Thursday, 24 February 2005
Land Bill 2004 [Seanad]: Second Stage.
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am delighted to present the Land Bill 2004, which was passed by Seanad Éireann last October. This Land Bill is designed to achieve several objectives. The main thrust of what I propose is a further and final, equitable means to address long-standing difficulties with the collection of land purchase annuities. I want to resolve the ongoing accrual of land annuity arrears by providing for a reduction in the numbers of land purchase annuities, and more effective collection of any remaining annuities in the future.
I propose a write-off or buy-out offer for annuitants, which will be of direct financial benefit to thousands of farmers. I also want to make it easier for trustees of general and sporting trusts to transfer trust land without having to bear the legal and financial responsibilities themselves. I intend to reduce red tape by providing for greater administrative operational flexibility and reducing some of the expense involved in completing land transfers.
To put these measures in context it is important to give some historical background. The Irish Land Commission was established in 1881. It was originally a rent fixing body, but its main business became that of facilitating transfer of freehold ownership of land from landlords to their tenants. It examined the landlord's title, paid him or her the purchase money and vested the freehold interest in the occupying tenants.
As many tenants did not have access to sources of capital to pay for the land, the concept of the land purchase annuity was introduced. Capital was provided to tenants by the former Land Commission and repaid by the tenant owner by way of an annuity spread over a term of years.
These capital advances or mortgages played a very important part in bringing about tenant ownership of agricultural land. The Land Commission radically altered the face of rural Ireland. In the process, the juxtaposition of the absentee or powerful landlord against the powerless agricultural tenant was fundamentally changed. Tenants became owners of their land and ongoing structural reform improved the re-arrangement and enlargement of holdings. Overall two thirds of the land in the State, some 5 million hectares, changed ownership with the assistance of the Land Commission, a body with which the issues of land ownership and land reform are synonymous.
By the early 1980s it was generally accepted that the Land Commission had achieved its primary objectives. Accordingly, it was decided to terminate acquisition of further land and actively dispose of the remaining lands on hand. The Land Commission was eventually dissolved by the Irish Land Commission (Dissolution) Act of 1992, which came into effect on 31 March 1999.
Since the transfer of the Land Commission functions to the Department of Agriculture and Food, officials have continued to wind up the affairs of the former Land Commission. This Bill is a further step in that task. The measures in this Bill deal primarily with better administration of annuities; easing the transfer of trust lands; reducing bureaucracy and reducing the cost of conveyancing transactions for all agricultural land.
I am pleased this Bill meets one of the commitments to the farming sector in the partnership process under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness and the Sustaining Progress Agreement. In bringing forward this Bill, the Government is fulfilling the commitment to introduce a Land Bill on the operation of land purchase annuities and the management of former Land Commission lands.
One of the principal aspects of the Bill is the land purchase annuity write-off in section 2. I propose to make legal provision for the write-off of all annuities of €200 per annum or less. As a result of this provision two thirds of all existing annuities will be written off. The measure will benefit more than 4,500 annuitants at a cost to the Exchequer of approximately €4 million an average write-off of nearly €1,000 per farmer. The good news for some 4,500 farmers is that they will no longer be liable for further half yearly payments to the Department and their land will not have the burden of an annuity attached to it.
Under the Sustaining Progress agreement, the Government committed to reducing the burden of the land purchase annuities. By introducing this provision, I am going far beyond the Government commitment, as I am removing the burden altogether for two thirds of all annuitants. In section 3, I propose a further incentive to encourage the remaining farmers who have land purchase annuities to take the final step towards fully owning their land and finally achieving the primary objective of the former Land Commission namely, tenant ownership of agricultural holdings, that is, full unburdened title to the land with all the advantages that full ownership entails.
When this is enacted, a scheme will be introduced to allow those farmers with land purchase annuities of more than €200 per annum to buy them out. Some 2,300 farmers will be able to avail of this concession, to redeem their annuities at a substantial discount of 25%, subject to their annuity payments being up to date. The scheme will operate for six months, starting in the spring and ending in late autumn of 2005. Precise dates have not been set.
