Wednesday, 27 November 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
On a point of order, while the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, is present, this is specifically an issue that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, is meant to be dealing with. He should be here.
The Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, is fully aware that one organisation is holding the whole industry to ransom by its failure to lift injunctions against two farmers, one an elected councillor, and this has resulted in huge frustration and anger right across the farming community. Sadly, this has boiled over into the current blockade of the streets of Dublin.
On 15 October last, I told the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine that it was unacceptable that Larry Goodman's ABP Food Group has effectively stalled the beef task force through its failure to lift legal threats. That is why farmers around the country are so frustrated and why they are on the streets of our capital today. While I accept there is no silver bullet to the issues in the beef sector, four measures that I put forward in the Private Members' motion on 26 September last, and unanimously accepted by Dáil Éireann, would fundamentally shift power away from meat processors and the supermarkets to the Irish suckler beef farmers. While this will not solve the problem overnight, if such effective steps had been taken five years ago, we would be in a very different situation today.
I am shocked the senior Minister is not here. He made accusations in the Dáil yesterday about the farmers, good people, the young men, women and families who are outside Leinster House, who are decent people. He alleged they were involved in threats to business people.
Of course he did. He further alleged it was like what happened in Cavan. I want him to apologise to this House for the wrong he perpetrated on those decent people yesterday.
I salute the farmers in their protests. They are on their knees and the Government has abandoned and ignored them because it is in bed with Larry Goodman and the big beef barons, and it will not touch them. It is a scandal that the talks cannot commence. First, there is a former Secretary General as chairperson. The whole thing is a charade. The game is up. It cannot be business as usual. Those 500 people yesterday were not members of any organisation or any political party. They are farmers who are fed up with what is going on and they want answers. They want an apology from the Minister, Deputy Creed, for accusing them of being involved in threats. There was not even a Garda complaint filed in that area. He has misled the Dáil. He lied to the Dáil and he made a slur on the reputation of those good people. I want him to apologise in this House for that.
Farmers are very angry. Nobody wants to talk to them, or that is the way they feel, and many are taking matters into their own hands, as they did yesterday. Farmers are outside the gates of Leinster House and have been outside the factories in the last month. They feel they are going nowhere and the anger is growing. The Minister needs to wake up to the reality on the ground, which is that there is a lot of anger.
I mentioned the organic sector in the House earlier and pointed out that many farmers are trying environmental farming. Some 255 applied and only 50 were approved, so there was a refusal rate of greater than 75% in regard to organic farming. They are trying their best to move forward to a different industry.
The Minister of State will have his chance shortly. There are practices inside the factory gates that need serious investigation. Will the Minister come out of the bed with Larry Goodman and stand up for the farmers of this country? Will the Minister at least start the process of a serious investigation into what is going on inside the factories? We need to know and beef farmers need the money for which they are working hard.
I remind Members to be very careful in regard to mentioning the names of those who are not here to defend themselves. The Deputies have been in the House for a long time and know that is the custom and practice.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle sincerely for showing his commitment to the farmers of Ireland by allowing this Topical Issue debate, which is very timely. Hundreds of people travelled long journeys and they left their family farms, their families and their workplaces to come to Dublin. It was the Leas-Cheann Comhairle who acceded to this request and I thank him sincerely and humbly for giving those farmers a voice in this House today.
I am cross, of course, with the senior Minister but have nothing against the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, for being here. The senior Minister should show respect to the people outside, who took time out to be here. Of course, they do not want be protesting. Where they want to be is at home, running their farms and trying to make a living; that is all they want to do. They are looking for fair play, they are looking for an apology from the Minister and they are looking for proper labelling. There is blackguarding going on with regard to the labelling of beef, and not just beef but also pork and many other products, which are being misrepresented given there is false labelling, which should not be allowed. When people buy Irish beef, they should know it is Irish beef, and it is the same for pork and lamb. All I ask is that the Government will take on board what these farmers are looking for, allow them to go home and allow them to get a thing called fair play.
As somebody who is an active beef farmer, unlike most people who are doing a lot of talking about it, I have as good an understanding of this whole sector as anybody in this Chamber. The Minister, Deputy Creed, met farmers this morning at 7:30 a.m. He answered some of the questions and clarified the issue with regard to the threats. He never inferred that anyone involved in the injunctions or any farmer was responsible for them.
There were two Topical Issue matters, the first on the need for the Government to directly intervene and unlock the current impasse, and the second asking for an update on the work of the beef task force. I wanted to set the scene before I directly answered the Topical Issue matters that are actually on the Order Paper today.
As the Deputies will be aware, the inaugural beef task force meeting, scheduled for 14 October, was prevented from proceeding. Since then, however, the independent chairman and my Department continue to engage proactively with task force members with a view to progressing the implementation of the provisions of the agreement. My Department and its agencies continue to progress the commitments to which they signed up under the agreement, the full text of which is available on my Department's website, along with an update on the progress made to date.
An immediate increase in a range of bonuses was announced as part of the 15 September agreement. It has been confirmed to my Department that this bonus system is now in place.
Initiatives in the agreement aimed at improving information along the supply chain included the commissioning of the following reports: an independent review of market and customer requirements, an independent examination of the price composition of the total value of the animal along the supply chain and a summary of competition law issues relevant to the Irish beef sector. My Department has issued a request for tender for these reports, with a deadline for receipt of tender responses of 12 noon on Thursday, 5 December. This will enable the award of the tender before the end of 2019.
