdown measures did impact directly on primary producers in a variety of ways, from restrictions on marts and garden centres through to the sudden collapse of food service demand across Europe. Teagasc has forecast that family farm incomes will actually be up across most farm systems in 2020, with the average farm income projected to be up by 6% on the previous year. A key driver of this increase has been a reduction in animal feed, fertiliser and fuel prices, along with additional subsidy supports for beef finishers to alleviate the negative effects of Covid on the beef market. However, I am aware that these reductions relate to last year and that there are concerns about increasing input costs in the current year.
The CSO's first estimate of agricultural operating surplus for 2020 released last December is an expected annual increase of 14% to €3.484 billion.
It is worth noting that the agrifood sector is labour-intensive. Producing, processing and distributing food requires the work and expertise of many different employees in various roles. From the farmers who calve the cows, lamb the ewes and tend to the crops to the food processors, it takes a significant effort to produce the world class food which we are renowned for and enjoy. The overall agrifood supply chain has proven remarkably resilient throughout the pandemic. There have been some issues in meeting the seasonal demand for labour, for example in the horticulture sector, which relies on experienced seasonal workers, many who travel annually from eastern European countries. I expect that because of travel restrictions this year, seasonal labour shortages may arise again. Last year, the horticulture sector collaborated with my Department and the Department of Social Protection in a campaign to recruit unemployed people here in Ireland to fill some of these vacancies. I hope that similar initiatives this year can be successful.
Our seafood sector was heavily impacted by Covid-19 over the past year. The pandemic affected the performance of all species with seafood exports declining by 10% in 2020. This impacted individual fishers through low market prices for their catch or indeed no market at particular times. For aquaculture producers, it mostly impacted the shellfish sector which suffered a 29% reduction in export values. This sector is heavily dependent on the food service market and thus was particularly affected by lockdowns across Europe. As outlined earlier a range of horizontal supports provided by Government have remained open to seafood enterprises throughout the pandemic. Where specific financial supports were sought by industry representatives, proposals have been given careful consideration and support schemes made available.
I will address alcohol and prepared consumer foods. The Irish drinks sector has been especially impacted by the closure of hospitality and tourism across the world. The prepared consumer food sector, meanwhile, has shown remarkable resilience at a time of severe disruption to its markets, for example in reorienting products aimed at food service for the retail market.
After a period of cessation in the horse and greyhound industries, thoroughbred racing was permitted to resume behind closed doors on 8 June. According to Horse Racing Ireland, continuing racing has been crucial to ensuring that trade in bloodstock has been able to continue. That notwithstanding, bloodstock sales in the year were down 35% compared to 2019. Point to point racing was also discontinued and the economic impact of the cessation will continue to be actively monitored. The pandemic has compounded an already difficult time for the greyhound industry, with falling attendance and revenue already an issue.
I commend everyone involved in the agrifood sector, including farmers and fishers, those who work in the food industry and those in logistics and retail, and thank them all for their efforts over the past year. Their Trojan efforts ensured that our reputation as a leading exporter of food was maintained despite all our challenges. I look forward to working closely with the entire sector during the year to come, when we are hopeful of a return to a more normal operating environment, as we look to the further sustainable development of our sector.
My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Martin Heydon, will outline how the sector fared in international trade and some of the work we are undertaking to ensure our produce can continue to reach all corners of the globe.
As we are all too aware, 2020 was an especially challenging year. While we had the expected uncertainty of Brexit, it was overshadowed by the unexpected Covid-19 pandemic. The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, has referred to the sector demonstrating its resilience, which has been remarkable. The pandemic placed unprecedented stresses on food supply chains, with bottlenecks in farm labour, processing, transport and logistics, as well as momentous shifts in demand that could not have been predicted prior to the pandemic.
Many of these disruptions were a result of policies adopted to contain the spread of the virus, such as curtailments on the movement of people and social distancing. However, food supply chains performed exceptionally well in the face of these stresses. Grocery stores' shelves were replenished over time as stockpiling behaviour disappeared and the supply chains responded to the increased demand. During the pandemic, the food service industry across Europe and beyond experienced a nearly total collapse in demand due to the temporary shutdown of the hospitality sector, especially during the early part of the pandemic in the first lockdowns across Europe and the world.
While food retail demand increased, it did not offset the decline in food services. This demand imbalance had significant consequences for primary producers and agrifood businesses.
Regarding the economic impact caused by Covid, while domestic production was significantly impacted, the demand abroad for Irish food and drink products was disrupted. The OECD stated that enough food is available globally but Covid-19 is disrupting supply and demand in complex ways, manifesting across the food system as impacts on agricultural production and incomes, shifts in consumer demand and disruptions to food supply chains. This resilience of Ireland's agrifood exports in 2020 is also remarkable. Despite disruptions to supply and demand, agrifood exports in 2020 were €14.1 billion, compared with €14.5 billion the previous year, a 3% overall reduction. This is an extraordinary achievement when considering the challenges that food and drink producers have faced since March 2020.
The export figures for 2020 were released last Monday by the Central Statistics Office. They show that dairy and beef contribute €7.4 billion to our exports, which is over 52% of our total agrifood exports. Exports of dairy products exceeded €5 billion for the second year in a row, with exports to more than 130 countries around the globe. Despite the difficult year, dairy exports grew slightly, by about 1%, in 2020. Beef, our second largest export category, was worth more than €2.3 billion, down by 2% from 2019. This was a particularly good result, considering that the food service sector was closed in many of our export markets for most of 2020. Pigmeat, sheepmeat and poultry also contributed strongly to our exports, with €1.5 billion of these meats exported in 2020, similar to 2019.
With the closure of the hospitality sector across the globe, the beverage industry, especially Irish whiskeys and liquers, was impacted significantly, with total beverage exports down by about 15%, at €1.5 billion. Prior to the pandemic, Irish whiskeys and liquers had seen strong growth, especially in the US market.
Fish exports were hit hard by the closure of the food service industry. This had a substantial impact on the demand for species such as lobster, crab, prawns and oysters. Transport issues also impacted on fish exports. These factors resulted in live exports being down by 10% in 2020, to €521 million.
Live exports of animals were down by 25% compared with 2019. The reduction in exports was due to a number of factors. The peak time for exporting calves coincided with the start of the pandemic, resulting in much smaller numbers of calves being exported to continental Europe. Pig exports to Northern Ireland were down by about 80% and the export of purebred breeding horses around the world was down by about 20%, a significant impact on the thoroughbred breeding sector. Overall live animal exports were down from €455 million in 2019 to €340 million in 2020.
The effects of the pandemic can be seen when examining the destinations of agrifood exports in 2020 with exports declining by 10% or more to those countries which suffered the most due to the pandemic, such as the USA, France, Italy, Belgium and Spain. Exports to the UK accounted for 37% of total exports, down from 45% in 2010. While exports to countries outside the UK and EU accounted for 31%, up from 22% in 2010. These figures underline the dividend of a decade-long diversification strategy that has seen Ireland achieve a broad global base for its food and drink exports, which now reach in excess of 180 countries. Exports to countries such as the USA, China, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have doubled in value over the past decade, with significant increases in the value of exports to Africa and the Middle East in more recent years as new international markets come to the fore.
The focus on securing new markets for Irish food while maintaining and enhancing existing markets is consistent with the overarching strategy for the agrifood sector jointly developed by my Department and sectoral stakeholders in Food Wise 2025. In responding to the UK's Brexit vote in June 2016, there has been intensification of market access activity by the Department and its agencies. This level of activity will continue as we work to ensure the development of Ireland's agrifood industry. In December, I, as Minister of State with responsibility for new market development, engaged in a series of market development and promotional events in key international markets in collaboration with the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, Bord Bia and the Irish embassy network.
These were dairy-focused virtual events covering five key countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Bord Bia's research has identified these countries as having strong potential for growth in the export of Irish agrifood products. Virtual meetings were also held with key customers in China, Japan, the USA and the United Arab Emirates. I was very pleased to see that, in each of our meetings, the participation of both my Department's agricultural attachés and Bord Bia's local teams was very professional. Since my appointment as a Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, I have become aware of how proud we can be of the Irish officials placed all around the world who wear the green jersey and fly the Irish flag and who do a fantastic job. They are really talented people who put Ireland's case forward and open many doors for the Irish agrifood industry and its products.
These virtual events also remind our key customers that Ireland remains committed to them and is able to supply foods in which their own customers can have confidence. My Government's particular focus in 2021 will be on supporting our primary producers and agrifood and drink manufacturers as they trade through continued uncertainty to support jobs in communities throughout Ireland. Also in 2021, my colleague, the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and I will be working closely with Bord Bia on a series of market development and promotional events and ministerial-led trade missions to key international and European markets to further increase the footprint of Irish food and drink exports.
A further aspect of the food system that has changed due to the pandemic is consumer behaviour. There have been dietary shifts, an increase in home cooking and a heightened awareness of food safety and food security. With billions of people in lockdown, new behaviours have been forced upon consumers and there are real opportunities for food businesses here as a result. Understanding consumer behaviour is a critical part of enabling businesses to plan ahead appropriately and to move forward with confidence post Covid-19. It will be important to understand what behaviours are likely to stick and to emerge post crisis.
I pay tribute to our farmers, fishers and food and drink producers for their heroic efforts throughout 2020 while dealing with a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic. They faced many challenges on domestic and international fronts arising from the economic impacts of the pandemic, closures of food services and changes in consumer behaviour. They rose to that challenge and I pay tribute to them for that effort. We all look forward together to brighter days ahead.
Táim ag roinnt ama. Beidh deich mbomaite agam agus cúig bhomaite ag an Teachta Mac Lochlainn. I welcome the opportunity to discuss issues related to agriculture, particularly as they pertain to the many family farmers across the country who are incredibly fearful for what the future may hold and who are still wondering what the full outworking of the twin challenges of Covid and Brexit will be.
Many people, even beyond the farming community, have looked on aghast at how our meat factories have dealt with the threat of Covid-19. Were it not so serious I would have chuckled to myself when the Minister said there was no room for complacency with regard to addressing the issues pertaining to the processing sector. I contend that complacency has been the hallmark of our approach to the very real concerns with regard not only to how workers are treated and the conditions in which they operate, but also the wider impact. We know, because we have evidence and have seen it at first hand, that when outbreaks occur in meat processing factories, they have very serious repercussions for the wider community if they are not tackled and addressed very early. It is particularly important, as we once again see the numbers in respect of community transmission finally reducing, that we do not repeat what has happened at least twice, which is that we have allowed the good work of citizens to be undermined by allowing outbreaks and clusters in meat factories to get out of control. Why is there not an easily accessible resource to allow people to see where outbreaks are occurring and how they are being tackled? Communities are relying on media reports to find out whether their meat factory has had an outbreak.