The Department does not require clear title from farmers, who wish to avail of the buy-out scheme. Those annuitants, however, who wish to raise finance to avail of this offer may need to show clear title to their bank or other financial institution in order to obtain a loan. These farmers will have, in effect, a timeframe of almost 12 months to regularise their title affairs and I urge them to attend to this without delay.
The Department will contact each annuitant personally in due course to advise him or her of the scheme. The farming organisations can also play their part by drawing their members' attention to this offer. The yield to the Exchequer as a result of this measure could be as much as €18 million, depending on the numbers who avail of the buy-out scheme. This measure has the capacity to alleviate an existing debt problem for certain farmers and improve the financial situation of most annuitants. I encourage farmers to consider what is a final offer very carefully. It is, however, just an offer. Those annuitants who wish to continue to pay their half-yearly instalments to the Department, on time, can continue to do so. Farmers should discuss the attractive benefits of this offer with their financial advisers with a view to obtaining capital to pay their purchase annuity redemption price and improving their overall financial position.
In addition to reducing the number of annuities it is necessary to provide greater control measures for the future collection of annuities owed, in the interests of the taxpayer. As part of this initiative on annuity compliance, section 4 makes legal provision to set off any grant or single payment entitlements due to farmers by the Department, against annuity payments that are owed and not discharged. Before these set-off provisions will be utilised, there will be a comprehensive consultation process with the annuitant concerned. These powers will not be applied without notice being given to the annuitant and in a proportionate manner, if applied. Furthermore, section 5 provides that individuals with land purchase annuities will be required to present a certificate of compliance to the Land Registry in cases where they propose to dispose of all or part of any land subject to an annuity. The Department will furnish such certificates only where arrears outstanding have been cleared or, preferably, the entire annuity redeemed. I will deal sympathetically with cases where sites are being transferred to family members without financial consideration.
I also propose in section 6 to amend section 28 of the 1933 Land Act. The new provision will enable the Department to recover payment of arrears of annuities from defaulters by way of application to the courts, in cases where such moneys are not recoupable, except through payment owed to the defaulter by third parties. The proposal will provide that a warrant issued under section 28 of the 1933 Land Act may take the form of an attachment of debts by garnishee order or the appointment of a receiver by equitable execution, following an application to the court. Being facetious, I advise it is best to stay out of the court and take up the offer. That would make life simple for all of us.
These improved collection measures will not be implemented without a prior attempt to come to some voluntary arrangement with individuals regarding their arrears position. Every case will be dealt with on its merits and there will be genuine consultation and a sympathetic approach adopted by the Department in bringing about payment resolution by consensus. It is not the intention of this legislation to bring about hardship for annuitants and the ability to pay will be taken into account.
I want to resolve the problem of land annuity arrears. These control measures are designed so that action can be taken against individuals who refuse to pay for the land, which they purchased through the former Land Commission and who have consistently failed to discharge their repayment commitments. It is worth pointing out that currently there are 49 cases amounting to almost €1 million in arrears.
The total amount of annuity arrears owed to my Department amount to approximately €5 million. In summary, the write-off and buy-out incentives would be rendered meaningless if they were not accompanied by new powers to safeguard the taxpayers' interests. We must ensure that all revenues outstanding are paid.
I turn now to the next element of the Bill dealing with easing the transfer of trust land. This is land held in trust under the Land Acts, usually for sporting or general community purposes. I propose to simplify conveyancing procedures to ease the transfer of title ownership, by removing the legal and financial burdens from trustees. There were approximately 500 of these local trusts set up by the Land Commission, some of which have been disposed of over the years. Local GAA and other sports clubs use almost half of these trusts. The balance is mainly turbary trusts and cow-park trusts, which were established to provide some communal land for keeping animals by those in rural communities who did not actually own agricultural holdings.
In the case of the sporting trusts, because the sporting organisations using the trust lands do not own the property, they are reluctant to commit to significant development of, or investment in, the trust property. As a result, many properties are not maximising their potential benefit to the community in which they are situated. The measure I propose should greatly facilitate the legal transfer of these lands from trust to actual user ownership, which should allow greater development of these sporting and other local amenity facilities, and ultimately benefit the whole community. There may be as many as 200 trusts interested in availing of this measure and I recommend that other trusts should also consider the benefits this measure offers.
