Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Ceisteanna (35)

Willie Penrose

Ceist:

35. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the steps taken to ensure the beef market task force issues are progressed; when he expects a meeting to be held; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49336/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (7 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Agriculture)

I accept the Minister is trying to do his best in a difficult situation. The interruption of the beef task force meeting on 14 October has not helped. I did not support the actions taken then by certain individuals. Those actions were not helpful because the task force is critical. Many farmers in Longford, Westmeath, Offaly and adjacent parts have contacted me. They see it as absolutely crucial that the beef task force would deal with the central issue at stake, as well as ancillary issues. I urge the Minister to make every effort in addressing this situation, notwithstanding the intransigence of MII and everybody it represents.

As the Deputy will be aware, and to which he has alluded, the inaugural beef task force meeting scheduled for 14 October was prevented from proceeding. However, the independent chair and my Department have continued to engage proactively with task force members with a view to both progressing the implementation of the provisions of the agreement. My Department and its agencies continue to progress the commitments signed up to under the agreement. The full text of the agreement is available on my Department's website.

An immediate increase in a range of bonuses was announced as part of that agreement. It has been confirmed to my Department that this bonus system is now in place. Initiatives in the agreement aimed at improving information along the supply chain included the commissioning of a number of reports, namely, an independent review of market and customer requirements, an independent examination of the price composition of the total value of the animal along the supply chain and a summary of competition law issues, as relevant to the Irish beef sector. My Department has issued the request for tender for these reports, with a deadline for receipt of tender responses of 12 noon on Thursday, 5 December. This will enable the award of the tender before the end of December 2019.

Regarding market transparency initiatives, my Department has published an expert report on mechanical carcass classification, has introduced an appeals system for manual grading and has initiated a consultation process on the transposition of the unfair trading practices directive, with a deadline for submissions of 13 December. Bord Bia has developed a beef market price index model based on three components, namely, a cattle price index, a beef market price index, including retail and wholesale prices, and an offal price indicator. This is now available on the Bord Bia website.

Teagasc is significantly advanced in the first stage of the scientific review of the quality payment system, QPS. My Department is also proactively engaging with several potential beef producer organisations that have the potential to strengthen the bargaining power of beef farmers in the supply chain. Two beef producer organisations have been formally recognised by my Department in recent months. I established the task force to provide the leadership to develop a sustainable pathway for the future of the beef sector in terms of economic, environmental and social sustainability. As I previously stated, it is in the interests of everyone involved in the beef sector that the work of the task force goes ahead. I hope all parties will agree to come together around the table as soon as possible to progress this important work.

I am aware of the legal injunctions and as a barrister, I am acutely aware of how they should be dealt with. It is incumbent upon the ABP Food Group to show some positivity and to cultivate and create a positive environment. I am aware, as the Minister may be as well, of one of the people involved in the situation in Edgeworthstown. I urge that situation now be addressed in order that a good and positive environment can be created. Workers in the industry share common cause with the beef farmers supplying cattle. Neither of those parties is getting just rewards for their efforts.

The MII organisation represents the major players in the industry and the record of engagement with workers in that industry has been depressing to date. Overtures from SIPTU concerning holding talks on behalf of the workers were rejected. Those workers labour arduously in the meat plants. The rejection of those overtures from SIPTU does not bode well for MII's willingness to engage with the beef forum. The organisation always arrives with one arm longer than the other and its sole aim is to protect its own profits and margins. MII does not give a sugar about the primary producer. One or two of the companies concerned are in a dominant position and they are abusing that position. It is about time they were taken on because they have no care for anybody but themselves.

I have previously commented on the toxic nature of the relationship between the processors and the primary producers. I had hoped that the establishment of the beef market task force, arising from all the events we can recall during the summer of discontent, would mark a new departure. That is because, in the long term, it is not sustainable to have an industry survive and prosper without good relationships between the primary producers and the processors. Key to that is the convening of the task force at the earliest possible date.

I acknowledge Deputy Penrose's expertise in the law. I had some engagement this morning with protestors who felt that I could unilaterally waive the injunctions. I know Deputy Penrose is well aware of how the law works and that those injunctions are not the property of this Department. We have no locus standi in respect of going to court to seek the lifting of those injunctions. I agree with Deputy Penrose, however, that the company involved should see the bigger picture. That will be a part of the resolution of the toxic nature of the relationship. We need to start building bridges, to reach out and move outside of our comfort zones to get these round-table talks up and running. All parties have co-operated bilaterally regarding the progress made. Let us take the next step and meet in plenary session at the earliest possible date. That is what I committed to trying to achieve.

Deputy Penrose has 30 seconds for his final supplementary question.

It is very hard to retreat and they have been cheerled by too many in this House in the past. I was not one of the people cheerleading, thank God. Regarding beef producer organisations, how many applications have been received and how many have been processed? Will the Minister ensure that they are set up with such a structure that they do not start running from Billy to Jack when somebody gets an extra cent here or there? Those organisations should be legally sound and give farmers strength and muscle to take on those boys once and for all once the beef task force is up and running. A difficult situation lies ahead of us. I know many of the people protesting outside but at the end of the day, the Minister cannot deal with 100 different voices looking for 100 different solutions. That is why the beef task force is the only way forward now.

I have always stated that the strength of the industry is in collaboration with the general agrifood industry. While that principle is strongly established in other enterprises, it is problematic in the beef sector and the task force is critical to building that new departure for the industry. That is what we are trying to do. Turning to the issue of producer organisations, I acknowledge the point Deputy Penrose made about discipline. Those organisations are only as effective as they are disciplined regarding their membership. There will, inevitably, be an effort to peel off suppliers and that would undermine effectiveness. We have approved two producer organisations. There have been other inquiries but none has been approved yet.