In regard to market transparency initiatives, my Department has published an expert report on mechanical carcass classification review, has introduced an appeals system for manual grading and has initiated a consultation process on the transposition of the unfair trading practices directive, with a deadline for submission of 13 December.
Bord Bia has developed a beef market price index model based on three components: a cattle price index, a beef market price index, including retail and wholesale, and an offal price indicator. This is now available on the Bord Bia website.
Teagasc is significantly advanced in the first stage of the scientific review of the quality payment system, QPS, grid. The Department is also engaging proactively with several potential beef producer organisations, which have the potential to strengthen the bargaining power of beef farmers in the supply chain. Two beef producer organisations have been formally recognised by the Department in recent months.
We have all seen the traffic disruption in Dublin city today, which has had an impact on ordinary people as they go to their daily work. There are well-established channels of communications with farming organisations to resolve these issues of concern to farmers through constructive dialogue. I hope the sector will be able to come together, as it always has, to face these challenges and work towards a more sustainable future for all stages of the food chain.
The Minister, Deputy Creed, established the beef market task force to provide leadership in the development of an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable pathway for the future of the beef sector. As the Minister has stated, it is in the interests of everyone involved in the beef sector that this task force get to work as soon as possible. I hope all parties will agree to come together around the table and I appeal to those who have the injunctions in place to consider, as a gesture of goodwill, lifting them. However, the Minister and I are limited in the extent to which we can make that happen.
With all due respect, "considering" is no good. Mr. Goodman and ABP need to lift the injunction now, and the Government as a whole needs to intervene to ensure that that happens. Yes, we need all farmers, farm organisations and Deputies to work together to secure the viability of Irish family farms. Farmers are frustrated because they cannot get cattle into meat plants at present. We can all focus on the cause, but what farm families need now, just like every other family, is money to pay end-of-year bills and pay for Christmas. We cannot allow Christmas to be cancelled for the children of Ireland who live on our farms. We need everyone around the table now.
I thank the staff of the Houses and An Garda Síochána on behalf of the farmers. They asked me to thank them. They were treated courteously outside. I thank the people who brought out cups of coffee to them and the community people supporting them.
I wish to challenge the Minister, Deputy Creed. If he does not come before the House to retract the outrageous slur he made yesterday, he is not fit for office and should resign. This is serious. He said what has happened is like what happened with Quinn Industrial Holdings. That is disgraceful. There was no complaint from the Garda station and there is no file anywhere. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, was involved in this too. What is going on with Meat Industry Ireland, MII, and the allegation made by the Minister, Deputy Flanagan? The Minister, Deputy Creed, must apologise unreservedly in this House to those farmers. If not, he should resign and go because he is not fit for office anyway.
The Minister of State said he himself is a beef farmer. I am also a beef farmer and I am surrounded by many beef farmers in very serious financial circumstances. We need the Minister of State to stand up for these farmers. They know that the wrongdoing is happening inside the factory gate. We need that rectified. I am advising many farmers to change their style of farming. Many of them did a lot of courses in the organic sector. They signed up, paid for the organic feed and did everything by the book, and 70% of them are now being left outside the door. The Minister of State must step in here and at least help these farmers if there is another choice out there in order that they can at least be accepted into the organic sector. There are two issues here: what is going on in the factories and the organic sector. We need an answer.
The injunctions and the bully tactics will have to stop. That was one of the main things these farmers were here objecting to, along with the fact that they are being marginalised and picked on just because they are fighting for fair play. At the end of the day, and the Minister of State himself knows this, if producing a kilogram of beef does not make a profit, that situation will not be able to continue into the future. What is going on now is not sustainable. I have said this before and I will say it again: everybody is making money out of beef except the people who produce it. That is neither fair nor right, and the killer is that the Minister of State knows it. The Government should be seen to be fighting for our farmers instead of having a Taoiseach who stood up here one day and shamefully and disgracefully said he would cut back on his beef consumption. A child would not say that, never mind the Taoiseach.
We all agree - it was agreed in September - that the best vehicle and the best way of progressing a viable future for everyone in this sector, from producer to processor to whoever else is involved, is through the beef task force and work on the template and the agreement that was signed up to. That has not happened to date. It should have happened on 14 October, and there would be no point in my revisiting the reasons it did not happen.
That is not the reason. If the Deputy did not listen to me the first time, perhaps he will this time. If he were to check the record, or if he were here for Question Time this morning, he would know that the Minister, Deputy Creed, clarified what exactly happened last week and what exactly he said. That is on the Dáil record.
Regarding the organic sector, I have answered those questions. Deputy Michael Collins is right that there were 255 applications. A good number of them either did not complete the form or submitted forms that were ruled ineligible. When I announced the reopening of the existing scheme - it is not a new scheme - I said it was on foot of the organic strategy's recommendations that it be targeted at the areas of deficit, which were cereals, dairy and horticulture. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked earlier how many horticulture applications were refused. One was refused out of two applications submitted. The majority of applications were in the beef and lamb sector, where there is already an oversupply, and only up to 30%, or perhaps slightly more, of organically produced beef and lamb is sold in that way. One of the reasons for this is that there is not enough feed in the system at an affordable price. This is why cereals were prioritised. We need to get more cereals into the system in order that beef and lamb producers who are already registered as organic farmers have an affordable source of supplementary feed. That is the reason cereals were prioritised. It was on foot of the recommendation of the strategy group, which involves all stakeholders.