Vesting orders are the means by which the Department transfers land into the ownership of the person or persons named in the order. Section 28 of the Land Act 1931 currently provides for publication in the prescribed manner, which is costly, onerous, cumbersome and ultimately results in delays. I propose a technical change to be made to legislation governing the publication of vesting orders by repealing and replacing section 28, with a requirement to publish only a notice of the making of such orders while still continuing to forward copies of the vesting order to the individuals concerned or their legal representatives. This will lead to speedier transfer of land and administrative improvements.
At present, certain statutory instruments, known as rules under the Land Acts may only be made following the convening of the rules committee. When this provision was introduced, the Land Commission was separate to the Department. Its workload was heavy and it was sensible for all relevant parties to meet and consider new proposals. However, since the dissolution of the Land Commission, there is little point in having a law that specifies that two officials, the Secretary General of my Department and an assistant secretary, must meet the President of the High Court before a statutory instrument is made. I propose to amend section 3 (1) of the Land Act 1933 and remove the necessity of having to convene meetings of the rules committee, in favour of my Department consulting the President of the High Court or his nominee, as Judicial Commissioner and the President of the Law Society, before making rules under the Land Acts.
On the advice of the Office of the Attorney General, I propose to make amendments of a technical nature in sections 10 and 11. In section 10, I propose to provide a statutory base for Government decisions made in 1989 and 1992, whereby small amounts in respect of land purchase annuities-land reclamation annuities were written off. At the time, the write-off was introduced on an administrative basis, but as annuities have a legal base it is prudent to provide a legal basis for the write-off. There are no implications for the beneficiaries and the measure is merely to provide legal certainty.
In regard to section 11, I propose to provide a statutory basis for the Government decision in 1992, which approved concessions to land purchase-land reclamation annuity payers where they were offered the opportunity to buy out their annuities at a discount. However, there was no provision in existing legislation authorising the Minister to accept less than the full amount to buy out such annuities. In order to provide this, it is necessary to introduce this measure in the Bill. As with section 10, there are no implications for the beneficiaries of the measure except it confirms their position in law.
On subdivision control of agricultural land, it is proposed to repeal section 12 of the Land Act 1965. The control on the division, letting or leasing of agricultural land was first introduced when the former Land Commission was primarily concerned with the elimination of congestion and fragmentation of agricultural holdings. The Commission achieved the enlargement, consolidation and re-arrangement of holdings to a viable size, through the compulsory acquisition of land and its subsequent re-allotment. Subdivision control was a logical concomitant to the process of enlarging and maintaining such holdings in order to prevent landowners from disposing of their property in a manner incompatible with the State's agricultural policy. As long as the former Land Commission was active in redistributing land, there was logic in controlling any increase in the number of smallholdings whose owners could then join the long queue of applicants for Land Commission land.
The State policy of enlarging holdings was aimed at creating viable farming units. It was a policy that was appropriate for its time as it was logical for the State to protect its investment by controlling the indiscriminate division of holdings. As the State is no longer engaged in acquiring and redistributing land, there is no need for continuing sub-division control. In fact, time has shown that economic factors lead to the consolidation of holdings, rather than their continued subdivision, as evidenced by the increasing size of farms in the State. Let me provide an example. In 1973, the average farm size was 23 hectares. By 2002, it had increased to 32 hectares, an increase of almost 40%. As a result, the granting of consent has now become a formality and in no case in recent years has consent been withheld. However, as section 12 of the Land Act 1965 has not been repealed, solicitors for landowners, who wish to subdivide or lease their land, must still apply to the Department for consent, giving rise to more than 15,000 applications per year to the Department and additional costs for the landowners. The abolition of subdivision control will save landowners legal and other costs involved in making subdivision applications. In addition, there will be a visible benefit in the reduction of administrative time incurred by staff in issuing the relevant section 12 consents.
