Thursday, 12 July 2012
Last week, we asked the Government to act on the flooded Shannon region as farmers in this particular region have been badly hit. Farmers and agricultural contractors throughout Ireland are extremely concerned about their livelihoods as a result of the persistent bad weather. Silage has not been cut, cattle cannot graze, production costs have increased, milk production has dramatically decreased, crops have been affected and beef prices were pulled this week by the factories. June was the wettest month on record, which will cost the farming community approximately €160 million. The weather is extremely bad and is crippling farmers' ability to make a decent living.
It took farmers almost three years to trade out of the disastrous year of 2009. The response from the Government has been shamefully inadequate. The only response last week from the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, was to bring the single farm payment forward to October. Every Deputy in this House knows that the single farm payment has since inception been paid in October. As such, what the Minister has done is nothing new.
Our economy depends hugely on our farming and agricultural community. Ministers have rightly boasted about its success in terms of export-led growth. The Government needs to take this matter seriously, take a more proactive role and put in place more practical supports for troubled farmers. The Minister must meet with suppliers and merchants and demand more flexibility given the challenges of the disastrous weather. Also, the farming by calendar year needs to be urgently reviewed.
Has the Minister made any request for supplementary funding to in some way alleviate the plight of farmers in this country? Has he even requested that the single farm payment be paid earlier than October?
I agree with Deputy Moynihan on two matters, the first of which is the huge of importance of agriculture to the Irish economy. There has been a strong performance in recent times by the agriculture and, in particular, the food sector, which has enormous potential for job creation. Much of Ireland's strong export performance in recent times is due to the performance of our agriculture and food sector. We take considerable satisfaction in the fact that as a country we are now producing enough food to feed ten times our population, with the obvious implications of this for our export performance.
I agree also with the Deputy that the recent spell of very bad weather is creating huge problems for farmers in terms of the flooding of land and difficulties in harvesting and managing their farms. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is particularly concerned about this and has for that reason decided to bring the single farm payment forward by six weeks to October.
It is also the reason the Government is giving particular attention, in the context of the discussions currently taking place on the multi-annual financial framework for the European budget, to the importance of the Common Agricultural Policy and payments associated with it. The difficulties being experienced by farmers as a result of the weather is exercising the work of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and is something which the Government fully understands.
While the smoke screen in terms of the Government bringing forward to October the single farm payment may appear a good activation measure it does not cod any member of the farming community. It is taken as a given every year that the first tranche of single farm payments will be made in October. We cannot continue to allow this sector to be hampered in this way. All farmers want to do is earn a decent living. Farmers need to take a more proactive role.
The Government should cease the notion of the single farm payment being made in October, which is taken as a given. The Government and Minister need to have discussions with officials in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine around the cessation of all inspections during the next couple of months. Farmers are at the end of their tether in terms of management of inspections.
I also ask the Minister to deal with merchants and ask for flexibility. He should also have immediate discussions with the banks to ask them for leniency for farmers and agricultural contractors who have seen the worst year on record.
There is a bit of a tone of that from the Opposition this morning. There is very bad weather at the moment which is having an impact on farming as we all understand. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine is in close contact with the farming community and farming organisations to discuss the best way to deal with that. However, the Fianna Fáil Party suggestion to have a complete cessation of inspections is simply not possible. There is a legal requirement to have a minimum number of inspections so that payments will be made. Suspending inspections would mean the payments could not be made. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine has made arrangements to bring forward the single farm payment. The route suggested by Fianna Fáil would result in huge complications and in all probability the cessation of payments, which is something the Government will not countenance.
The Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine will continue to keep in close contact with the farming organisations and the farming community about the impact of the bad weather on farming at present. If we take this in its totality, it is fair to say that in the lifetime of this Government we have seen an enormous improvement in agricultural output and in the performance of farming, and very close co-operation between the Government, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine and the farming organisations.
Last night, we heard ten minutes of legal bluster from a bumbling Minister for Health during which he failed to answer some fundamental questions. The appearance of his name in Stubbs Gazette is as a result of him breaching an order of the High Court, yet the Minister has given no indication as to when he will comply with that order. The Minister also directly contradicted his own register of interests as a Deputy. In his SIPO declaration he stated that he transferred his nursing home interests to a blind trust and yet we now know from the Minister's own mouth last night that this declaration was untrue.
This is not a court of law. The Minister has made a statement and the Deputy cannot accuse him of improper behaviour during any parliamentary question. There are other ways of dealing with the matter and if the Deputy cares to contact the officials, they will advise him how to do so. Please refrain from accusing the Minister of something when he is not here to defend himself.
