Dáil debates

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Covid-19 (Agriculture, Food and the Marine): Statements

 

10:00 pm

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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The Covid-19 pandemic is a public health crisis first and foremost. My Department, like all Government agencies, is working closely with the Department of Health as part of a whole-of-Government response. The pandemic has also resulted in a profound economic shock across the globe. Its impact is being felt right across the Irish economy, including in the agrifood sector. The impact on the public finances is also profound.

Notwithstanding the unprecedented nature of this crisis, the Government has acted quickly and decisively to ameliorate its worst impacts on those of our citizens who are most affected. Recognising the primacy of public health concerns but also the need to maintain critical food supply chains, I have been working to ensure that food producers and processors continue to operate effectively so that farmers and fishers continue to have an outlet for their produce and consumers continue to have access to safe, high-quality food products. I have also been working to ensure that the Department can continue to provide critical services, including those upon which these critical food supply chains depend. Against this background, I commend essential workers in the food industry, from farmers and fishers, those in processing, transport and logistics, to those keeping retail outlets stocked with food throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. I would also like to thank the staff in my Department for keeping services to the industry operational during this challenging period.

For businesses right across the economy, the past few weeks have been extraordinarily difficult. Many food businesses have been badly affected by the loss of food service outlets and this is having an impact throughout the supply chain. We export 90% of what we produce and a significant proportion of these exports are destined for the food service market. The decline in demand is having an impact on commodity prices, particularly the price of beef. The approach of seasonal production peaks in lamb and dairy against the background of reduced demand is also a concern. My Department is closely monitoring market developments and considering how the impact of any imbalance might be mitigated. In recent weeks, I have been in regular contact with farm leaders, representatives of the processing sectors, fisheries producer organisations, representatives from the forestry sector and State agencies in order to assess challenges and consider the most appropriate response.

A great deal has already been done. The Government is supporting businesses to reorient product in so far as possible towards the retail market. Bord Bia is providing additional marketing supports and training to food companies to help them to transition to online sales. It has also commenced an advertising campaign promoting quality-assured Irish meat, fish and dairy through television advertisements and recipe suggestions online. An additional €1 million has been made available from within Bord Bia's budget to assist with marketing. The Government has also made working capital and investment supports available. The Covid-19 working capital loan scheme co-funded by my Department will provide an additional €250 million in working capital loans for SMEs and mid-cap businesses. Some €100 million of this will be ring-fenced for companies in the agrifood sector. An expanded future growth loan scheme provides an additional €80 million in loan capital for investments in the agrifood sector, including for farmers and fishermen. Microfinance Ireland makes competitive working capital loans available to small businesses and its maximum loan cap has been increased to €50,000 for those impacted by Covid-19. Farmers and fishermen can avail of this funding. I have also spoken directly with representatives of the three pillar banks and they committed to showing flexibility and support for their agrifood and fisheries clients. Access to liquidity, flexibility and forbearance from the banking system will be critically important for many food businesses. Many farmers and fishermen are also eligible for supports from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.

At EU level, I recently led and initiative that resulted in the submission to the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development by all 27 member states of a joint statement seeking a Commission response to Covid-19 impacts on farmers and the wider agrifood sector. In response to this initiative, the Commissioner announced on 22 April a package of measures that includes private storage aid for the dairy and meat sectors. While this support is useful, I am nonetheless continuing to mobilise support for a more comprehensive response at EU level. However, this will be difficult.

This year it will be more important than ever that farm payments are made on time. Conscious of the cash flow pressures on farms at present, I brought forward a €26 million payment under the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, by one month. A new payment run is planned for each week to pick up any outstanding payments. I have also increased funding in the calf welfare investment scheme from €1.5 million to €4 million to assist farmers with extra calves on hand. Targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, payments continue to average at €1.3 million per week to farmers.

The preparations to ensure that €250 million in ANC payments and €1.2 billion in basic payments are made to farmers on time are continuing.

I provided an additional €20 million in supports for the beef sector in budget 2020. The beef environmental efficiency programme will remain open for applications until 15 May. This scheme is up and running and available for suckler farmers right now. It is easy to apply for and the benefits are substantial. I urge all suckler beef farmers to apply. A new information line has been established to assist farmers with their queries about the Covid-19 restrictions in place. The number is 076-1064468.