The Minister has mentioned serial testing. He talked about six rounds of serial testing. Any of the clusters reported publicly, and we can only rely on those public reports, have shown that, when serial testing has identified cases, it has identified them in significant numbers. This shows that the serial testing in place is not working and that there is too much of a lag between one set of tests and the next. Why are meat factories not asked to carry out regular serial testing of workers as they enter the plants to allow individual cases to be traced and isolated? If this were done, everybody would win. The factories could continue their work without fear of outbreaks.
Last July, the national outbreak control team recommended that sampling be carried out at the locations of future outbreaks. In six months, the Minister's Department has managed to carry out a single pilot study. The Minister is now refusing to release that study. He cites commercial sensitivity although we know the report has been shared with other meat factories. This is precisely the type of action that raises concerns. The national outbreak control team also recommended that legislation be enacted to allow Government to shut down meat processing factories. That public health advice has been disregarded.
Since the new year, there have been many new confirmed outbreaks at meat plants in several locations, which is again fuelling anxiety in local communities. Despite this, the only new funding that will go directly into people's pockets that the Minister has announced since January was €100 million in capital investment which will go directly to the meat processing plants. Is the Minister putting any conditions on that funding with regard to how the meat factories treat their workers and the farmers who rely on them?
The Brexit adjustment reserve was mentioned. Many plaudits have been paid for the €1 billion we may potentially secure. Does the Minister have a figure for the amount of this €1 billion that will go to Irish family farmers, considering that it was their stories and the threat Brexit presented to them specifically that strengthened Ireland's case in arguing for such a high level of funding?
In the coming weeks, will the Minister be introducing new funding for those family farmers who need it most, as opposed to rebranded funding under the beef environmental efficiency programme - suckler, BEEP-S, scheme? As I say, we have seen lots of rebranded funding but the only new funding for farmers is the beef finishers payment, which amounts to half what was given to the meat factories through the investment I mentioned. Suckler farmers have not received any new funding stream. Is the Minister planning to introduce any?
I also have questions with regard to the need to regulate the meat industry. The Minister knows my position, which is that we should have an independent beef regulator which would actually have teeth and which would be able to observe what is happening within the cartel which determines the prices factories pay. Such a regulator would also be able to stop unfair practices, including nonsensical rules such as the four-movement or 30-month rules. In response, the Minister has said that he will instead put forward a proposal for a national food ombudsman. We do not yet know what teeth such an ombudsman would have. If it is to be just another quango without specific powers to curtail the actions of the meat factories, it will count for nothing.
Many who listened to the Minister when he was in opposition would have thought he felt strongly about the issue of CAP reform. In January of last year, when speaking to the then Minister in the Dáil he described the stalling of convergence as not acceptable. He has since outlined that he will not proceed with convergence during the transition period. That is extremely disappointing, particularly for farmers in his own county, the vast majority of whom would be better off with convergence. There is an imbalance and unfairness at the heart of the CAP. Most farmers are struggling to make ends meet yet a small number of corporate entities are drawing down very significant levels of funding.
Is the Minister up to ensuring there is a front-loaded per hectare payment that would include specific supports like the suckler support scheme for which Sinn Féin advocates for those sectors that need it? Most of all, is he committed to and will he accept an upper limit cap on the payments that any individuals or corporate entities can receive and is he up for the sort of CAP reform that will see a redistribution of payments to those farmers who need it most?
I thank Deputy Carthy for his questions. First, as to the situation of Covid-19 in the meat factories, this is something that the Government is taking very seriously and the meat factories have also responded very intensively to this issue. As I said in my opening contribution, the welfare of employees and of people is the first priority in this pandemic across all sectors of society, and this is particularly the case in the agrifood sector, where workers and employees have been essential throughout that sector in keeping the food supply chain operating. That has been especially challenging in the food processing sector and has required absolute attention as to protocols being put in place and followed to keep employees safe. Part of that as well has been the adoption of serial testing in the food processing sector, which is one of the few sectors in which that has actually been happening. There have been six rounds of such testing and there is a round under way. We are working with public health and with the Health and Safety Authority to ensure that the highest of safety standards are applied, any breaches of which will be taken very seriously. Anybody who comes across any such breaches should report these immediately.
On funding for the agrifood sector overall, I point to the €179 million additional funding that I secured in October in the 2021 budget. That is an 11% increase on the previous year specifically dedicated towards supporting farm incomes, maintaining the schemes that were there, and delivering €79 million in new funding for farmers for environmental measures and schemes. Last night, at the Donegal IFA AGM, I announced the opening of the BEEP–S scheme which will deliver €40 million over the course of this year, up to €90 per cow and calf pair, something which is going to be essential to the farming sector.
I raise two very important issues with the Minister under the fisheries heading. First, as the Minister is aware, the tie-up scheme last year was seen right across the fishing sector as too little too late and there was a very low take-up. The affected fishers right across the coast did not get the financial assistance they required.
The Minister introduced an aquaculture support scheme. Will he revisit the whole issue this year, particularly in respect of the inshore fishermen, who have had a huge hit on the markets, as the Minister will know well from Donegal, and have been really struggling financially? Outside of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, they have not received the support that they need. Will the Minister revisit the financial supports for the inshore and the offshore fishing sectors and will he amend the Covid-19 aquaculture scheme? I am aware that the Minister has been engaging with the IFA aquaculture section on this issue. Will he amend and strengthen that scheme? I am aware, for example, of fishers in Donegal who because they are only starting their sales in 2020 missed out on availing of that scheme. This is a critical support and I ask that the Minister would revise that scheme in terms of the financial supports?
I also must raise with the Minister the reports carried in The Irish Times in recent days which are deeply worrying which refer to a very significant reduction in quota for our fishers by the European Commission. Thousands of tonnes in quota loss have been mentioned and tens of millions of euro of EU funding may also be lost to the State. The Minister will be aware that there is great alarm in our fishing sector at these reports. I understand that the fishermen and the producers, especially in Killybegs, seriously dispute what is being reported. They are deeply worried and there has been a significant hit on the quota. The industry has asked the Minister to go back and to fight for additional quota and for burden-sharing and he has said that he will do that. People are very suspicious as to why this reported additional huge cut to the quota is out now in the public domain. Is there an attempt to silence the industry and to prevent fishermen from uniting together around our coasts to demand our fair share of the fish in our seas?
As to the issues in Killybegs, I am aware, and it seems very reasonable to me, that whenever a catch is weighed, the water would be deducted. The water is essential for the sustenance of the fish to keep them fresh, to get them into the factories, and to be able to export them. This is an industry that people have worked so hard to build. My understanding is, and it is very reasonable, that there needs to be a removal of the water weight that is essential for the protection of the fish and to weigh it accurately. They have devised a system there, which is of a National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, approved standard. I am appealing to the Minister to intervene to ensure that the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, reaches an agreement with the fishing industry there.
To summarise my question on this point, will the Minister appeal this decision, if it is a decision of the European Commission, to ensure there is no reduction in quota? Will he defend the arguments the fishing community are making in Killybegs around this issue? We cannot tolerate this as we need additional, not less, quota and I ask the Minister to intervene urgently.
On inshore fishermen, the aquaculture sector and the fishing species quota, my objective is to support them in every way I can and I will be monitoring the situation closely. This is particularly the case with the follow-through from Brexit with the potential for a tie-up scheme to try to support incomes in the short term and the time ahead. I will also monitor the situation on our shellfish, our aquaculture and inshore sector.
On the EU administrative inquiry findings, this dates back to an inquiry that was initiated in 2019 and the conclusion of that inquiry was communicated to me just before Christmas. I have been assessing the findings of the EU Commission on that in advance of engaging with the Commission on its findings. I am certain that this is something that we will be discussing further.
Will the Minister give a synopsis of where stands the beef task force at present? We are all receiving communications from the Beef Plan Movement where there is a clear ask for the appointment of an independent regulator. It would be very useful for us if the Minister in his response could give us an up-to-date position as to where the task force is at present.
On the status of horticulture, Bord na Móna has made a decision on harvesting peat. As we move down the levels of public health guidelines and garden centres reopen and people begin to purchase compost again, will there be an adequate supply of compost and will we be faced with shortages? Will we be importing compost as a consequence of decisions not to harvest peat, as articulated by Bord na Móna?
I ask the Minister for his perspective on where stands that status at the moment. We all agree that action on climate change is necessary. If it means, though, that we are going to be importing things like coconut derivatives from third countries, then the question will be asked whether in real terms that is real action on climate change. As people begin to visit their garden centres again, they will be wondering whether there will be an adequate supply of compost for the coming growing season.
On the status of point-to-point racing, we know several meetings throughout the country have been cancelled. I cannot figure out the logic of allowing racing to go ahead because of the importance of the racing and bloodstock industry, as the Minister said, but then disallowing point-to-point race meetings. I would have thought that these two endeavours were complementary and dovetailed with each other. If we can justify holding race meetings, then we can surely justify holding point-to-point meetings. I am a Cork person and I live in Mallow. There is a racecourse there and I recognise the importance of that aspect of the industry. I would like also to speak, however, for the people who operate point-to-point racing. Those meetings will begin to start from March. They are not technically cancelled. I am talking about places like Kildorrery, Dromahane and others which are vital to the local economy. I would like an update on the status of those meetings.
My last issue is one on which I do not necessarily expect the Minister to have a response. A young woman is being detained by the Indian police. Please forgive me if I mispronounce her name, but Disha Ravi is a young environmental activist protesting on behalf of Indian subsistence farmers. We have a long history of protest regarding farming issues in this country. It is inherent within the Irish polity and psyche to protest or advocate on behalf of farming interests or to do both. I acknowledge Ms Ravi's activism and hope the Irish Government will, if possible, make its views known or register its disturbance at the fact that this young activist has been detained purely and only on the basis of her activism on behalf of environmental issues and to support subsistence farmers in India. I put on the record of the House that Ms Ravi is an activist and that she is being detained. I hope the Irish Government will record its protest with the Indian Government regarding this situation.
I thank Deputy Sherlock for his questions. Turning to the beef task force first, it has carried out a good deal of work by bringing farm organisations and stakeholders together. It has an important role to play in future as well and I will ensure it continues to work productively.
Regarding the harvesting of peat, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has put together a committee to examine this matter. I agree it would not make sense for us to be importing peat if such production were to stop domestically. We must find a practical way of approaching this issue.
On point-to-point racing, I have had many representations from Deputies and Senators on this issue, and I know the challenge the pandemic has posed for horses in training and for an industry which has great value economically. It will be monitored and assessed in light of the public health advice.