It is proposed to repeal section 45 of the Land Act 1965. For historical and cultural reasons, foreign investment in land, particularly non-resident foreign investment in the State, was a sensitive issue. Prior to the Second World War, there was no restriction on the purchase of land in the State by non-nationals. However, after the war, primarily due to changes in the tax laws in the United Kingdom, there were increasing purchases of agricultural land by non-nationals. This trend met with strong resistance from owners of small uneconomic farms who had hoped to acquire, with the assistance of the former Land Commission, the lands being bought by non-nationals. Section 45 consent was introduced as a result of this pressure and the rationale was to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of land to Irish nationals and long-term residents and to prevent the creation of a class of non-resident landowners.
In practice, a section 45 consent is required in all agricultural land purchases, which is all land except that which is wholly situated in a county borough, a borough, an urban district or a town. Consent is not required where agricultural land is being purchased by a class of persons known as "qualified persons" as specified in section 45 of the Act. For example, an Irish citizen or someone who has been resident in the State for a period of seven years is deemed to be a qualified person. On Ireland's entry into the European Community, it became obvious that the restrictions on purchases of land by non-nationals, or more specifically by nationals of other member states, imposed by section 45, were contrary to our freedom of movement and establishment obligations under the Treaty of Rome. As a consequence, various statutory instruments have over the years extended the categories of qualifying individuals for whom consent was not necessary. These changes and the cessation of land acquisition by the former Land Commission in the early 1980s further reduced any justification for withholding section 45 consent, so much so that the issue of consent has become a formality. No applications have been refused for several years, but because the section has never been repealed, some 300 applications are received and processed each year. More importantly, in conveyancing transactions solicitors have to establish the nationality of their client, insert the appropriate nationality certificate in the deed of purchase or, in limited cases, apply for a formal consent for their clients and perhaps charge their clients accordingly.
I want to end this unnecessary red tape and bureaucratic expense in checking nationality for the small number of non-qualified persons or companies seeking a consent. Nationality certificates will no longer be required in deeds of purchase for any land purchased in the State. Section 13 contains the Short Title, construction, collective citation and commencement date.
The proposals in the Bill provide for a potential contribution to the Exchequer by way of a capital lump sum being paid to it, will significantly reduce the burden of land purchase annuities for a significant number of farmers and reduce the administrative burdens on the Department permitting staff to be redeployed to more urgent and productive areas.
The proposals in the Bill also provide for the removal of the burden of annuities for many farmers, better administration of land annuities, simpler vesting of trust land and rule making and a significant reduction of bureaucracy and costs involved in completing land transfers. For all those reasons I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It is a long time coming and is welcome. The Bill requires dramatic amendment but I accept and welcome the principle of it.
Before dealing with the content of the Bill, I compliment the 33 staff who work in the lands division. As public representatives we have all had dealings with the lands divisions in Cavan and with regional inspectors on numerous occasions. We have examined issues to improve the public service delivered. Many civil servants could take a leaf out of the book of the staff in the lands division, whether they be the staff in Farnham Road in Cavan or the regional inspectors, in terms of the manner in which they deal with queries from public representatives. It has always been a pleasure to deal with those staff.
However, a major difficulty is the inadequate resources available to them. On average there are fewer than one and a half staff members per county to deal with the number of queries concerning the processing of applications. There have been numerous instances where young people building houses on applying for a mortgage have found that they do not have the proper title and the application is held up in Cavan, although the staff there have been extremely proactive in addressing that problem.
To pick up on one of the Minister's final points, I hope that the staff in the lands division will not be redeployed but that they will be reallocated to address the huge mess in regard to the issue of title. The transfer of title causes major delays in the processing of applications.
As the Minister stated, the Land Commission was originally established in 1881 as rent fixing body under the Land Law (Ireland) Act of that year. It subsequently developed into a tenant purchase agency and purchased 13.5 million acres of land for tenants. Eventually the commission embarked on a countrywide programme of land structural reform but, as we are all aware, that was not without controversy. There were significant controversies.
Some people allege that the dormant accounts fund, which we discussed earlier when dealing with the Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill, will become a political slush fund, but the Land Commission was its predecessor in that respect and significant allegations to that effect have been made over the years. The fact that the commission's acquisition of land ceased in 1983 was a positive development. Such acquisition restricted farmers who genuinely wanted to expand their operations. In many cases, the Land Commission stepped in prior to sales being closed and deals being done.