I have also introduced a range of practical flexibilities to departmental schemes. I want to ease the pressure on farmers where this is possible. For example, I have extended the completion deadlines for TAMS by three months and the submission date for nitrate records to the end of June. Routine inspections have been temporarily deferred. Where possible, inspections are being done by telephone so as not to delay payment. I will keep these arrangements under review.

My Department has also worked closely with marts to develop imaginative solutions to permit trade to continue on a limited basis while the wider restrictions are in place. Standard operating procedures submitted by marts permit sales to proceed without compromising HSE guidelines. Of the 84 licensed marts, 78 have been approved to operate in this way. Any further relaxation of restrictions will be guided by public health advice.

Forestry payments average €700,000 per week and licences continue to issue at an average rate of 80,000 m³ per week. The cessation in construction activity in Ireland and the UK has caused immediate difficulties for the Irish timber sector, but it too is eligible for horizontal liquidity investment and employment support measures.

With regard to the seafood sector, on 2 April the European Commission adopted a proposal to amend the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, EMFF, to create new flexibility in European Union law to permit member states to reorient support for the seafood sector. No additional EU funds have been provided and member states must fund these additional supports from existing unspent EMFF allocations or from national funds. I am currently examining options and considering the best course of action, in consultation with the sector.

In the meantime, there is a range of investment and liquidity support available. I have already mentioned the Covid-19 supports from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I have tasked Bord Iascaigh Mhara, BIM, with working intensively with the catching, processing and retail sectors and to seek engagements so that our supermarkets and shops have a ready supply of fish in their stores. There has been good engagement from all sides and progress on this.

This great challenge has, to date, been characterised by a remarkable level of solidarity and social cohesion. It has been a tremendous collective effort from citizens, the institutions of the State, public representatives, the media, trade unions and sectoral and business representatives of bodies across the board. It has also highlighted the critical importance of the agrifood sector in Ireland, not only to the economy but to the social fabric and food security in Ireland and across the European Union. The challenges facing us are economy-wide, but I assure the House that the agrifood and fisheries sectors will continue to be at the heart of the Government's deliberations as this complex situation evolves. I am happy to take any questions Members may have.

10:10 pm

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I am sharing time with Deputies Jackie Cahill and Michael Moynihan. I welcome the opportunity to speak in the Dáil today. It is important that we address the need for additional support for the agricultural sector because, unfortunately, the response so far has not recognised the pressure that agriculture and farmers are under, particularly the pressure that the beef sector has experienced. The response at Commission level has been totally insufficient. There is significant market disturbance in place. Farmers, in particular beef farmers, are losing money. Finishers are losing up to €250 per head. There needs to be a real and immediate response to that.

I want to raise some issues which I ask the Minister to address in the five minutes allocated to me. He mentioned marts.

I understand that additional standard operating procedures have been submitted to the Department in recent days that would allow the auction aspect of marts to continue, while significantly restricting any access to the mart. Access would be restricted specifically to buyers, which would facilitate additional competition regarding what has been going on, and at which marts have been doing their best over the last period of time. Those procedures make sense. What is the Minister doing to further them? I would like a prompt answer.

The processing sector faces potentially significant challenges. We have seen some challenges in recent days and weeks in the management of Covid-19 within the processing sector, and there is a real risk of potential clusters. Can the Minister update us on any clusters the Department is aware of? What steps is the Department taking to ensure the processing sector is supported? The health and safety of staff is paramount and they are carrying out essential work in the food supply chain, ensuring the throughput of stock and product over the period ahead.

Proposals have been made for a temporary cessation package for the marine sector. What is the Government doing to support our fishing sector?

Finally, I refer to an issue which crosses over between the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, that is, the farm assist payment and the Covid-19 pandemic unemployment payment being made available to farmers. Although it is the direct responsibility of the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, it is affecting farmers across the country. Can the Minister give an update on the eligibility of farmers for the Covid-19 payment and farm assist being topped up, at a minimum, to the level of the Covid-19 payment?