Regarding the Deputy's final point on the young Indian activist, I will certainly raise this matter with the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
I welcome the Minister's earlier comments. The past 12 months have seen unprecedented turbulence throughout the world due to the impact of Covid-19, while here we have also experienced Brexit and our nearest neighbour leaving the European Union. In that regard, the people involved in the agrifood sector, the primary producers, the processors and all their employees have done excellent work over the past 11 to 12 months in ensuring there has been no shortage of supply and the supply chains have operated to a high standard during this unprecedented crisis.
It is also heartening to note the latest Bord Bia report on export figures showed only a marginal decline of 2% in 2020. Those figures demonstrate there has been huge growth since 2009 and an upward trajectory of growing exports in the agrifood sector. Great credit is due to our primary producers, processors and all those involved in getting those products to so many markets. We are all well aware that great research, product diversification and innovation over the years have enabled us to capture those markets. I wish the Ministers well in their work in trying to ensure further diversification of markets. It is interesting to note that approximately 30% of our exports go to the EU, 33% to Britain and 33% to other international markets. It shows the diversity of the many markets we are sourcing for our products.
One concern the farming community now has is the rising cost of things like fertiliser and diesel. Farmers investing in their holdings to improve their farming infrastructure are concerned as well about the cost of timber and steel, which have risen and show no sign of stabilising. Therefore, in areas where there is investment under grant schemes, it may be necessary to revise the schedules of costings which have been approved in respect of farm work for grant purposes.
There has also been a great expansion in the dairy sector since we succeeded in getting milk quotas removed. The decision made to do that in November 2008, which came into effect on 1 April 2015, has been beneficial for this country in allowing us to expand our milk production greatly. Concerns exist about beef prices, though, which unfortunately have fallen in recent times. Going by last Friday's report, those prices have now stabilised. It is still not adequate, however, and we need a much better return in that sector. Thankfully, the global dairy markets are showing positive signs. I think the last four or five auctions in New Zealand showed a continuous increase in prices. We want that development reflected in returns to farmers as well.
One of the major successes deriving from the Good Friday Agreement and the new political environment in this country since 1998 has been the development of the food industry and the agrifood sector on an all-Ireland basis. That development has been for the good, and it has happened through major enterprises here developing businesses north of the Border. Similarly, some Northern companies have also developed businesses here. Let us look at one fact in this context. Some 800 million litres of milk came south for processing last year. More than 400 million litres of that total amount came to Lakeland Dairies in my constituency.
In that regard, there is one issue I would like to see addressed and tweaked regarding the protocol and Brexit. I refer to the fact that milk which comes here for processing is obviously processed along with milk sourced south of the Border. Northern Ireland dairy farmers are obviously also working to EU standards, but if the need arises in future for the dairy sector to get price supports at EU level, there will then be a difficulty regarding products using milk sourced in the North because Northern Ireland milk will not be termed as being an EU product of origin. This is one area which must be addressed and I sincerely hope tweaks can be made in this context to ensure, if EU supports are needed in future, they will be applicable to all products which leave our country.
Many farm families are waiting with bated breath to see what new legislation will be introduced regarding the fair deal scheme. I refer to legislation to cap how much farmers and landowners in general will have to contribute to nursing homes costs. I ask the Minister to brief me, if there is time, regarding where that legislation stands now.
Turning to the proposed new rural environment protection scheme, REPS, I would like to find out more about the pilot the Minister has been talking about for some time for farmers not in GLAS.
I understand some 4,000 are farmers caught in this scenario and that the Minister is looking at a pilot scheme in maybe the late spring or early summer. Perhaps he could provide a little more detail on where that is at.
Before Christmas, a €100 million support package was announced for the agrifood industry, specifically for the meat factories. The point remains, however, and it has been made by other speakers, that beef prices continue to remain low. They have stabilised somewhat but have dropped quite a degree over recent months. The primary producer, who is the farmer, is asking why his or her price is at rock bottom when the support is being given to the meat processing plants. What more can we say to them to allay concerns about this downward trajectory of pricing?
The whole issue of rights of way is always a concern for landowners. It is a boiling issue. It is a fact that 30 November this year is the cut-off point for landowners and people who have rights of way across land to register them. It does not deal with all scenarios. I know of a number of scenarios in my county of Clare where graveyards are landlocked on someone's farm and where one must go across a gravel pathway. There is no mechanism within legislation to provide for those kinds of right of way. I have looked at initiating a Bill. This needs to be looked at between now and November to secure the right of a person to cross a farm into a burial ground.
I thank Deputy Crowe. On the fair deal scheme, the Bill is due to come before Dáil Éireann this term. The objective is to have it in place and operational by summertime.
I have recently published the consultation on the new agri-environment scheme, which is closing on 26 February. Already there have been some 1,000 replies to the consultation. I would encourage all farmers to engage and give their views to help inform the nature of the scheme and ensure it is as practical as possible for farmers to implement, while also ensuring that we have output at the end of it for achieving the environmental objectives of the scheme.
With regard to downward prices, I am working on that and will be doing a public consultation shortly, as well as establishing a food ombudsman to try to bring additional price transparency into the food supply chain and to try to ensure farmers get a fair crack of the whip with margins.
On the Deputy's other point, my key objective is to try to support farm incomes. I achieved an 11% increase in the most recent budget for this year so we can support farm schemes. The Deputy mentioned the €100 million for the processing sector. That will be over five years, which is €20 million per year. It will be up to a maximum of 30% of grant aid. It is about trying to ensure a sector that looks at new products and can add value, ultimately with the objective of maximising the value at farm gate and the return to farmers for their primary produce.
The Minister will be aware of Longford IFA's innovative roadside billboard campaign at the moment to promote farm families and to highlight the value of local food production. The Minister will have seen the billboards as he went through Longford on his way home to Donegal. The campaign is promoted by the local IFA chairman, Gavin White. The posters emphasise the diversity of the sector in County Longford with beef, sheep, chicken, tillage and egg producers all featuring prominently. A number of the posters feature local farm families and serve to remind us, the consumers, that local farm families, farmers, neighbours and friends, depend very much on the choices we make when we go into our supermarkets. Every Christmas, the vegan movement runs its poster campaigns, so it is great and reassuring to see local farmers coming together and telling their own story, which is a compelling story. I hope the Longford initiative can be replicated in other counties. There is certainly a sense of pride for us in Longford as we pass by the posters on the road. We can see the Waters family from Gowlan in Killashee who produce our milk, and the O'Halleran's at Loughill in Keenagh, who produce our free range eggs. These are our food producers. These are our neighbours and our friends. For us the consumers there is an instant and recognisable connection.
I want to raise the case of a Newtowncashel sheep farming family, the details of which I forwarded to the Minister earlier today. They applied for the sheep welfare scheme when it opened in 2017. They duly received the action book and commenced recording the actions necessary to satisfy the terms of the scheme. They chose scanning and foetal egg counting as their two targeted actions. They duly carried out the scanning of the ewes completely but for various reasons they failed to get the egg count completed. They correctly assumed that they would not qualify for the 2017 scheme as they had broken the terms. However, when they went back in 2018, they were told an application had not been submitted and in each subsequent year in which they have tried to access the scheme, they have been told that they do not have an open application. This is a Bord Bia quality approved family farm that routinely carries out all the key measures in that scheme. It seems very unfair and unreasonable to exclude them from the sheep welfare scheme. As the Minister will appreciate, it has resulted in the loss of considerable income for them over the past four years. He will appreciate also that they operate on a very tight margin with minimal profit. I forwarded the details to him this morning and I hope he can take it up with the Department.
Minister, there are shades of "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" there for Longford.
I thank Deputy Flaherty. I am aware of the campaign in Longford and I commend it on emphasising the importance of local produce. I hope that others follow the lead on that. I will look into the specific case raised and I will revert to the Deputy on it.
The difficulties many farmers face at the moment have been well spelled out here. The price they receive for their produce is one of the primary issues that needs to be addressed. While I understand the Minister, and previous Ministers, have made the point that it is not the Minister's job to set prices or interfere in that, it is the Minister's job to ensure farmers receive a fair crack of the whip and there is fairness in respect of what they do. They have not been getting that to date and they continue to not get that. There needs to be a renewed effort in respect of that.
I wish to raise with the Minister an issue for people involved in the coarse fishing industry. Many of them import bait from the UK to use here for many of the competitions and so on. They have been told they cannot import that bait anymore. Hundreds of thousands of euro worth of this maggot-based product is imported every year for use in that industry. Recently, I received an email from the Brexit division in the Department stating:
I refer to your recent enquiry to this Division in respect of importing live fish bait. I have been informed by the relevant Department Official that there are no harmonized EU rules for the import of insects for non-food use into the Union, so, in the absence of National Rules regarding the conditions for their import, it is not possible to import live fish bait into Ireland from a Third Country (e.g. UK) at this time. Please feel free to contact this Division again if you require further assistance.
Hopefully, when Covid goes and we get beck to normal tourism activity, we will have many tourists coming to Ireland who will engage in fishing competitions and so on. That part, however, is going to be missing. This issue requires the Minister's intervention to ensure it is sorted out. This is a serious issue for many people.
I wish to raise a couple of issues on the processing of applications and appeals by the public, many of which have been languishing for months and years, paralysing farmers and operators in Kerry and grossly affecting their income. Many constituents have contacted me regarding tree felling licence applications. I inquired about the status of one licence in July. I checked again in January and was told that it would probably be another nine months and to check back again in six months' time. This was for an application that was submitted in 2019. Lumber is being imported due to these delays. This is not beneficial to the environment and it is devastating for the operators and the industry here. The appeals process should be there for the people directly affected by the forestry operation, not for blanket objections. Currently, 90% of appeals against Coillte applications go no further but must churn through the system. I ask the Minister to get the multiple divisions of the forestry appeals committee up and running as was promised some months ago.
Invitations to apply for aquaculture licences were issued by the Department in 2016. In Castlemaine Harbour, more than 100 applications were received in Cromane, including from many people who had no previous association with the area. The number of applications has apparently led to all of those being rejected due to concerns about the impact of such a large number of growers operating in an area of special conservation and a relatively small spatial area.
Only 32 of these applications went to appeal and these have been in limbo for some years. There is no means for these growers to engage with the Department and discuss their applications.
The beef environmental efficiency programme is an invaluable programme of grant aid for small farmers. Some Kerry farmers have contacted me, saying they have been denied the aid and have appealed. On further inquiry I have heard that the Department has hundreds of appeals and it will likely take 12 weeks for any appeal to be reviewed. The staff are working in unusual and difficult conditions due to Covid-19, but additional resources or a different system must be investigated so that small farmers are not put out of business.
Some constituents, including farmers and solicitors, have contacted me about the banks' proposal to impose negative interest rates on deposit accounts. In transferring a family farm, in some cases where the farmer has deceased, moneys are being held in solicitors' clients' accounts. They will be further punished by banks which pay very little tax. This is totally inappropriate and pure greed on behalf of the banks, particularly in probate cases where the estate is being divided up. I ask the Minister to have a word with the financial regulator to ensure this will not happen and that families who are waiting on money from their solicitors will not be penalised with further financial penalties.
