Thursday, 27 October 2016
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
4. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the steps being taken to support and safeguard the agri-industry from the huge risks and fallout associated with Brexit; the efforts being taken to support the beef industry which has experienced a massive drop in prices due to the fall in sterling; the steps his Department is taking to seek out alternative markets for exports of Irish agricultural products; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32509/16]
I wish to ask the Minister what steps have been taken to support and safeguard the our vital agricultural industry from the significant and unknown risks and fallout associated with Brexit. What efforts are being made to support the various sectors of the industry, such as beef, tillage, sheep, cattle, mushroom and manufacturing sectors? What steps is the Department taking to seek alternative markets for exports of Irish agricultural products? Will the Minister make a statement on the matter?
As I have said, the UK’s decision to leave the EU presents enormous challenges for the entire Irish agrifood sector, including beef where the UK accounts for some 50% of our exports. I, together with my Department, our agencies and stakeholders, have been carefully considering the potential impacts of the UK vote, looking at the areas in which the greatest risks may arise and on which we will need to focus when negotiations begin.
The uncertainty generated by the vote has had an immediate impact on sterling, even though the UK remains a full member state of the EU. The exit process will have implications for tariffs and trade, regulations and standards, customs controls and certification and, of course, the EU budget. The exit vote also raises complex issues for the fisheries sector.
Earlier this year, my Department published a summary of the key actions we are taking by way of immediate response to the UK’s decision. As I already outlined, a number of steps have been taken to ensure that a sensible and coherent approach is adopted. These include the establishment of a Brexit unit within the Department, the convening of a consultative committee of stakeholders and the establishment of a contact group under the auspices of the Food Wise 2025 high level implementation committee. The Department is also participating fully in the new sectoral work groups established by the Department of the Taoiseach, under the auspices of the interdepartmental group on Brexit, which in turn feeds into the new Cabinet committee on Brexit. The Department has chaired the first meeting of a special agrifood sub-group, which took place on 19 October.
As to the changes to euro-sterling exchange rates, a number of actions have been taken to try to mitigate these impacts. These include the provision of practical guidance to SMEs by Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland. The guidance covers areas such as managing volatility impacts, providing consumer and market insight, deepening customer engagement and extending market reach.
In addition, I announced a number of measures in budget 2017 that will financially underpin my Department's Brexit mitigation efforts through strategic investment in key areas of the Department, its agencies and the agrifood sector. This includes the €150 million loan we have just discussed.
The UK’s decision to leave the EU also reinforces the need to develop as many outlets for our agrifood products as possible, in order to minimise our dependence on any one market. As the Deputy knows, 40% of our total exports go to the United Kingdom. Therefore, we are considering new market opportunities. That is why in Food Wise 2025 we identified south-east Asia as a key market. The Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, and I visited the region.
I am going to north Africa next week to look at new market opportunities, in particular live exports which might be beneficial to the current difficult trading situation in the sector, for example. These activities will continue into the future, as they play a key role in our efforts to provide as many markets as possible for Irish agrifood products.
I am extremely concerned, as are all rural Deputies. Every day we meet farmers and those with small businesses who are involved in the agricultural sector. They are bewildered as to what is happening. On top of the poor harvest and the price of milk for over the past two years, there are issues with beef and there is devastation in the mushroom industry. The Minister used phrases like "managing the volatility". That is not much good if people do not have money to pay their bills. I have worked in the industry, and I know there are people in it who have always paid their bills and have a proud record of doing so. We need more than platitudes and fancy words.
I mean no disrespect to the Minister, but we need a Minister for Brexit because as he knows 75% of the jobs outside of Dublin are associated with agriculture. The Minister referred to the fact that 43% of exports go to the UK. What are we going to do? The UK is looking for a hard Border. There are major issues. We need more action. I am not asking the Minister to try to manage the volatility of the situation. People cannot manage volatility if they do not have money in their pockets but have bills to pay, a family to rear and everything else to do. We need the Minister to do a lot more than that.