10:15 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Minister has about a minute and a half for a response.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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I will do my best. On the beef issue, I accept that this sector has taken the immediate visible hit from Covid-19. There have been consequences due to the closure of food services, not just domestically but more significantly in the volume of food service restaurants and hotels globally and within the European Union. We have been insisting that the European Commission is reminded of the common aspect of the Common Agricultural Policy. In recent days, comments were made by the National Farmers Union, NFU, about UK retailers stocking Irish beef. Elsewhere, we have seen trends for the renationalisation of markets. We, and particularly our beef sector, would be the biggest losers within the European Union if that were to happen. It is critical that we maintain that approach across the European Union. That is why we have led an initiative at European Union level. Up to that point, its response had been that it would relax state aid rules and we could fix the problem ourselves. That is certainly something I was not happy with and there is now some movement on the issue. We need to see more, particularly under exceptional aid measures for the beef sector, and we continue to engage in that regard.

I would be cautious about raising expectations regarding a further unwinding of livestock mart regulations. We engage with them all the time. Over 70 out of 80-plus marts have submitted standard operating procedures, SOPs, which have been approved. We continue to engage but we will be guided by the public health advice on these matters. The revised arrangements are working reasonably well. Without reference to an auction system, I appreciate there is a difficulty in valuations, but we are-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Minister can provide a written reply on anything he did not get to cover. I call Deputy Cahill.

Photo of Jackie CahillJackie Cahill (Tipperary, Fianna Fail)
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The Covid-19 crisis has brought another huge pressure onto primary producers and farmers. Usually when we talk about the pressure on farmers' incomes, it is due to over-supply, but this time it is due to a significant drop in consumption. The European Commission's response so far has been totally inadequate. An allocation of €75 million for all sectors is a drop in the ocean of what is required. It equates to €8 per European farmer. To give a comparison, when dairy prices were under pressure in 2016, €560 million was allocated for dairy supports. This package only proposes €30 million. In 2019, there was a €100 million package for beef farmers. While we failed to distribute some of that to the hard-pressed beef farmers, €100 million was allocated. Unfortunately, in the spring of 2020, prices are even worse. Beef finishers need financial support immediately.

Otherwise, they will not be there in the next back end to buy the young stock that will be coming on sale from suckler and store farm producers.

The health of our community is paramount, but food comes a close second. It is an essential for all people. Food security, the basis on which CAP was formed, has to be part of the new CAP negotiations. To ensure food security, food for European consumers must be provided by European farmers. This was the basis of CAP previously and proper price supports used to be in place for the European farmer, but that is not the case now and CAP has dropped down the list of priorities on the EU's agenda. That has to change.

The Minister might refer to advanced dates for payments, but that is money already committed. The current drop in prices is being caused by a drop in consumption. We need a properly funded and flexible aid to private storage scheme, APS, to deal with that. There are already forecasts of food shortages in the US and other parts of the world in the back end of 2020. With a properly funded APS, we would then have steaks, dairy products and sheep meat to meet that shortfall. Beef finishers are in a separate category and must get financial support immediately.

Flexibility in schemes' dates is essential in this unprecedented year. The farmers involved in the nitrates derogation need flexibility. The stocking criterion to qualify for the beef exceptional aid measure, BEAM, payment must be scrapped. Stocking rate requirements for areas of national conservation, for example, must be flexible. Inspections being postponed cannot be used as an excuse for the slow payment of grants or scheme funding. I want the Department to consider the system that operates at marts in Northern Ireland with a view to determining whether it can operate in the South.

A point has been raised with me by a few of our urban Deputies, namely, that many urban dwellers do not have access to allotments. Such allotments are usually 25 m wide. As such, social distancing could be operated there easily. They would do as much for people's enjoyment as for providing food for their tables. Mental health was discussed during the debate with the Minister for Health. Providing access to allotments would be another avenue for people in urban areas to exercise and help their mental well-being.

The Minister, Deputy Creed, mentioned forestry. Stakeholders in forestry are still unhappy with the issuing of licences. They predict that we will only plant 3,500 ha of forestry this year, which is less than half the target.

Other countries on the Continent and across the water are discussing resuming horse and greyhound racing behind closed doors. Where are our discussions as regards those two sports?

10:20 pm

Photo of Michael MoynihanMichael Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I will be brief and allow the Minister to address some of the points that have been raised by my colleagues.

The ongoing crisis facing beef farmers has been multiplied by the Covid-19 crisis. Has the beef task force - the famous group that was set up a number of years ago - met in a virtual form or have there been discussions on setting out a roadmap for beef farmers as we move forward? There are various methods of holding conference calls now and it is crucial that every stakeholder be engaged at the highest possible level. It is important that there be a roadmap that, as other Deputies mentioned, considers the world economy as we go into the back end of 2020 and challenges the EU in every way to make as much available to beef farmers as possible. There is and will continue to be a crisis at the farm gate.