Deputy Kenny spoke about bait importation for coarse fishing and I will follow up on the issue. We have many challenging issues as a result of Britain being a third country and outside the Single Market. Many of these issues are not easily resolved if resolvable. I will look into it in detail.
Deputy Daly asked about forestry appeals where we have had significant challenges. We have increased the staff working on this. We have 16 ecologists working on this now where we had only one previously. We have ten additional forestry inspectors to try to deal with the backlog. I also take the Deputy's points about aquaculture appeals and BEEP.
According to Ireland’s Rural Development Program 2014-2021, less than 7% of Irish farmers are under the age of 35, which is of concern for farmers and their families and something we need to review seriously. In the past year, farmers have worked extremely hard, but they have watched their income fall. Some have suffered mental health issues. There is a real threat to supply of machinery and parts and the knock-on effect will be felt by all of us.
Beef quotes are being slashed each week, with some factories having cut back to a three-day week. In some cases, workers are being flown in because it is an essential service and this in the middle of a pandemic. Can the Minister confirm that proper public health protocols are in place with workers coming from other jurisdictions? As Covid-19 does not know an essential worker from a holiday maker, what steps are being taken to protect public health when permitting essential workers to arrive here? Do they need to have had a negative test? Do they have to quarantine?
I frequently hear from farmers that we need a food ombudsman. I understand that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, cannot regulate the entire beef sector. Farmers want a fair price for their product. In his speech, the Minister said that the Department is considering having a food ombudsman. What powers would such a person have? What is the timescale? We need to get this right as this is something the farmers have been calling for. There is unfair competition and below-cost pricing. I am not satisfied that consumers know what they are buying sometimes because the labelling is not always clear. Once again, the farmers are the losers. Farmers just want everyone to be held to account. One farmer said to me this week they will take all the rules and the measures if the regulations are enforced properly. They would like to see that across the board especially in the export of live animals.
Irish farmers operate to the highest animal welfare standards in the world when exporting, but there is a threat that live exports will be banned. Exporting livestock is vital in ensuring price competition in the marketplace. What will the Government do to protect Irish farmers?
I welcome the new two-day online specialised "clear customs" course for those directly involved in the agriculture import and export sector, created in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. However, much more needs to be done. Only 56 businesses in Kilkenny and 50 in Carlow have taken up the support so far, which suggests that not enough people, farmers included, know about this support.
The Minister spoke about point-to-point racing. I have spoken to him and to Deputy Cahill about it. This is a significant issue in my area. We also need answers on the fair deal for farmers. I ask the Minister to write back to me with answers to these questions. It is important for us to look after our farmers who have kept this country going through a recession. Now they are keeping us going through the Covid pandemic. It is hard for everyone.
I have three minutes and I would like the Minister to come back to me in the time remaining. There is considerable concern in the point-to-point community. As he will be aware, 37 point-to-point meetings took place in Ireland despite all levels of restrictions until 13 January when the sport abruptly ended. Point-to-point racing is the starting point for many of our National Hunt horses. The entire National Hunt breeding industry is now severely challenged and there will be a lasting impact on the industry, on sales, on breeding and on the livelihood of those involved in producing point-to-point horses if the season does not recommence shortly. The sector needs clarity.
As the Minister will be aware, horses cannot simply be put away on a shelf. They need to be fed, trained and exercised. Successful protocols were put in place to ensure the safe hosting of all these events. It was no surprise that no outbreak of Covid was recorded in the hosting of any point-to-point events because they are all hosted in large open fields. I have spoken directly to the Minister on this issue and have tried to engage with his officials. I ask him to outline what he and his Department have done to ensure the safe return of point-to-point racing. In the revised plan for Covid, will point-to-point racing resume at the start of March?
The Deputy and I have discussed this matter and a number of other Deputies have raised it with me. As he knows the public health advice must be put first throughout the pandemic. That is the backdrop against which we are working. I certainly understand and recognise the challenges closure has had on the point-to-point industry and the importance of that sector of the horse racing industry. The Government will consider that against the backdrop of public health advice. I certainly take on board the representations the Deputy has made on behalf of the industry.
I also want to raise the issue of point-to-point racing with the Minister. That industry is at a critical juncture. This is regarded as an amateur sport, but a significant amount of money is involved. The cornerstone of the National Hunt industry is point-to-point racing. Many small operators have considerable investment in bloodstock and point-to-point racing is their shop window to sell their horses. The people involved are professional trainers even though they are amateur in name.
All these horses are sold between February and the middle of May. They need to be able to run them to have the shop window to sell these horses. The only way they can get them sold is by running them in point-to-point races to show what they are capable of doing. At the moment there are extra entries into races at racecourses organised by Horse Racing Ireland, HRI. Point-to-point trainers are doing that out of desperation. That is not the window they need to sell their horses. What they need is to have their horses jumping over a three-mile course to show their potential. If these trainers are not able to sell these horses this spring, the customers will not be there to buy three-year-old horses in the sales next summer.
That will feed down into the yearling and foal sales next autumn so everyone in the breeding chain will be severely affected. It will have a huge impact on our national hunt breeding, from which it might not recover. People are ringing me every day who are under extreme financial pressure. They have heavy financial commitments based on the possible sale of these horses. While they obviously did not know what the horses would make, they knew they would sell them in the window between 1 February and the middle of May. HRI has run horse racing perfectly within all the health guidelines. Thankfully there have been no clusters at any of the race meetings it has had, and there have been three or four a week. When point-to-point racing was running last November and December we had no clusters either. I am confident that, with the proper protocols in place, the same will be true again. I urge the Minister, for the sake of the industry and for these small men who are involved in national hunt breeding, to give consideration to allowing point-to-point racing to restart when making recommendations for 5 March. It is hugely financially important and it is the small man in the industry who will suffer.
I would like to address the use of peat as a growing medium in the horticulture industry. The court case in 2019 which removed the exemption from planning permission for peat extraction is having, and will have, a significant impact on the industry. I thank representatives of the sector for highlighting this issue. Theirs is a very important industry. It provides employment and a safe, sustainable food supply for this country. We need to expand our horticultural industry and we need to take any threats to it very seriously. I commend the work of the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, in putting together a working group, which is bringing the horticulture industry together with environmental and scientific experts to try to arrive at some solutions. It is clear that not only is this an urgent problem, it is a problem without an easy solution. Representatives from the sector have acknowledged that they need to move away from peat as a growing medium but the challenge is how quickly that can be done. The Green Party is playing its part in supporting our horticulture industry and trying to find a solution to this problem. I reject the views of those who are trying to turn the issue of horticultural peat into another episode of a supposed culture war between environmentalism and agriculture. There may be those whose political or business interests are furthered by such a culture war but we should reject it and spurn those who seek to spread division. We should hear all perspectives because we need to find solutions that work.
As regards Deputy Cahill's point, this is something on which he has made many representations to me and we have discussed it at length. I take on board the importance of the point-to-point sector in the overall horse racing industry and the financial implications of it being closed. As I pointed out previously, that was done against the backdrop of the public health advice and the importance of keeping people safe. That has led to very significant challenges but it will continue to be considered by the Government and the Cabinet as public health advice evolves. I take on board the Deputy's representations and the impact this is having on the sector at the moment.
Deputy Leddin outlined the issue he raised very well. Peat is important for our horticulture sector and I welcome the process that has been put in place by the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan. As I pointed out earlier, it is important that we find a practical solution to this that will support our horticulture and the need for peat.
I apologise to Deputy Cian O'Callaghan as I should have called him in the previous slot.
Similar to other sectors, agriculture, fishing and food production have been heavily impacted by the pandemic and small-scale producers and family businesses, in particular, have felt the effects. It is essential that, as the Minister and his officials plan for recovery, they remain focused on supporting small and locally sustainable businesses, farms and fishing communities, which are too often overlooked. These groups bear the cost of the pandemic, climate change and Brexit, with little benefit from international trade deals. There are three areas about which I want to ask the Minister.
The first is the ongoing issue of Covid clusters in meat plants. These clusters have been some of the worst outbreaks in the country and have had serious impacts on workers in the local communities. While we are all aware of the poor treatment of farmers by this industry before the pandemic, we now have accounts from workers' organisations and unions revealing incredibly poor conditions for workers and a culture that resulted in many workers fearing coming forward. There is an urgent need for immediate reform of the sector. Unfortunately, the industry is still resisting calls for proper sick pay and it had to be pressurised into negotiating with unions. What actions is the Minister taking to address these systemic issues in the sector?
Second, my colleague, Deputy Cairns, highlighted how small-scale fishers have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus. These families and communities need basic infrastructure. Too many small piers dotted around our coastline and islands are falling into disrepair and lack basic amenities such as slipways. They urgently need investment to preserve the livelihoods of local families and the practice of truly sustainable fishing. This kind of fishing has existed in rural and coastal Ireland for generations. It is more environmentally friendly and will keep families living on islands and in other coastal areas. Funding for these piers comes from the Minister's Department and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, through local authorities. What will the Minister do to ensure a more balanced recovery? Will he ensure targeted funding is provided for small piers in particular?
Third, the European Committee of the Regions recently proposed a comprehensive set of measures to foster agro-ecology in the European Union. Agro-ecology reduces the carbon footprint of agriculture, fosters the recovery of biodiversity and increases the economic and social resilience of farms with healthy and accessible food. It represents a type of sustainable agriculture that we need to support in rural areas post Covid. What is the Minister's response to the committee's proposals, especially the development of short supply chains, small-scale processing of agricultural products and the reduction of VAT on organic, local and seasonal products?
The Deputy raised the matter of meat factories and the Covid pandemic. As with every other sector of society and the economy, the safety of employees from danger and the risk of infection is absolutely paramount. That is essential in the meat and food processing sectors in particular, given that their employees are designated as essential workers and therefore have had to work throughout the pandemic. They have carried out tremendous work in ensuring that the food supply has been kept moving and every effort and step that can be put in place to protect them must be taken. My Department has been working with public health and the Health and Safety Authority and there has been strong co-ordination in ensuring that the highest standards are in place. The processing sector recognises the priority objective of keeping staff safe, although that has been challenging throughout the pandemic because of the fact that they have had to keep operating.
As regards employee terms and conditions, like every other sector, these sectors must comply with labour and employment rights. It is essential that that happens in every sector, including the processing sector. Workers' rights are not directly a matter for my Department but the ESRI is conducting some long-term research in this regard and I have engaged with it on that. Let me be clear that this is the same for all sectors of the economy where employment law applies and that is the same in the meat processing sector.
