Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Report on Developments in EU: Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine

2:15 pm

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Longford-Westmeath, Labour)
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I congratulate the Secretary General and wish him well in his very important position in terms of the development of agriculture in this country. I refer to the Russian ban. Can Mr. O'Driscoll give an outline as to the impact to date of the ban on the various Irish agricultural sectors and on the particular sectors affected? It appears to me that the agricultural component of the TTIP negotiations appears to be played down to its detriment. It appears to be regarded as small beer in the context of the Americans and everyone else. The powerful industrial lobbies and advocates appear to be making progress and agriculture is being relegated somewhat. That is my opinion as I look in from the outside. It is important that there is not total capitulation or capitulation to the detriment of the agricultural sector.

The industrial element of the negotiations clearly offers important and positive advantages, but there must be a balancing act, with due cognisance given to the role of agriculture.

I agree with Deputy Ó Cuív that CAP simplification is like a Benny Hill joke at this stage. I was very supportive of the idea of decoupling. In fact, I recall proposing it and being devoured by farming organisations. That is going back a while. The farming organisations did not like me for it but I took that as a badge of honour. If they liked me, I probably would lose my seat. The very essence of the notion of decoupling was that it would simplify the whole process by moving away from headage and all of that. I am very disappointed with what we have ended up with. We have seen all the consequences of the single farm payment system. The remodelled scheme that has emerged from a bureaucratic gestation evaluation is the very antithesis of simplicity.

I am particularly concerned that there is too much focus on subjectivity. I discovered all about that on 28 April when a delegation from the Department last appeared before the committee. I have a background in agriculture and am not a total gobdaw. I knew some of the witnesses' departmental colleagues back in the 1980s and am glad to see them now at the very top of the tree. Michael Hanley, managing director of Lakeland Dairies, is a former colleague of mine. Those guys are all doing a lot better than I am, thank God. In that context, I am absolutely perplexed by what has been done. It would try the patience of anybody, let alone test one's professional competence in trying to figure out the impact of such and such a thing, depending on coverage and everything else. That level of subjectivity is a recipe for further penalisation down the line. I know a bit about this from a courts perspective. When one allows that type of subjectivity into a system, it creates a range of difficulties. It is very important to have objectivity in order to prevent people from being punished.

The beef genome project is very important for the midlands and I am very supportive of the intention behind it. Twelve or 15 years ago, only one in four of our cattle was capable of penetrating the very high end of markets in Europe. I remember it well because I did a study of it. It was a disaster because we had too much of a milk breed, Holstein crosses and everything else. Coming from a beef area, I could see the disaster that was coming and could not understand how it was allowed to persist for so long. We eventually changed tack and put some shape on it. This system has put the final cap on it but, Lord save us and bless us, there is a great deal of confusion. I have a brother working in this area who will have to employ another person if he is to ensure there are no slip-ups on this thing. Senator O'Neill asked whether the six-year term is fixed and immutable. Getting the breeding right is important; I have no hang-ups about that. However, Senator O'Neill is in the game and he understands the impact of going from five-star back to three-star or whatever.

I am deeply concerned that things are hedged in bureaucracy and there is only one outcome, namely, bureaucratic evaluation down the road and penalties arising. It is the consumer who suffers in that and, in this case, the consumer is the farmer. The Department has sent out information about re-evaluations - the eye in the sky, as I call it - whereby ordinary farmers down the country are obliged to make submissions to the Department.

These can be submitted to Portlaoise for review. How many of these reviews have been successful? I appreciate Mr. O'Driscoll may not have the exact number but I would like a rough estimate or a percentage. Is it 20%, 30% or 40%? I understand significant progress is being made on the replies. One farmer told me the reply did not tally with what he was looking at. It is important people are given fair wind and are given an opportunity to reject what may well have come from the eye in the sky. No matter how fine technology is there is nothing better than being on the ground. A farmer knows every blade of grass and rock outcrop. I am concerned that they get fair wind and an opportunity to deal with the review. Retroactivity was mentioned. From a constitutional perspective, laws should only act prospectively. European law is great, with legitimate expectation and everything else, but it has allowed this measure to sneak in whereby the authorities can go back for as long as they like. There does not even seem to be a statute of limitations.