From his statement last night it appears that from the time the Minister took office in March 2011 up to 12 January 2012, he was in breach of SIPO guidelines. Does the Tánaiste agree that SIPO should now investigate the matter? The Minister, Deputy Reilly, has not dispelled the concerns we have regarding his conflict of interest. He is presiding over hundreds of bed closures in the public nursing sector while being an acknowledged stakeholder in a private residential care home. Does the Tánaiste share these concerns regarding the Minister's conflict of interest?
The Minister for Health made a statement to the House about those matters last night. I accept that statement. The issue of any Member of the House having private business interests is not new. We have procedures as to how that is to be addressed. There is a procedural requirement for a declaration to be made to SIPO which applies to every Member of the House. There is a requirement in respect of officeholders not to take an active involvement in their business affairs. There is a way in which they put that at arm's length while they are holders of office. The Minister for Health described how he had done that in the course of his statement last night. He also informed the House that he had sought the advice of SIPO, as is appropriate for him to do, and that he had complied with that advice. I accept that statement. Regarding issues of conflict of interest, there are rules which govern the way in which all of that is to be dealt with. It is the procedure for declaration and the procedure whereby Ministers do not have an involvement in any private business matter while an officeholder. Where there is any doubt about any of those issues or where any individual officeholder or Member of the House is in doubt, the place to go is to SIPO for advice, which is what the Minister did on this occasion.
A number of questions remain unanswered. The Minister for Health is attempting to sell his share in a private for-profit nursing home while at the same time decisions he is making are resulting in the closure of public nursing home beds, which will have an impact on the value of that share. Does the Tánaiste still have full confidence in a Minister for Health who is in breach of a High Court order?
The Deputy cannot have it both ways. He cannot on the one hand say there is a conflict of interest and on the other hand that he is disposing of the interest he has in the property concerned.
That is on the public record and he has made that clear. Yes, I have confidence in the Minister for Health as I do in all the Ministers who serve in this Government.
The Government has a tendency to let the banks run the show when all they have done is put us in the glass coffin of recession. Perhaps the Government would be better served by concerning itself with actual bread and butter issues. The Department of Finance is providing for the introduction of basic payment accounts and has decided in its wisdom - we all know how the wise men in Merrion Street delivered us into the bank guarantee - to ignore the safe pair of hands and the option that people trust every day, the post office. Instead it has opted to pilot the basic payment accounts through those reliable and well-oiled machines, the banks. In effect it would seem that the 17% of people who do not have a bank account are being corralled into the banks while the State ignores the tried and trusted post office network which is in situ. At the same time the Department of Social Protection intends to move to 100% electronic payments for social welfare benefits and implement this strategy with none other than the banks again. I remind the Tánaiste of a well-known nugget of information, which is that most people do not trust their banks. The post office is a trusted part of our communities and can provide the basic account in a way that will provide the easiest access for everyone and continue to allow people to get their payments in their local post office. Post offices provide a significant social fabric. Put simply, the post office service is a perfect way to roll out this account. This would also help to ensure the continued operation of many rural post offices by growing the services that they can provide.
Can the Tánaiste explain why the post offices are not included in this pilot programme despite common logic pointing to their inclusion? Does he intend to include post offices in the rollout of basic payment accounts?
My understanding is that An Post will be involved in all of this. The position in An Post is changing. The number of people who use the postal services of An Post has been declining and, clearly, it has to develop new business to ensure that the company has a viable and successful future. My understanding is that there have been discussions between the banks and An Post with regard to joint venture products which would meet the requirement the Deputy is raising. I am aware, for example, that AIB and An Post have recently been working on a joint venture product. That type of approach, as I understand it, would meet the difficulty the Deputy has raised.
I am glad the Tánaiste said that An Post will be included in this rollout but it is my information that it is not included in the pilot programme and the programme is being rolled out directly through the banks. When the bank are retrenching and closing branches across the country, it is vital that people who do not have access to bank accounts have access to a basic account in their local communities and the network that can provide that is the An Post system. I ask the Tánaiste check that An Post will be included in this rollout.
As a shareholder, the Irish people have the right to insist that An Post provides this vital service. The cost incurred by people who do not have a bank account can be more than €1,000 a year. We need a system that is trusted and tried and tested and the inclusion of An Post in the programme is the way to do that. I ask the Tánaiste to make sure that An Post is included in this rollout.
I agree that people who do not have bank accounts need to be looked after and a way needs to be found to ensure that they get their payments and that they are not, as the Deputy said, corralled into banks in which they do not have accounts. I will examine what the Deputy has raised. It is not unreasonable that An Post should be involved in the end product. I will have the issue examine and will return directly to the Deputy on it.