We have many piers around the country. Six of our larger harbours are designated and owned by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The rest are, by and large, owned and operated by the local authorities and significant funding is provided by my Department every year to assist local authorities in keeping them up. I will shortly be announcing a grant call for the year ahead to support local authorities in the upkeep of those piers. That will be forthcoming soon.
As regards supporting small local producers against the backdrop of Covid, the wider supports in the economy are available to everyone. However, smaller producers have been particularly challenged. I have been monitoring the situation closely to ensure supports are being availed of and will continue to do so.
I asked the Minister about the European committee's proposal on agro-ecology. Will he specifically address the issue of agro-ecology?
I will come back to the Deputy directly with a response on it.
I understand Deputies Kerrane and Mythen are sharing time.
Like others, I want to ask the Minister about the ongoing crisis facing our beef farmers. I would like him to provide some detail on the outcomes from the beef task force to date. I know it first met in December 2019. What has been achieved to date for beef farmers through that forum because there appears to have been no progress on the two main issues that beef farmers have repeatedly raised, namely, the rules around the four movements and the 30-month rule.
Last week, I met a group of farmers known as the Independent Farmers of Ireland Group, who cited that neighbour farmers are closing their gates and that they no longer feel it is right to encourage their sons or daughters to take on the family farm such is the hardship of farming, particularly beef farming. The income is no longer sufficient to sustain a family, which is a really sad state of affairs. It is clear we need radical action to turn that around.
In regard to Meat Industry Ireland, I cannot fathom why the Minister will not agree to review the meat industry, down to its treatment of its workers as raised by numerous Deputies.
The Minister is aware of the ongoing flooding of 1,200 acres of farmland in Roscommon due to Lough Funshinagh. I would like the Minister to outline what engagement he has had with the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, and the OPW on this issue. Will he ensure that on the back of this farmers will be supported? This is not just about land and sheds, it is about livelihoods, farmers and their families, who are in a desperate situation as the flooding spreads day by day. The situation is really grave. I would appreciate it if the Minister could shed some light on the matter.
I want to ask the Minister four questions. I contacted him during the week about the scallop industry in Wexford. From 1 March, those involved in this industry are forbidden by the British authorities to land their catch at any British port. This will wipe out the industry. What does the Government propose to do about this?
The current cut in quotas of 15% is completely disproportionate and leaves our fishers, including the Wexford fishers, with a bill of over €45 million to pick-up. What is the Government's stance on this and what does the Minister propose to do about it?
My third question is on the charter boat industry, which is currently not eligible for the CRSS because it is not a bricks and mortar business. Will the Minister work to include it in that scheme?
My final question relates to inshore fishermen, who also have been neglected. They are considered self-employed yet they are obliged to pay harbour and marine charges of up to €2,000 or more. They have suffered a huge drop in price at market because of the collapse of the French and Spanish markets due to Covid-19. Will the Minister commit to the provision of assistance to inshore fishermen? If SMEs are allowed an amnesty in their rates, surely inshore fishermen should be given an amnesty in respect of marine and harbour charges.
On the beef task force, its work continues. One of the main outcomes is the agreement in regard to a protected geographical indication, PGI, grass fed beef standard application to the European Commission. There is also an agreement, on which I have worked with the task force, to provide €6 million in funding for the first time to support the development of a suckler beef brand. There is more work ongoing, including on my proposal to develop a food ombudsman to bring transparency to the food supply chain.
On Deputy Mythen's question in regard to scallops, a number of issues have emerged following on from Brexit, not only in relation to fish landings in Britain but other products too. Many of these challenges are difficult to address but we are examining and teasing them out. Where possible, we will try to reach accommodations, but the reality is that Britain is now a third country from the point of view of the Single Market and that brings real challenges and changes in relation to our previous relationship.
On the quotas and the impact of Brexit, thankfully, there was an agreement and we avoided a no-deal scenario, but Brexit has brought challenges and a quota loss for the sector. I am working to see what options are available to address it at European level and also at domestic level in terms of working with the sector to put in place supports to help it adjust.
Deputy Bríd Smith is sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy.
Approximately ten months ago, I first raised the issue of meat plants and Covid outbreaks with one of the Minister's predecessors, whose response was an angry defence of the industry and the meat plants. That was a foolish response and, at worst, negligence because as we all now know meat plants are epicentres of Covid infection, often leaving vulnerable migrant workers at risk and the communities wherein they are located at risk. I continue to find bizarre the responses from every arm of the State in relation to this industry. It is being treated with kid gloves and light touch regulation. Where serious outbreaks of Covid-19 are concerned, this remains very difficult to fathom.
Deputy Gino Kenny recently asked the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and other Departments a number of questions regarding an outbreak at a meat plant in Clondalkin, to which he received only a very cursory reply from the Health and Safety Authority, HSA. I recently put a question to the Minister's Department regarding an outbreak at an ABP plant in Cork and was told that the Minister had been assured by the meat industry representatives that where such workers are engaged the plant is compliant with regulatory requirements. If we have not at this stage learned the lesson that we cannot trust at face value the responses of the meat industry, will we ever learn it? Approximately one week ago, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HSPC, produced updated guidelines for the meat industry. I have read the guidelines. They are very useful and there is a lot of good guidance in them. How do we know the meat plants will enforce them? Can the Minister tell me if there have been unannounced inspections of meat plants in the week since 10 February when those guidelines were published?
In August last, the Minister for Health said there had to be changes and reforms around the practices in meat plants. How do we know they happened? How would the Minister know that? The industry representatives will not tell him the truth. We know from the Migrant Rights Council of Ireland, SIPTU and others that the situation for workers remains very poor and without a sick pay scheme they remain fairly unprotected as they cannot take measures when they are sick that would protect them and the communities where they live. At this stage, we need to do something about the fact that the industry is tooth and nail opposed to a sick pay scheme for these workers. I appeal to the Minister to support such a measure. Solidarity-People Before Profit will bring forth a Bill soon to try to get that measure moved forward.
The Minister must behave differently to his predecessor whom I mentioned. We cannot have Ministers being a shrill for the meat industry when abuses of workers and farmers are taking place on a large-scale basis, for which there is much evidence. We need to make sure that regulations are enforced and that the Minister stands up for them. I again appeal to the Minister to ensure that there are unannounced inspections at meat plants and that all of the regulations are tightly enforced, which needs to be proven to us. The Minister should not take the meat industry at face value when it tells him something when it turns out not to be true.
I would like to do a question and answer session with the Minister on the same issue raised by Deputy Smith. The meat plants are once again major Covid clusters. Of the 56 meat plants in this State, there are 29 open Covid outbreaks. At the majority of the plants, there have been Covid cases in the past 28 days. In the Larry Goodman-owned ABP Bandon plant, 70 of the 300 workers have tested positive for Covid.
It is clear that the big beef barons are putting their wealth before their workers' health and the Government is letting them away with it. To this day, the vast majority of meat plant workers still have no entitlement to sick pay and are working even when they should not. It is like Groundhog Day and the beef barons are being let off the hook again.
Last September, the Minister told the Dáil that the issue of sick pay for meat plant workers was being addressed. When I asked him about it last month, he promised to send on information but never did so. He said today it is essential that every step is put in place to protect meat plant workers. This is a step for which he and the Government are responsible. Will he intervene now to ensure there is mandatory sick pay for all meat factory workers?
In the meat industry, as in every other part of the economy, the welfare and health of employees has to come first. The same rules apply to everyone in this regard. All employers must take every precaution they possibly can to keep employees safe. There is also an onus on the Government to work to ensure there is oversight and inspection in order to make sure those standards are being upheld. As of 5 February this year, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine had completed 666 inspections on behalf of the HSA, including unannounced inspections in Department-approved food premises. Those inspections are ongoing. To be clear, they are in addition to inspections carried out by the HSA itself and also in addition to the 49 premises where the Department has a permanent presence. As of 3 February, the HSA had completed 239 inspections of meat processing facilities since 18 May last year. Plant inspection numbers include those connected with Covid-19 outbreaks. Of the 239 inspections, 208 were unannounced and 31 were announced.
Right across the agrifood sector, where workers have been designated as essential, there have been many challenges in regard to infection because of the increased infection levels in the community. That makes it even more essential that the protocols are followed to the last in all settings, particularly the food processing sector. The Government is doing all we can to ensure the oversight is in place and the standards are being upheld.
When will the Government implement legislation to give people sick pay?
My apologies to Deputy Murphy but we cannot go over that point again. The next speaker is Deputy Ó Cuív and he is sharing time with Deputies Pádraig O'Sullivan, O'Connor, Aindrias Moynihan and Higgins.
I would like to reiterate what has been said by other speakers about the meat industry. The Covid pandemic has certainly highlighted the need for a task force to look at terms and conditions and the whole structure of employment within the industry. It is fair to say that there are very few workers in the meat industry who have not, sooner or later, contracted Covid. The Minister might give us the figures in that regard.
The second issue I want to raise is the fact that last year was a disastrous one for coastal communities. We saw falling prices for shellfish, the impact of the Covid crisis on tourism and also the fact that the environmental schemes are coming, or have come, to an end. The Minister knows my concern about the new environmental scheme. Small operators who earn a living from two or three sources in the west of Ireland need income support and they need it urgently.
I would like to address the issue of fishing. The reality is that the fishing industry was thrown under the bus by the European Union at the last minute in the Brexit talks. I hear people saying that the deal that was done was better than a no-deal arrangement, but a good fishing deal would have been a hell of a lot better than a bad fishing deal. I do not think there was ever any question of a no-deal arrangement. It was always going to be sorted out at the eleventh hour, on the last day. Fishermen do not want to get paid to tie up boats; they want to fish. The industry is in crisis. The Minister knows the problems in the shellfish industry and I have raised them with him time and again. For example, the price of oysters, which are a delicacy and have to be sold fresh, has gone from something like €9 per kilogram down to €2. It is a major crisis and the industry is not viable at the moment.
Finally, I have to agree with Deputy Gannon regarding piers. In his response, the Minister said that a lot of money had been given to pier projects. In fact, what has been given would not wet one's tongue. Surveys have been done of piers around the country - I funded one 20 years ago - and there is an incredible number of small piers used by the people who operate out of what we call currachs, that is, small open boats. They are the backbone of the lobster, crab and other shellfish industries. In a context where billions have been spent on big developments around the country, including the Luas, DART and so on, we need the funding for piers to be substantially increased. In particular, Ros an Mhíl must get on the agenda this year.
I would like to raise the issue of animal welfare, specifically equine welfare. The majority of Deputies would come across situations where animals, particularly horses, are found in a decrepit condition, many of them emaciated and some having to be euthanised in certain circumstances. The programme for Government calls for the continued robust enforcement of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 and a review of the sentencing regime underpinning that legislation. I very much welcome that, particularly in my own constituency where we have a considerable problem with horse and animal welfare. Unfortunately, only 48 prosecutions have taken place nationally in the past three years, seven of them in Cork. We need to continue to work on this issue and to promote enforcement of the legislation.