While such acquisition facilitated small farmers, which must be acknowledged, it restricted more progressive farmers who wanted to expand their enterprises. There were a number of controversies over compulsory acquisition of land where land was leased. I know of one family of three sisters who lived quite close to my home who leased land. That was one of their sources of income at that point, but the Land Commission stepped in because that land was being leased. However, it annoyed and hurt the family in question that the tenants who received that land subsequently let it to the individual who had been renting from the sisters in the first instance and nothing seemed to have been done about it. There have been other similar instances over the years.
This legislation is long overdue. The Government gave a commitment in 1993 under a partnership agreement to address this issue, but it has taken 12 years for this legislation to be introduced. Sustaining Progress contained a commitment to ease the burden experienced by farmers who were paying land annuities. This legislation does not address that core principle. While the Bill attempts to bring forward measures to cut the existing number of land annuities and it provides for those with annuities of under €200 per annum threshold, it fails to address the core element of people with outstanding annuities. The issue of annuities will not be resolved by the Bill. The discharge of the land purchase annuities for those with annuities of €200 per annum is a positive development that will benefit approximately 4,500 farmers. The majority of these holdings are small in size and the annuities attaching to them are very old.
It has been calculated that the staff costs involved in collecting the full capital sum of these annuities, if paid on time over the next 14 year period, would roughly equal the amount to be collected. There is a great deal of paperwork involved in collecting annuities. If this measure is taken up, it would eliminate much of the paperwork involved. If the current costs of recovery and staff costs I outlined are correct, it is uneconomic to collect annuities of under €200 per annum. Surely it makes economic sense to propose a write-off of annuities of under €500 per annum. It is not uneconomic to collect those annuities now, but with additional collection costs in coming years, such a write-off would make economic sense.
This system is still paper-based and will continue to be if there is a significant uptake of this measure because it does not make economic sense to computerise the system. Will the Minister to re-examine the threshold proposed? It would not involve a massive cost to increase the threshold from annuities of €200 per annum to those of €500 per annum, but the savings from doing that would be significant and result in a return that would make such an extension of the measure cost neutral.
The second and probably the most controversial element of the Bill is in regard to farmers with annuities of more than €200 per annum who will be able to redeem them at a discount of25%, subject to all outstanding arrears being paid in full. Those farmers will have the opportunity to buy out their land at a discount of 25%. Approximately 2,500 farmers have annuities of more than €200 per annum. If there is a full up-take of this measure, it would be yield a return of approximately €18 million to the Department and, as a result, two thirds of existing annuities would be written off.
The period of six months for the take-up of this measure is inadequate. The Minister knows that and does not need me to tell her. It is proposed to introduce it in the spring of 2005 and that it will be open up to the autumn of 2005. Either the Minister is prepared to proceed with this or she is not. If she is, the least she must do is extend the timeframe for the take up of it until the introduction of the single farm payment. That is a basic element. It would at least give people the opportunity to do that.
The Minister stated in her speech that the Department does not require title. No bank will give money to farmers unless they have title. Trying to get title is a major issue in the delays when a young couple are applying for a mortgage.
The Minister also says they must have this resolved within six to eight months if they are to avail of the discount. That is impossible. If the Minister contacts her colleague in the Department of Transport, he will tell her that the NRA retains money for property it has compulsorily purchased over the years because title still has not been sorted out. The timeframe should be extended to two years, giving farmers time to put the financial arrangements in place to allow them to buy their annuities, to tap into the single farm payment and to sort out ownership title where there are disputes or ambiguities.
The 25% reduction in the buy out price is not enough and the package needs to be more attractive if we are to have a maximum take up by farmers. The option to buy out the annuities affects 2,500 farmers and the discount should increased to 50%, as it was in 1992-93 when the buy out discount on the outstanding capital was offered to each annuitant who was not in arrears at that time. The main cohort who will take this up are people who were in arrears in 1992-93 who could not avail of the buy out clause then.
The Department is offering no assistance to those farmers with significant arrears. The last buy out scheme did not address the issue and neither will this. People who got land did so to make their farms viable. The majority were small holders who could not get loans from the bank because they would not have had adequate credit ratings. That is why they were involved with the Land Commission in the first instance. Farmers who owe significant arrears to the Department cannot participate in this buy out scheme until those arrears are paid but the Minister is giving six months to pay the arrears, six months to get the title in order and six months to raise the finance to buy it out. It is impossible.