Regarding the dairy industry, milk processors are putting pressure on the prices they are giving farmers at the gate.

We have at all times to be mindful of the primary producer who is producing top quality food. We have taken the primary producer for granted over the years because of other issues that have been around the place. We must look at that.

Has the Minister spoken to the chief executives of milk processing companies and got a sense of the implications, challenges and forecasts for the dairy industry in the coming 12 months?

The Minister mentioned various schemes, including the targeted agricultural modernisation schemes, TAMS, and changes in deadlines. Those have been already committed to. In the various discussions the Minister has had with the European Union, does it accept that agriculture on the island of Ireland is under savage pressure? We must ensure that every aspect of agriculture is brought to the table at European level. Is there recognition at European level, or has the European Union moved away from the Common Agricultural Policy and providing quality food for the citizens of Europe? Is there a commitment at EU level to make sure that every support is made available to the farmer and the agriculture industry as it faces the most unprecedented times it has ever faced?

I will leave my outstanding two minutes to allow the Minister to address other issues. I would particularly like to hear his thoughts on the beef and dairy sectors and the challenges at a European level.

10:25 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I do not think we will get many thoughts in two minutes.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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I will try to race through the issues. I have met with the dairy co-ops and executives by teleconference on two occasions in recent weeks. Our primary concern was to make sure that as we approach peak production, we keep processing capacity functioning and that there would be sufficient contingency planning in our Department and at individual plant level to facilitate that because there is little head room in processing over and above peak production levels.

There is recognition at EU level about the unique structure of our agricultural industry, its dependence on exports to the EU and the fact that we are disproportionately dependent on food service because we have a limited domestic retail market. Does that translate to additional supports? There would not have been the movement that has happened, albeit inadequate, were it not for the efforts we have made in reminding the EU that it needs to respond to a common problem, across the EU, rather than letting member states respond individually, which would run the significant risk of renationalisation to which I alluded earlier when considering comments that have been made by our nearest neighbour.

The beef task force has not met but there has been ongoing engagement with virtually all of the stakeholders during this period. Work that was undertaken and commissioned is progressing in my Department which will facilitate the task force when it meets at the earliest possible date.

Deputy Cahill made points around areas of natural constraints, ANC, and stocking rates. This is something on which we would want to reflect. I have resisted interfering with the stocking rate because people buying to meet stocking rate requirements are putting a floor on the price of live cattle at the moment. If we were to tell people they do not have to meet the stocking density requirement for ANC payments, we would undermine that trade and by virtue of eliminating that condition, qualify a substantial number of farmers who have not previously applied for the scheme. The pot would have to be shared out to a larger number of farmers and we would erode the base price that is underpinning the live trade market.

I have committed to keeping an open mind on the 5% reduction in organic nitrogen loads for the beef exceptional aid measure, BEAM, but I do not believe that something that will kick in only from the end of July this year to the end of June next year is currently a detriment on the market.

I hear the point the Deputy made about allotments and it is one that has been brought to my attention by many others. I am subject to correction by the public health advisory team, but I do not think anybody could make the case that individually opening allotments would create a surge in the pandemic. The fear is a cumulative impact of a series of what look, individually, like minor issues. When those accumulate, it could be a trigger mechanism for a surge and that is the concern.

10:30 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Minister might correspond with the Deputies on the remainder of the matters, if there are any. We move now to the Sinn Féin Party. Deputy Brian Stanley, please.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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I am sharing time, with five minutes for each the two other Deputies in the Chamber.

I thank the Minister. I have four questions for him. The first issue I want to raise is one to which I am returning, having raised it with the Minister some weeks ago. It relates to health and safety in food processing plants. I particularly want to raise the issue at Rosderra Meats. The company has plants in Edenderry and Roscrea and I have heard complaints from both. The worse scenario is in the factory in Roscrea, where there has been an outbreak of Covid-19. We want to keep the factories open and we have been very clear about this. There are approximately 350 workers on the factory floor there. Up to 140 of them were out sick throughout last week and 120 tested positive for the virus. I was informed - I checked the details again today - that the first case showed up over a month ago. Workers had to battle with management to get measures of any kind put in place, but they are still being denied two-metre distancing on the factory floor. There is congregating and no separation in the locker rooms or washrooms. The situation has improved in the context of PPE, which is now in place, but the virus was allowed to spread within that factory. That should not happen. No proper instructions were issued to workers, many of whom are not English-speaking or else English is not their first language. I want the Minister to address that. What is being done regarding inspections? What inspections are being carried out? Who are they being carried out by? What is being done to ensure that these industries keep going? It is important that we keep these jobs going, that workers are safe and that the food coming out is safe.