The programme for Government also states that we need to prioritise equine welfare based on a robust traceability system, building on existing inspectorate supports throughout the country, and ensuring a consistent approach to dealing with horse welfare issues across local authorities. I understand a new national animal welfare strategy is to be launched shortly, as per the response I received from the Minister in January. When finalising that strategy, I ask that consideration be given to requiring local authorities to employ equine officers who would have the responsibility, and the proper enforcement powers, to oversee microchipping of animals. If not, we will continue to have a system that allows for the mistreatment and abuse of animals and we will be wholly reliant on animal welfare groups and charities to take up the slack. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that appropriate enforcement is undertaken in the future? Will the Minister indicate when we will see the publication of the animal welfare strategy?
I thank the Minister for taking this debate. I want to raise the issue of the damage that was done at Ballycotton pier last weekend. I had the chance to speak directly to the Minister about it but I am asking today that he and his officials engage with Cork County Council to ensure the funding that is required for the repairs is given swiftly. There is an urgency to this matter given the importance of the pier to Ballycotton as a village and tourist hub and for the fishing industry there.
I want to talk about the situation in regard to point-to-point racing. As the Minister is aware, my family is heavily involved in thoroughbred breeding and horse racing in Ireland. However, I am speaking today on behalf of the thousands of people in Cork East whose livelihoods depend on the point-to-point industry, thoroughbred breeding and the training of horses for racing. The damage that is being done by the decision of the Department to delay the return of point-to-point racing is significant, but we are not yet in a situation where it is irretrievable. I ask the Minister to act urgently to allow the resumption of point-to-point racing. As he has acknowledged, there is a very delicate ecosystem in terms of breeding and the impact it has on racing pedigrees and, later in the year, on sales. We need to ensure horses are allowed the opportunity to run in order to build their pedigrees. It is important that urgent action be taken in this particular area. I ask the Minister to respond to that point.
I would like to draw the Minister's attention to two issues, namely, bovine viral diarrhoea, BVD, testing and sheep farmers' concerns about dog attacks. At this time of year, ewes are heavy in lamb and sheep farmers are worried about increased numbers of walkers' dogs roaming off the leash on hills where they are a danger to sheep.
Walkers are always welcome in the countryside. Walking clubs have worked well and closely with farmers and landowners over many years. Sheep farmers in areas between Macroom and Millstreet, for example, in Mushera and Clara, have been highlighting concerns to me about increased numbers of walkers and people rediscovering the countryside but with dogs off the leash. That is a real concern for sheep farmers. While the control of dogs is not a direct responsibility of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, sheep farming is. I call on the Minister to liaise with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage about ensuring that livestock are safe.
Another issue is bovine viral diarrhoea testing for young calves. When calves are born, farmers tag them, take the sample and send it in the post to Kildare. Often, that is done by registered post. Farmers are keen to get a result back in a timely fashion in case they want to sell on calves. While they will hold the calves for two weeks, they want to know that they will have the result back in that time.
There will be increased demand on the laboratories as we move into calving season. It gets more intense and the laboratories will be used for Covid-19 testing as well. We have to ensure adequate capacity is available for all these needs in those laboratories. I call on the Minister to liaise with the laboratories to ensure they have adequate capacity and can deliver in a timely manner.
I support the request for equine welfare officers in local authorities. My Lovely Horse Rescue does extraordinary work in Clondalkin with horses which have been badly mistreated. The volunteer work would be greatly helped if local authorities, like South Dublin County Council, had equine welfare officers.
Irish food and drinks companies have always had an exceptional reputation at home and abroad. This reputation is built on the standard of their products and the strength of their brands. Every year, these businesses bring much-needed enterprise to our shores. In 2020 alone exports of Irish food and drink were valued at €13 billion to our economy. However, despite the incredible efforts in the face of unprecedented challenges, this industry has been hit hard by the pandemic and the commercial pressures imposed by Covid-19. Most notably, food and drinks companies rely heavily on brand ambassadors to engage in brand promotion. This strengthens relationships with business customers, something that is particularly pertinent in supporting market diversification in our post-Brexit economy.
Previously, the semi-state organisation, Bord Bia, provided funding support to food and drinks companies to help with these brand ambassador placements, but unfortunately this funding was withdrawn some years ago. Once foreign travel is permitted again, these brand ambassador placements will be essential for rebuilding Irish brand reputations, renewing business relationships and bringing much-needed economic investment back to Ireland. Will the Minister consider reinstating this funding as an emergency Covid measure to allow food and drinks companies to employ ambassadors directly in key export markets once it is safe to do so again?
A significant number of queries have been raised. Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned the importance of funding coastal communities, the importance of the new agri-environmental scheme and of funding piers. I take his points on board. Deputy O'Sullivan mentioned the issue of horse welfare and the animal welfare strategy, as did Deputy Higgins. There is work to be done on this and I take on board the Deputies' comments in that regard. Deputy O'Connor mentioned Ballycotton pier, which we discussed during the week. I will certainly engage with him further on that. He mentioned the importance of point-to-point, a matter he has made representations on previously. I have addressed the matter in previous answers. Deputy O'Sullivan mentioned the importance of looking at what additional measures we can take to prevent dog attacks. That is a matter on which I am engaged with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. I take the Deputy's point on the importance of prompt laboratory response to tests as well.
The Minister might correspond with the Deputies whose questions he has not had a chance to address.
Deputy Martin Browne is sharing with his colleague, Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh.
I recently pointed out that when peak milk production is under way there is a possibility that a processor's ability to cope could be severely affected if workers in the sector are affected by Covid-19 to such an extent that large numbers may have to stay away from work. I have three questions for the Minister. Are there plans to vaccinate workers ahead of the spring surge? Can the Minister tell us about those plans? What engagement has the Minister had with stakeholders in that sector? Is the Minister giving consideration to putting specific plans in place to prepare for all eventualities, including a scenario in which staffing levels may drop to low levels?
I wish to talk to the Minister about the green cert programme. The Minister will have received correspondence from me. There is a real problem with the part-time online courses. We had a situation in Westport some weeks ago where the course was over-subscribed to the extent that there were hundreds of applications but only 200 places. Applicants were accepted and then they were told later the same evening that they were no longer accepted but that they could be given a place in 2022. What has the Minister put in place specifically to address this shortage of part-time green cert places?
My thanks to Deputy Browne for the question on the vaccination plans for key workers in the dairy processing sector. Recently, I met representatives of the dairy sector and this issue was raised. As the Deputy knows, the vaccination roll-out has been given strong and deft consideration by the national immunisation advisory committee. Our roll-out and approach are based on the committee's considerations. We have many priority and vulnerable categories. Each is deserving in respect of the urgency of receiving a vaccine. The position is likewise in the agrifood sector, where there are many essential workers. The dairy sector has particular challenges relating to capacity at peak times and the importance of those workers is relevant. The national immunisation advisory committee is aware of these issues and has taken them on board in its consideration of vaccination roll-out and prioritisation.
Deputy Conway-Walsh raised a query on which I have received many representations from County Mayo Deputies and Senators. I have been engaged with Teagasc on the potential to put in place additional capacity for part-time and online green cert courses. We will continue to engage to try to identify additional capacity because of the increased demand and because of the particular situation relating to over-subscription of the course being run in Mayo.
I thank the Minister for that response. Can the Minister guarantee me that every young farmer who wants a place on a course to do a green cert online or part-time will be guaranteed such a place? I need not outline to the Minister the implications for farmers in terms of income if that does not happen. This is done both through Teagasc and the higher and further education colleges.
Government Deputies and Senators in County Mayo and other counties have been in touch with me directly raising this issue and they are very much aware of it. Obviously, I am not in a position today to give any guarantees around that but I have clearly outlined, as I have to Government Deputies who have raised this with me directly, that I am engaged with Teagasc. I understand the position relating to the demand for young farmers to become trained and to avail of green cert courses. We are keen to try to ensure demand is met. I will continue to engage with Teagasc on the matter.
These are time sensitive problems. The Minister knows that. With due respect to other Deputies, I really need to ensure a solution and this is easily solvable. We need to renew the contracts for the Teagasc education officers. We need to put the resources into the further education colleges so that they can be put online.
Deputy Verona Murphy is sharing with Deputy Matt Shanahan.
I wish to bring up three sectoral issues which fall under the Minister's agriculture portfolio and for which I believe immediate and clear action can alleviate significant economic and social hardship.
First, I raise our suckler beef and beef finishing industry. Beef prices are on the floor and beef finishers are facing significant losses, and in some cases ruin, in bringing their beef product to market, which they must do after all. Farmers continue to engage in supplemental feeding and husbandry to deliver the premium grass-fed product that is the bulwark of our national beef exports and indigenous consumption. Farmers are facing ruinous sales prices which leave them in no position to pay their suppliers now or to meet their own family income needs. Despite national promotion of Irish beef, the next generation of beef farmers will not exist in this country because beef finishing as an agricultural activity is dying on its feet because of continuous producer price issues. It is worth noting that like-for-like comparison of beef prices with UK factory prices sees Irish farmers receiving between €200 and €300 less per animal. This situation cannot be allowed to continue. I ask the Minister's Department to recognise the present challenges facing the Irish beef sector and to introduce, as soon as possible, a new beef exceptional aid measure, BEAM, scheme to alleviate the hardships being imposed on the impacted farm families and to recognise the need to support this indigenous manufacturing sector.
The second issue is the nursery training ground of our national hunt and thoroughbred racing industry, namely, the point-to-point sector. Point-to-point activity has been closed for many months despite our national hunt and flat racing continuing successfully during the pandemic. Point-to-point racing is vital to the national horse racing industry of which it is a significant component. It provided more than €45 million in export sales to the UK in 2019. It supports veterinarian, farrier, horse transport and feedstock jobs in rural counties and with 66 courses around the country, point-to-point is the form of horse racing that most touches rural Irish society. It is here also that the Irish horse racing financial model filters through to rural Ireland. Point-to-point racing is inherently safe given it can be conducted with fewer than 40 people occupying a 60 acre space outdoors where all the protocols implemented on our racing tracks are fully in place and overseen by the same two governing bodies that control national racing. The point-to-point season finishes at the end of May and I ask the Minister to please look immediately at allowing this safe activity to recommence, to allow the trade continue and to safeguard livelihoods and our hard-won horse racing industry which delivers wider benefits to so many.
