Tuesday, 26 March 2019
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
56. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the status of discussions he has had with the French authorities to expand the lairage capacity at Cherbourg Port in order to increase live export of calves. [14215/19]
What is the status of discussions the Minister has had with the French authorities to expand the lairage capacity at Cherbourg Port in order to increase capacity for the live export of calves? As he will know, the live export of calves, particularly bulk dairy calves, is essential in terms of ensuring we can address the oversupply issues we have seen in the last year undermining the beef price in our domestic market. Given the lack of action from the Minister, as I see it, I am interested to hear an update.
Live exports are a critical part of Ireland’s livestock industry. They play a significant role in stimulating price competition and providing an alternative market outlet for farmers. The Department facilitates this trade, recognising its critical importance to the agrifood sector, while also ensuring that live animal exports meet the highest welfare standards. In 2018, live exports of cattle increased by over 30% to 246,000 compared to 2017. This growth trend has continued into 2019, with live exports totalling 58,000 up to early March, which is a 35% increase on the same period in 2018. However, I am cognisant of the challenges within the live export trade, particularly the issue of capacity in lairages in France.
My officials are in ongoing communication with Irish exporters with regard to the need for co-operative management among themselves to ensure that the lairage capacity at Cherbourg is optimised. The development of additional lairage capacity is a commercial issue. The live export sector may wish to consider developing an additional lairage in Cherbourg or engaging with the owners of existing facilities to explore the potential for additional capacity. Notwithstanding this, there has been significant engagement with the French authorities regarding this matter. In September 2018, officials from my Department visited Cherbourg to discuss the capacity issue with the French authorities and local lairage operators. Last month, Bord Bia met local lairage operators, while departmental officials held a meeting with the IFA and French embassy representatives. I also raised the issue last month with the French Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian and last week I discussed the matter further with my French agriculture counterpart, Didier Guillaume, at the EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council meeting in Brussels. I should make it clear that the facilitation of the French ministry relates to the approval of private sector developments. Following this engagement, I am happy to report that in recent weeks the French authorities have approved an increase of the holding capacity of the Qualivia lairage in Cherbourg. This will provide additional daily capacity for 400 animals. Based on current ferry sailing schedules, this provides increased capacity of some 1,200 animals per week. The Deputy can rest assured that I will continue to advocate on behalf of our exporters with regard to this issue.
The Minister said that I can rest assured that he will continue to prioritise this issue but I am not assured by his performance to date. I am not assured that he even fully understands or comprehends the importance of this issue or his role in ensuring that the live export trade is maximised. The Minister knows that the Irish beef sector is under massive pressure in terms of prices and the losses that farmers are taking. The only good market in recent months has been the demand in Spain and Holland for dairy bull calves, which have been plentiful in recent years as a result of the milk quota having been abolished. The Minister should have been working with the sector to ensure there were no blockages in terms of lairage capacity at Cherbourg that would limit the amount of animals that could be exported from the country. Instead, he washed his hands of any role in this. At the same time, he is trying to take credit for a belated and small increase in capacity. The Minister has been asleep on the job in terms of his responsibility here and farmers' incomes will take a hit as a result of the live export market not being utilised to the greatest extent possible.
What effort is the Minister making now to ensure that capacity can be further increased in order to maximise the market, albeit that the peak has unfortunately passed for this year?
The Deputy conveniently ignores the facts and relies on emotion but the figures speak for themselves. Year on year, up until the end of February, exports are up by 35%. We exported 160,000 calves last year and a total of 245,000 cattle, which was an increase of 30% on the figures from the previous year. Indeed, the 2017 figures saw an increase of 30% on the 2016 figures. The commitment of the Government and Members on this side of the House to live exports is on the record in that context. What I will not do, however - and I hope the Deputy will not condone it either - is facilitate live exports through the breaching of regulations. The surest way to bring the industry to a shuddering halt is by ignoring the regulations. I ask Deputy McConalogue to confirm that it is also his position that there must be no breach of the regulations because this industry is too important to Ireland.
I engaged directly with live exporters last July. I pointed out that there was an increased volume of calves coming down the line and that the Department would reduce the levy substantially, to the tune of 160,000 calves, resulting in a saving to the industry of €750,000. I asked them to engage with the lairage providers in France and told them to organise themselves so that they could share the facilities and sweat them to the maximum extent possible. It is regrettable that the sector did very little, if anything, to co-ordinate the use of lairage facilities in France. The Department offered to organise and help the exporters come together in a collective way to arrange that.
The Minister is seeking refuge by trying to spread the blame. He has argued that the export sector has not done as much as it could but he is ignoring his own responsibility here. Standards have to be met and regulations have to be kept but we must ensure that there is sufficient capacity to maximise the export market. The Minister has taken no action to do so. Bord Bia collects a levy on every calf that is exported. Last year, €300,000 was collected by Bord Bia for this purpose. The Minister said that departmental officials were in Cherbourg in September 2018 and Bord Bia was there more recently. Unfortunately, the Minister was working on the premise that there would be additional ferry capacity over the last few months, which has proven to be wrong. He did not take the action required to ensure that the capacity was in place in Cherbourg to maximise exports. The calves that did not leave the country in the last few weeks as a result of the Minister's inaction will be in the system here and will be oversupplying our market in 18 months' time. However, it is not too late for him to step up to the mark. The Minister must admit that he has a key responsibility here and stop washing his hands of the problem while farmers lose out on income.
Again, rather than dealing with the facts of the situation, the Deputy has failed to clarify his own position on compliance with the regulations. I will not permit a situation to develop whereby this trade is facilitated in a way that is in breach of-----
We told the industry clearly that we would not levy the charge that we had been levying, provided the exporters themselves organised additional capacity. We met them well in advance of this spring's calving season. Notwithstanding that, the facts show that the numbers are increasing significantly. I would like to see the industry organised sufficiently and co-operating together to increase the calf export potential but that has not happened. It is not the function of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to spend Irish taxpayers' money providing lairage facilities in a third country. We do not provide lairage facilities in Ireland, not to mind providing them for private business in France.