I am on the record as having said there is no upside to Brexit for the agricultural sector. That continues to be the case, and the more anybody analyses it, the more apparent it becomes. There is a naive simplicity to the suggestion that a Minister for Brexit would solve all of the problems. Indeed, some of those who shouted loudest for that have not made an appointment with the spokesperson for Brexit.
Leaving aside my Department, if one had relations who worked in the UK for a time under the current regulations they can combine their social insurance contributions. Brexit impacts on social welfare, health and education. It is far too big for any one Minister. It is a whole-of-Government issue. That is the level at which it is being dealt with given its significance and importance.
The most difficult job anybody in the Government has is working on a cross-departmental basis and trying to co-ordinate a specific issue. This issue is so big it embraces all sectors of the Irish economy. That why it is being dealt with by the Government and the Department of the Taoiseach.
Agencies are doing good work, in particular in helping smaller food companies. Large companies can hedge and manage better than small companies. It is the job of bodies such as Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland to hold their clients hands and assist them in innovative ways in order to mitigate the worst excesses. It is a very challenging situation and we are providing more resources to the agencies for next year.
The Minister has but I am not the one who is shouting the loudest for a Minister for Brexit. I am looking for a full Government response and a full acceptance and understanding of how serious the situation is. In the limited amount of time I have to speak, I will ask specifically about Tipperary where the mushroom industry is the largest, outside of Monaghan. The producers there are being wiped out. They were struggling with the competition from Poland and other countries. Those mushroom producers could not make ends meet or make any reasonable modicum of profit. Some have been completely wiped out. We have lost two already quite close to me in south Tipperary and many more are unable to hold on. Reference was made to recruiting extra staff in the agencies. That will not solve this because when would they be recruited and with what expertise? We need swift and dedicated action to save the very valuable mushroom industry that was built up over the last 25 years, along with the other industries in the agriculture sector. I am not saying that we need just one Minister to deal with it but we need a full, holistic Government response to pay attention to this across many sectors. The budget paid scant regard to Brexit and what might come down the line when and if the UK decides to press the button. The uncertainty is very hard for all sectors, the people who are dealing with farmers in the agri-industry, the machinery producers and other producers. They are all being affected by the negativity, they are threatened with unemployment and above all it is creating stress and trauma in an already very difficult situation. I am very concerned that the Government is not getting it and does not understand how serious the impact will be.
A whole-of-Government approach is being taken to the matter and if the Deputy parses and analyses the budget in detail, he will find that is the case. I was in the UK last Tuesday and I met with the chief executive of one of the big multiples there who does in excess of €155 million worth of trade with Irish agrifood sectors. I impressed on him that Ireland is still open for business and that although these are difficult times, we are anxious to deepen and forge stronger relationships with the UK multiples in the teeth of this very difficult crisis. I appreciate the difficulties being experienced by the mushroom sector and I know of the cases in Tipperary, which the Deputy spoke of. I know that the Minister of State with responsibility for food, forestry and horticulture, Deputy Andrew Doyle, has been involved in this. The quest for new markets is relevant. The UK is the most convenient and cost effective market we have had but we have to explore new market opportunities. While different circumstances apply, our biggest competitor in the UK is Polish imports. If they can bring mushrooms - with their short shelf life - all the way from Poland, then we can also go to continental Europe. We have to be open to all options in trying to ensure this industry, at which we are very good, has a future. That is what we are about and why we have the capital grant scheme so the mushroom producer organisations can get financial support. That is why they have access to the low cost finance and why the agencies will assist them in every way to access new markets. It requires a whole-of-Government approach and that is the approach of this Government.
I thank the Minister. We will move on to the final Priority Question from Deputy Eamon Ryan. I remind Members to please be cognisant of time. The more they speak the fewer questions we will get through. Out of respect for their colleagues, I ask Members to adhere to their time.