The third and final issue I raise is our forestry sector. It is a hugely important indigenous industry but is also required to mitigate future national climate penalties. The legislation passed in recent months, which we supported, has improved the output of licences but is not meeting the needs for new planting applications. Timeframes for felling and new planting can be up to two years to process and the system is placing huge bureaucracy on farmers who, at the end of the day, are simply trying to harvest a cash crop at a future point. The requirements for ecological and Natura surveys are becoming onerous and costly and will prove a deterrent to new applications. In addition, the throughput of applications per annum through departmental offices is estimated at 4,500, yet new felling, planting and roadway applications are deemed to be running at 6,000 per annum. It is only a matter of time before the system yet again becomes completely logjammed which will once more necessitate significant importation of softwood timbers and will ensure that Ireland completely misses our future afforestation targets, thereby incurring climate penalties in future. We can be self-sufficient in this industry but bureaucracy is restricting our national ability to perform in this sector.
I ask the Minster to address these three issues and I hope he can do so as soon as possible.
I call Deputy Verona Murphy and then we will go back to the Minister, if we have time.
I have written to the Minister on a number of issues, so I ask him to respond in writing and that he makes it a priority. I have four and a half minutes to convey to the Minister that he is allowing the EU to destroy Ireland's fishing industry. I want him to fight for the fishermen and women of this country, particularly those of the fishing communities in Kilmore and Duncannon who are dependent on the industry for their very survival. From 1 April, Irish fishing boats will no longer be able to land their catch in UK ports. This will leave them with increased costs of millions of euro due to having to go to French or Belgian ports and then transport their catch back to Ireland to be processed. They will need to go hundreds of extra nautical miles and hundreds of extra kilometres to earn their living and help their communities survive, with added risk to life and limb.
The Minister recently announced five extra landing ports in Ireland to facilitate foreign-registered vehicles. He should display the same level of interest and support for Irish fishing boats which by absolute necessity must retain the right to land in UK ports after 1 April. I would appreciate that. Where is the common sense attached? Why is there no mention of the carbon footprint we hear so much about on this particular subject? What does the Minister intend to do because if it is nothing then he had better tell us that himself? I saw the Minister on "Ear to the Ground" and was not very impressed. We heard from Mr. John Lynch of the Irish South and East Fish Producers Organisation. We heard also from Mr. Shane McIntyre and Ms Caitlín Uí hAodha from Dunmore, County Waterford. Like the fishermen and women of County Wexford, they said that they want to earn their livelihoods. The last time I checked that was the right of every citizen in Ireland under our Constitution. They expect this Government to uphold that right and not stand by while it is diminished, losing as much as 15% of their fishing quota, at a cost in excess of €43 million. Boat owners and the fish processors in these communities face ruin if the Minister does not step in and fight on their behalf.
Another seriously important issue which has been mentioned many times in this debate is the national hunt sector. It is in crisis and facing very grave consequences if the Minister does not devise a way to allow point-to-point to return in the next two weeks. The impact of the Minister's decision to halt point-to-point, stating it is not an elite sport, shows a very poor understanding of the importance of the point-to-point industry nationally. Halting the ability of horse owners and handlers to establish value by being able to run horses, sell them and then use the sales revenue to purchase three-year-olds for next season in Goffs and Tattersalls is vital to the continued prosperity of the National Hunt industry in Ireland. County Wexford is a world leader in point-to-point racing which employs thousands of people countrywide. This is totally unacceptable. Point-to-point proceeded successfully from October to December without incident. It has a proven track record of being able to hold its events safely and behind closed doors. Will the Minister confirm he will ensure this Government can come up with a remedy before its actions ruin another sector?
I recently had a Zoom call with some of my farming constituents. One matter that arises at this time of year is dog controls. Will the Minister tell the House whether he endorses the IFA campaign on dog control, including the significant asks of the campaign such as mandatory microchipping and stronger regulations? It not only protects farmers' sheep stocks but also protects dog owners from losing their beloved pets in any unfortunate incident which may arise. It is important that this campaign is recognised as a shared benefit campaign.
Lastly I raise something which came to my attention just this morning. HGV drivers with valuable Irish produce such as pharmaceuticals and meat products are being held up and delayed with deliveries because they are now required to have a negative Covid test at nearly all borders in the EU, Germany and Italy included. This morning there were in excess of 500 drivers sitting at the Italian border having to be tested. The EU's response is most disjointed. I ask the Minister to address this with his EU counterparts to make testing provisions widely available so drivers do not have to sit for days with Ireland's exports being delayed and devalued.
Congratulations and commendations are due to the agrifood sector for doing almost the impossible. While being hit with Brexit and Covid at the same time it has managed to keep the food supply chain going in an admirable fashion. Ministers should take responsibility for doing a good job in that particular area which I hope can continue.
I agree with the points raised by Members on the horse racing industry. It has likewise been beset by Brexit on the one hand and Covid on the other. There is a need to attend to the point-to-point issue. Also, access to the UK for the bloodstock industry is an absolute necessity. I wanted to mention those points in passing.
I mention also something a little more parochial related to County Kildare. The sport horse sector, which is considerable in the county, proposes to upgrade its shop window and create a centre of excellence. This is desirable and a great move on its part. Unfortunately, however, the proposal is to move from inside the county to out of it.
When I raised this issue previously, it was pointed out to me that it is only a matter of a couple of hundred metres. My response was that is all the more reason it should not move at all. I ask the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, to use their influence to try to ensure that centre of excellence is located in County Kildare, adjacent to all the other racing, bloodstock and sport horse facilities that are readily available and where there are available sites.
I wish to underline the importance of the issue of forestry felling licences. It is not going well at the moment. I know there has been an improvement, but there are still serious problems and people have been held up unnecessarily.
On the issue of the peat industry, which was also raised by Deputy Leddin, we have, as the Ceann Comhairle well knows, a very healthy horticulture sector in County Kildare which depends on the peat sector for supply. I hope a means can be found to allow that supply to continue on the basis that the horticulture sector is very close to being carbon neutral. There are no miles involved in delivery of the products. It would be a serious problem if we had to import from outside the country. At this moment the horticulture sector is looking forward to some reassurance which it is to be hoped can be brought to bear.
Credit is due to all those in the industry and the agrifood sector in the context of the difficult year they have had to survive. The industry has survived so far.
Incidentally, on the issue of the meat sector and meat factories, meat factories all over the world have had difficulties in terms of outbreaks of Covid, but the owners have a vested interest in keeping their supply chain open. Some people have suggested that the owners somehow want to close the factories down or operate them illegally. In fact, they want to keep them open and keep supplying the market. It is to be hoped that will continue into the future.
I thank the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, for facilitating this question and answer session. Farmers have raised several significant concerns with me in recent weeks. First, there is the issue of the BEAM scheme. Many farmers are seeking an extension to 31 December 2021 for applicants who did not meet the 5% production reduction. I understand the Department is engaging with the EU Commission regarding flexibility on the deadline. I ask the Minister to provide an update in that regard. It would be much appreciated.
Second, we need to see meaningful action on the issue of realigning food prices with production costs. There is significant frustration among farmers with regard to attempts by factories to bring down the price of beef and due to the increased production costs associated with finishing cattle. There is significant concern in that regard. We need to see accelerated measures and more action in this area to ensure Meat Industry Ireland is left in no doubt that the undermining of market conditions by meat factories will not be accepted.
On the issue of the green certificate, I would appreciate an accelerated focus on this matter. There was an allocation of further college placement courses for applicants by certain other Departments, such as the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. I would appreciate feedback in that regard.
I should be able to leave a couple of minutes for the Minister to reply. The first issue I wish to raise is that of the harness racing sector. I am referring to safe and professionally run harness racing that takes place on tracks throughout Ireland, particularly in my constituency of Cork South-West. In west Cork, harness racing is a very popular activity which is the highlight of the summer for many people and brings a significant amount of vibrancy to various parts of west Cork. Those in the sector have a simple request. There is an application on the Minister's desk for some element of funding. Obviously, a large amount of funding goes towards the thoroughbred industry and horse racing and that is fantastic and I fully endorse it, but the Irish Harness Racing Association is looking for just a small fraction of that funding. I implore the Minister to look favourably on that application because it is a fantastic traditional sport that is enjoyed by so many.
I raise the issue of veterinary medicinal products or licensed merchant products. I understand that from January of next year farmers will require a veterinary prescription to access anti-parasitic veterinary medicinal products. That will have significant implications. Obviously, it will have cost implications for the farmer. There are issues in terms of the access farmers will have to veterinarians, especially in peripheral parts of Ireland where they will not have the ease of access they will need. There will also be animal welfare issues, as the Minister can imagine. I understand there is a derogation that can be implemented whereby existing licensed merchants can continue to issue prescriptions for these veterinary medicinal products. That would be of significant benefit to farmers going forward.
I wish to echo the concerns raised by other Deputies with regard to point-to-point racing. I would love to know the measures that will be taken to cushion the impact the cancellation of point-to-point racing has had on the entire thoroughbred industry. The Minister should rest assured that it is having a significant impact on breeders, trainers and owners. When can we expect point-to-point racing to return? It is of vital importance throughout the country.
Most Deputies who have spoken have raised the issue of forestry licences and the difficulties that still exist, including the bureaucracy and red tape and the length of time involved. I know of a young farmer in west Cork who is now on his or her fourth attempt to get a forestry licence but the commissioner is still coming back for more information. The House passed the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act and the number of staff in the Forestry Service has been increased, but those measures do not seem to be working yet, even though they ought to be. I would really like to see movement on this issue.
I thank the Deputies for their contributions. Deputy Durkan touched on several issues. One of the specific issues he raised was in respect of felling licences and the delays in that regard. It was also the last point raised by Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan. There has been a backlog in that area. We are working very hard to allocate additional resources to try to reduce that backlog and get to a situation where there is a reasonable timeframe for responses to applications for forestry licences. For example, we have 15 colleges now, whereas previously there was one. There are ten additional forestry inspectors as well. We also brought through legislation in October to try to streamline the process.
Deputy Dillon has been in touch with me previously regarding supports for the beef sector and the issues around the BEAM scheme in particular. I was glad very recently to be able to confirm an extension to that scheme such that 2021 is a new reference year to allow farmers who were struggling to meet the 5% nitrogen reduction criteria to opt for a new reference year of January to December should they so wish. At least half of applicants are already on course to meet the 5% reduction and there is no change to their situation, but those in trouble have the opportunity to opt for the new reference year.
Deputy Dillon has previously raised with me the issue around green certificate courses and the challenges in that regard in County Mayo in particular. It is a matter on which I am engaged with Teagasc in terms of trying to increase the capacity for online part-time courses to facilitate those students and the demand that exists.
On the representations of Deputy O'Sullivan with regard to harness racing, it is an issue on which he has been in regular contact with me. I recently facilitated a meeting with the Irish Harness Racing Association to discuss the potential for funding. It is a matter I am examining and on which I will revert to the Deputy.
On prescription-only veterinary medicines, I am aware of the concerns in the farming community and the licensed merchant community regarding the changes that are due on 1 January 2022. There is a stakeholder group working to try to find a practical way to implement the requirement and address those concerns.
