Dáil debates

Thursday, 19 January 2023

Agricultural and Food Supply Chain Bill 2022: Second Stage (Resumed)


3:25 pm

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. It is long overdue. My colleagues and I in the Rural Independent Group introduced a motion as far back as 2020 calling for more transparency in the beef sector and fairness for our family farms to protect them and ensure their survival. We know the family farm got us through the bleakest times in this country. We know it certainly kept the lights on in rural Ireland. It remains the backbone of rural Ireland, but the way farmers have been treated for decades has been nothing other than shameful. It is high time, therefore, that robust legislation was introduced to ensure reasonable objectives, namely that farmers will achieve a fair price for high-quality purchase and that they will not be left in circumstances in which they cannot plan or go forward on their farms. Farms are businesses and involve planning, so it is only right that they get fair play. This is long overdue. The farming organisations and people who protested to achieve fairness deserve great credit today. I acknowledge all their efforts. The farming organisations raised these matters with all Deputies from time to time.

I acknowledge the constructive and positive engagement I have had with the head of the unfair trading practices enforcement authority within the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Mr. Noel Collins, and his staff. They have always responded to my inquiries promptly and comprehensively. In June last year, the enforcement authority informed me that although the number of complaints it had received to that date was relatively low, it was not surprising given the perceived fear factor that comes with making a complaint. Unfortunately, this is very real. We have all heard it from farmers. What I wanted to clarify with Mr. Collins and his team was why so few farmers and producers were engaging with the new trading protections regime. I also wanted to clarify the kind of response received from the five major multiples. At that point, the authority had received just six complaints, but four of these were outside the scope of the unfair trading practices regulations and two were still at scoping assessment stage. That is an issue I would like addressed to make clear to farmers and producers the exact remit of the new agency. There are many questions still to be answered. I hope the Minister will clear them all up.

This is a new regime. As such, a process of education around rights is vital to ensure widespread engagement. I say that because it was also made clear to me in June that there was still significant concern and even fear among farmers and producers when it came to having their rights vindicated or protected by the authority. I accept that the unfair trading practices enforcement authority engaged with farmers actively and constructively to try to address their concerns. I warmly welcome that. It is a step forward. Indeed, in the authority's response to my queries on this matter, it stated clearly it would use every power available to it to ensure any threat or act of retaliation by a buyer arising from a supplier exercising its legal rights would result in the strongest sanctions against the buyer. That is the key message we need to get out. We need to instil confidence in farmers that this will be a robust regime they can welcome.

I also welcome the fact that there is now at least an attempt to address certain issues concerning payments made later than 60 days for agricultural and food products, short-notice cancellations of perishable agricultural and food products and unilateral contract changes by the buyer. This may be of value to horticultural operators, in particular. They continue to struggle with the many crises affecting their sector due to the lack of effective peat alternatives. We hope to see some movement in addressing and preventing the risk of loss and deterioration being transferred to the supplier and the refusal of written confirmation of a supply agreement by the buyer despite the request of the supplier.

On a related issue, I am aware that the enforcement authority required major multiples to submit implementation reports, which should provide evidence of how they are ensuring compliance with the new regulations. However, I want that aspect of oversight strengthened, and I am sure farmers also want that.

I am aware that buyers had to nominate a compliance officer to deal with the enforcement authority. I can only assume this will continue under the new regime. In talking about agricultural products, I condemn the disgraceful attack on Irish agriculture. Dublin Bus is parading misleading advertisements on its buses. I ask Deputy McConalogue, as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to stand up for Irish farmers and the agriculture sector. He is in government with Deputy Eamon Ryan, the Minister for Transport. I implore the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to ensure the Government intervenes urgently and condemns what is happening, because it is just not right. Farmers continue to struggle. They continue to struggle for a fair price, and now they are facing more attacks. It has to stop.


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