The total amount in arrears due to the Department from farmers with annuities over €200 per annum is €3.6 million, an average of €1,565 each. There is, therefore, no reason why a flexible approach cannot be taken by the Department. The element that would have to be written off —€3.6 million — is less than the amount being written off for annuities under €200 per annum, which will cost the State €4 million. Will it cost the State any less to collect that €3.6 million over the number of years? The Minister's own debt collectors are charging a fee of 20%. If the Minister is prepared to give a private company 20% to collect the arrears, the least she could do is ensure the farmers get the same discount on their arrears if they come up with a full and final settlement. No offer is being made to them for any discount on arrears but the Minister is prepared to give it to a private company. That is unfair. At the very least they should get the same offer as is being given to private debt collectors.
The interest rates on arrears are significantly higher than rates currently available. They vary from case to case but some are as high as 18% given that they were contracted with the Land Commission in the 1970s and 1980s. No repayment is less than 11% per annum, significantly higher than rates available from the commercial banks. The loan sharks would not squeeze people as tight as the Department has done over the last number of years with significant interest rates and no assistance being given to waive the outstanding arrears.
The Department has ignored this issue for many years. It did not go out to collect the money from farmers but brought in debt collectors to do it. It is a paper based system and no financial institution still works on that basis. There is a huge financial burden just to administer this scheme that has not been fully recognised in the discount offered to farmers.
A number of things can be done for those in arrears. Agreement should be reached on a payment plan over a number of years with little or no interest. The State can borrow at the ECB rate of 2% while farmers are paying at least 11%. The farmers who currently owe significant amounts of arrears may not be able to meet these debts or be able to afford to buy into the opt out so the 25% reduction will not be available to them. The Minister should capitalise the overall debt along with the outstanding annuities and give a 25% discount on that, particularly when she is giving a private company 20% to collect the money. It is getting a commission that the Minister is not even prepared to give to farmers.
For those farmers who cannot choose to take up the offer and decide to continue to pay the annuities, the Department of Agriculture and Food must provide help and assistance to repay these debts in a structured manner.
The provisions under sections 4 and 6 twist farmers' arms to pay arrears. I was interested in the Minister's comments on this in her speech. In section 4, she states that the powers will not be applied without notice being given to the annuitant in a proportionate manner if applied but it does not say that in the Bill. If it did, we could accept it, or if she introduces an amendment on Committee Stage we will accept it, but she is not talking about that here. In the past farmers from Malin Head to Mizen Head were penalised by provisions introduced here to get the cowboys in the system. The heavy hand was not supposed to be used on genuine farmers but when the provisions were introduced, the exact opposite happened. If the Minister wants to bring in sections 4 and 6, and she is serious about giving farmers every opportunity to make repayments before invoking those sections, she should write it into the legislation rather than merely commenting in the House, because as soon as the legislation is passed there will be different interpretations of it. I hope the Minister will introduce relevant amendments.
The legislation allows the Department to claw back headage payments, premia payments and the single farm payment from farmers who have annuity debts. Many farmers are paying extortionate amounts of money for store cattle and weanlings. I do not see how they can make a profit from them. Therefore, the only income they will have this year is what they get by way of premia payments and the single farm payment, and it is that income the Minister is taking from them. Many have other loans and suppliers to pay. Could the Department feasibly take someone's farm retirement scheme payment under this legislation? Is it possible that these powers might be extended to other Departments in the future so that, for example, social welfare payments could be tied into it? The Department of Agriculture and Food is essentially talking about an attachment of earnings, taking a payment from a farmer by deducting it from moneys that are due.
The Minister will have an opportunity to speak later. We can debate this in detail on Committee Stage.