I take on board the Deputy's representations regarding point-to-point racing. The issue of the importance of the point-to-point racing sector has been raised by several Deputies. I have taken those points on board.
As the Minister is aware, the beef and suckler sector is in chaos again, with a drop in prices of up to 20 cent per kilogram in the past two weeks. It has led to a serious situation. I am calling on the Minister to commit to the setting up of an independent regulator for this sector, separate to the ombudsman. I know that when he was in opposition, the Minister called for an independent regulator and I stress to him that there is a need for it. Many of the agreements that were made on the beef task force are now being reneged upon by factories. It has come to my attention, for example, that there was an agreement that factories would confirm prices to farmers by text or email but they are not doing that. There was another agreement to put weighing scales into factories and that has not been done. It was also agreed that notice would be given to farmers of any changes to weight and that is not happening either.
It is evident that there is no honest trading in the supply chain and that there is not a sustainable model in terms of the meat factories and supermarkets. We need to come to grips with that because it is the reality and fact of the matter. We need to deal with that matter.
We are facing an unacceptable situation that constantly disadvantages farmers. It is leading to a situation where beef and suckler farmers are exiting the sector and opting for dairy. This will lead to animal welfare issues as calves will be abandoned by those beef farmers who are leaving the sector and going into dairy. The Minister needs to take this on board.
The only way forward is to put in place an independent regulator because the factories are not playing ball. At the end of the day, the producer who is producing high quality beef is not being treated fairly. I call on the Minister to resolve that issue.
We need legislation quickly for the horticulture sector. Ireland is the only country that I know of which is recklessly presiding over the loss of up to 17,600 jobs. We were supposed to have a just transition but that did not happen. We urgently need legislation to be brought in.
Farmers will pay in the region of €25 million in carbon tax in 2021. However, not one cent of those taxes will go back into the agriculture sector to help reduce emissions. Agriculture sector farmers will pay €80 million a year towards carbon tax. More than 2 million calves will be born in Ireland this year, on top of the 2 million that were born last year. Some 27% of those calves were not exported. The UK Minister has not ruled out taking in beef from the US. South American beef is not the answer we want to hear for Europe. The UK is our biggest market for food exports, amounting to €4.5 billion. The cost of feed for animals has risen by 25% with recent EU import duty. Some 10,000 acres of tillage has transferred to dairy farming this year. This has a knock-on effect on the production of straw. Farmers are being asked to mulch straw back into the soil and are competing with mushroom growers who have no access to peat. At the same time, EU regulations are demanding that the national herd is reduced by 5%. All of these things have knock-on effects.
There must be a market and means for transporting live animals. This is extremely serious. What is the Minister going to do about the surplus of calves? The Minister said that he would be the voice in the Thirty-third Dáil and would answer all of these questions for farmers. I hope he will not let them down on this matter.
On factory prices, something is radically wrong when farmers are producing beef and cannot make a marginal, small, modest profit on it. Something has to be done about this. There has been enough talk about it but, unfortunately, there has been no action.
Our fishermen were sold out in the recent Brexit negotiations. Small fishermen are finding it difficult. The Minister is doing his best on the pair trawling issue and I compliment him on that. It is something that was dealt with unfavourably in a certain way in the judicial system that is currently being reviewed. I hope there will be an appeal on that issue because fishermen are hurting when they see every type of fish in their bays being swept up. There are fishermen operating out of small piers. They have made contributions of investment into small piers in rural areas. I will give the example of Coornagillagh in Tuosist. If a certain small amount of money was put into that pier, it would make a massive difference to the local fishermen using it. On behalf of fishermen in Coornagillagh and every other small pier in Kerry, I ask the Minister to look at that issue.
On the issue of dog attacks, I am thankful to Radio Kerry and the farmers in the west of Dingle with whom I dealt recently and whose sheep were attacked by dogs. We want to send a clear message that walkers coming on holiday are more than welcome when they are allowed to come, but we do not want dogs to be allowed to roam free and do damage.
On the forestry issue, the licensing situation is totally chaotic, as has previously been debated in the Dáil. I ask the Minister, for God's sake, to do something inside in his Department to free it up so that people will be able to plant trees, cut trees, make roads and harvest.
Small suckler and sheep farmers and small dairymen in Kerry are concerned about rumours relating to the negotiations on the CAP and fear that their payments could be cut by one third and that money would be directed to eco schemes. They are worried that many farmers will not even qualify for those schemes and that much of the funding would go to administration. Subsidy payments from the EU are, and were supposed to be, compensation for farmers for producing cheaper food for the consumers of Europe. Payments are not a gift. Eco schemes, it appears to many, are to satisfy dreams, paralyse farmers and deprive them of finance they badly need.
The cost of feeding and fertiliser is another issue. Another issue is dog control in places like Shrone. Walkers with dogs that are not tied up are worrying sheep in those places.
I also support the calls for felling licences to be speeded up and pay for the horticulture sector.
I would like a reply to my questions from the Minister, and if he cannot give an answer here, I would like a written reply to each of them.
Will the Minister support a beef regulator? That is a simple question with a "Yes" or "No" answer.
While in opposition, the Minister stated he would change the 30-month and four-movement rules. Is he willing to do that?
Does the Minister intend to bring in a sucker welfare scheme? I voted on a motion that the Minister brought to the previous Dáil seeking to bring in such a scheme.
The price of beef has plummeted all of a sudden. It is as well to tell the Minister straight out that there is speculation that some of the retail operators have told the factories to pull back to three days a week because there will be a shortage of cattle later, and the longer they hold back to three days a week, the more of an opportunity there will be to flood the market. This needs investigating but the task force is not sitting. Will the Minister get the chairman of the task force to sit at least once a month? Farmers only hear what happens a month after the task force meets and they need to be able to see what happens live. That is important.
A farming group came to me the other night. Deputy McNamara was also involved. That group of independent farmers is meeting all politicians. They are seeking a Zoom meeting with the Minister. It is not that they are looking to go face to face with him. They are looking for a Zoom meeting and the Minister has not come back to them on the matter. Will the Minister give them that Zoom meeting?
I will turn to carbon tax. Am I correct in saying that if I am a fisherman going out in a boat, I do not pay carbon tax? I would agree with that. Is that also the case for a boat bringing people over and back to England? Is it a fact that if I am providing a service such as the LÉ Aoife, I do not pay carbon tax? Yet a contractor going in to a farmer has to pay carbon tax. Is that fair? A new document from Europe is out at the moment relating to exporting and the movement of cattle. Anyone who reads it will realise that the writing will be on the wall in the next ten years. Will the Minister put the boot in on that matter?
It was agreed that cattle would be weighed going into factories and that the opportunity would be there for farmers. It was never done. There is another major problem for the marts and the pedigree stock owners who sell in the marts, that is, the top 20% generally goes to the UK.
There are stipulations at the moment that the cattle have to be quarantined for 40 days. Has the Minister contacted his English counterpart to resolve this issue because it is causing major problems? Could the Minister send me an answer to all of the questions, one by one? I want to let Deputy McNamara in. I do not want an essay; I want straight, blunt answers.
Deputy Fitzmaurice stated that we had a meeting on Zoom the other night. I have always taken the view that the beef task force was just a talking shop. It is not even talking now. Could the Minister tell us why?
The beef task force plays a very important role-----
I know the role it plays. Why is it not meeting?
It is continuing its work as well. It will be meeting again to continue that work.
Why is it not meeting? It is a simple question. Why is it not meeting?
It will be meeting again to continue its work.
Why has it not met since Christmas?
I have answered the question.
The Minister has not.
I said it will be meeting again-----
A Cheann Comhairle, could you direct the Minister to answer the question?
No, I cannot direct the Minister to do that.
So what is the point in this charade of accountability and democracy?
I know. The Deputy should go on with his next question. He might do better.
I might do better but I will not do better if the Minister does not answer the questions.
The Minister has indicated that the task force will meet.
What do Bord Iascaigh Mhara, Shannon Heritage, Shannon Aviation and Shannon Commercial Properties have in common that the same person would have the requisite expertise to be appointed to the boards of all of them, other than being a political insider? Can the Minister explain how people are appointed to State boards? Did the Minister interview Aaron Forde prior to his appointment to Bord Iascaigh Mhara?
We are talking about Covid-19 and its impact on the agrifood sector.
A lot of people have been talking about Bord Iascaigh Mhara here today and the fishing sector.
That is an element of the debate, but what does the appointment of whoever it might be to a board have to do with Covid?
I am curious as to how people get appointed and what the criteria are other than perhaps being a political insider.
All right. That is fair enough.
If Deputy McNamara was more interested in finding out information as opposed to grandstanding-----
I am not grandstanding. I am asking the Minister a question. Why was Mr. Forde appointed to Bord Iascaigh Mhara?
-----he could find out that information very easily. There is a very clear process in place on how appointments to boards happen. A person applies to the Public Appointments Service and he or she is then interviewed on their competencies. After that process, a final list is recommended to the Minister of the relevant Department-----
That is the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, in this instance.
It is a standard process for all Departments. The Minister of the relevant Department is given the recommendations as to who the best and most appropriate people are for those roles.
So the Minister felt he was the best and most appropriate person for Bord Iascaigh Mhara.
It is a very clear and transparent process, which is in place for all board appointments. As a Deputy, he should know that very well.
So the Minister felt he was the most appropriate person for appointment to Bord Iascaigh Mhara, based on his expertise in the fishing sector.
I have outlined very clearly the process for how all board appointments are made, which was Deputy McNamara's question.
Did the Minister interview Mr. Forde?
I do not know that it is correct to be focusing on an identifiable person.
Does Deputy McNamara wish me to repeat what I said about the process?
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but I do not think it is appropriate to focus on an identifiable individual outside the House who is not in a position to defend himself here.
I am asking the Minister how it was decided that he was appropriate to appoint. The man has a proven track record in Connacht Gold dairy. I am not casting any aspersions on Mr. Forde. I am asking why the Minister felt it was appropriate to appoint him to Bord Iascaigh Mhara.
Does the Minister wish to make any concluding comment on that matter?
If Deputy McNamara had taken the time to assess how a board appointment is made, he would know that posts are advertised, people apply to the Public Appointments Service for consideration and an expert panel interviews each applicant to decide on his or her competency and merits. A small list then goes to the Minister of those who are regarded as being highly and eminently qualified for a final decision. It is a very straightforward and transparent process across all Departments and State boards.
I very clearly answered the question. I clearly outlined how the process works.
If all Deputy McNamara is interested in is grandstanding, there is no point in engaging further.
Deputy McNamara was out of time before I came in. I think the Ceann Comhairle just allowed in the Minister.
The Minister did not answer my question.
All I can do is enforce the time limit. I did not hear the question the Deputy put.