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is not prepared to do that in regard to people who have broken the law. People have gone to jail for not paying a fine imposed for not having a dog licence or a television licence — they cannot pay by instalments because the Minister will not make provision for that. However, the Minister is introducing this here to provide legal powers to support the Jensen case. The difficulty is that these are extremely extensive powers. Section 6 gives power to take money from third parties in the form of, for example, creamery cheques. This is a more extensive power than the banks currently have. It could leave farmers in severe financial difficulty, and there are no protections such as the Minister spoke about in the legislation. It is important that such protections are in place and that this power comes into play only when due and full consideration has been given to every other available avenue and the payment plans have been adopted and accepted by both parties. That is not the case. This protects the Department by supporting the decision of the European Court of Justice in the Jensen case. The purpose of this legislation is to make that decision legal in Ireland and I believe it is questionable.
Let me turn to some other elements of the Bill. The Minister mentioned that approximately 500 properties are held by local trusts set up by the Land Commission and that many properties are not maximising their potential benefit to the community in which they are located. The measure proposed by the Minister to facilitate the transfer of trust lands will be of huge benefit to GAA clubs and other sporting clubs where there has been a question over title. However, in a number of these trusts around the country there is major controversy regarding how lands have been utilised over recent years. Will this measure provide them with a blank cheque to do what they like with lands once they get the title in their name? This is something we need to tease out on Committee Stage. I want to see those lands utilised for the benefit of communities. In one town the community decided to offer the land as industrial land to attract investment and everyone in the community has benefited. In another town where an industrialist was prepared to come in, the trust refused to give any land and that town is literally dying. This issue needs to be examined in further detail and can be teased out on Committee Stage. I would not like to see the proposed measure abused but I can see how it might be of genuine benefit to a community.
The repeal of section 12 of the Bill is a positive measure because it is pointless for the Department to continue to have a role in controlling the subdivision and letting of lands.
Let me turn to section 45 of the Bill. Under EU regulations any EU or EEA national can buy land here. Therefore, the provision applies only to people from outside those areas. I have no difficulty with anybody from any part of the world buying land here, but I have a difficulty with people who buy land and then seem to believe they own the whole countryside, whether they are from the European Union or outside it, or have come down from Dublin. The Minister knows exactly what I am talking about. I have come across cases where people from Dublin come down to the country and when slurry is spread — not pig slurry but ordinary cattle slurry — they complain to the local authority and world war three breaks out. People must realise that if they are going to live in the country they must accept some of the practices there. I have no difficulty with someone coming to live in a community, but they must buy into that community and look at issues from the point of view of what is in the interests of the community rather than what is in their own interests.
Farmers need to be more conscious of planning applications in rural communities. In one instance a young man had no difficulty with someone building beside him. However, the only area where he could spread slurry was on three fields surrounding the site in question. He entered on observation on the planning file. The developer signed it and has no difficulty with slurry being spread. If he had not done that, in the context of the nitrates directive, that individual could have been in dire straits. The Department of Agriculture and Food needs to take a more proactive approach to the structure of county development plans to ensure that farmers are protected. We are not talking about an abuse of the system. If farmers break the law they should be dealt with in the same way as everyone else. However, where common agricultural practice is taking place, that should not be prohibited or farmers persecuted for it by individuals around the country.
On the provisions of the Bill generally, it is proposed to repeal and replace section 28(1) of the Land Act 1931 which relates to vesting orders. I hope this issue is simplified. Would it be possible before Committee Stage to examine the structure of the notices issued to individuals? An elderly man of 80 years of age came to me in the past couple of months when one such notice was issued to him in the post. It was like double Dutch to him so he brought it to me. I have seen many such legal documents over the years and am fairly well up to speed on such matters, but I could not decipher it. There is not much point in sending such notices. If the notice stated that somebody down the road was getting the parcel of land next door and asked whether he had an objection to it, he could make a decision. However, the notice as it is set out is indecipherable and needs to be explained in plain English.
My final request to the Minister is to recognise her staff in Farnham Road in Cavan. They are excellent, but they are currently working in extremely difficult circumstances. They should be given the additional resources they need to continue to do their job. The Ceann Comhairle is well aware of the type of work they have done in recent years. They are a credit to the Department of Agriculture and Food but should be given the resources. If not, huge problems will be caused which will restrict the implementation of the legislation given that the issue of title will not be resolved for many individuals because the Minister's officials will be unable to address it.