I want to ask the Minister about the beef sector. I have no wish to rehearse the situation. The Minister knows about the beef sector as well as I do. The aid package announced by the European Commission is literally a drop in the ocean. It works out at €8 per farmer across the EU. I welcome the fact that the Minister is front-loading direct payments - that is a welcome and positive move forward. However, we want the Minister to go back to the European Commission and get a better deal.

I want to ask the Minister about beef imports into the EU. That is still happening. Has the Minister spoken to other his counterparts? I have asked him to do this previously. I have asked him to speak to other agriculture ministers regarding this matter in order to bring about an alliance. We have plenty of beef in Europe. We have a vast amount of it within Ireland that we can get onto the supermarket shelves.

I want to ask the Minister about the fishing industry. There is a particular problem with restaurants being closed throughout continental Europe. There has been a drop-off in the level of Irish exports. We are proposing that quotas could be increased for herring in the north east to help fishermen in that area. Has the Minister any plans in that regard? The Minister alluded to getting wet counters open. There is demand for fish but people cannot get it in most supermarkets. I know the Minister is doing some work on this but he might give me an answer on that question as well. I will stop at that.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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I would not like the message to go out - I do not think it is true, although I am not sure if Deputy Stanley meant it this way - that, either by commission or omission, factories allowed Covid-19 to spread.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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I have confirmation that took place. The Minister can check it and the basis for it if he wishes.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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All I can say is that is not the information available to our Department. We have staff in those places and we have contracted temporary veterinary inspectors. I want to say that is certainly not the case on the basis of the information available to me.

In all of this, public health is the primary concern. The processing of meat is important but it is a secondary concern to the primacy of the health of the people working in those plants. The measures in place include social distancing, hand-washing etiquette, Perspex screens, reduced throughput and provision of PPE. All of these have been part of the response that the industry has been proactive with regard to. This was part of the negotiations we had early on with all the stakeholders in terms of their responsibilities as businesses. I have to say I have been encouraged by that response. There has been engagement by those meat plants. HSE staff and officials from my Department have been involved. The feedback to me is that there has been strong co-operation.

7 o’clock

We are aware of six clusters, five in processing plants and one in a deboning plant

10:40 pm

Matt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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It would be generous to describe the supports given to Irish farmers during this crisis as pathetic. Today, the Minister referred to schemes from other Departments. He spoke about providing money to farmers to which they were entitled anyway but just that little bit sooner. He also spoke about the reliance on the EU package of €76 million. That package has been already described here as inadequate. I would go so far as to say that it is nothing short of an insult to our family farmers. That package should be compared to the support from the US Administration which comes to €27 billion. Christ knows that Administration has got much wrong. There are only 2 million farmers across the United States when there are 10.5 million in the EU. It is clear there is a greater commitment to the future of agriculture across the Atlantic.

The farmers I have spoken to were absolutely stunned by the inadequacy of the EU package. Farmers were also shocked to hear the Minister state he welcomed this response from the European Commission. I accept he went on to say it would probably need to go further. Many farmers have said to me, however, that the response of the Minister and the Government to the EU package was as pathetic as the package itself.

Considering that it is clear the EU is not likely to provide the type of package as quickly as is required, will the Government work to deliver a domestic scheme that actually provides funding directly to those farmers who need it urgently and desperately? Will the Minister do that as quickly as possible?

My second question relates again to the beef sector. It has been mentioned here already that during last year's protests many beef farmers were already on their knees. This coronavirus emergency has really made a bad situation worse. In the midst of this, we hear stories of the meat industry actually importing foreign beef into Irish factories. I have asked in writing for the Minister to intervene in that situation but he has refused saying these are commercial decisions. Whatever about intervening, will the Minister publicly condemn the actions of those factories which have been importing beef when prices given to Irish farmers are on the floor? Will he contact the factory owners to ask them to cease this practice? This is not about protectionism. This is about having a quality product in Ireland. It does not make any sense from a patriotic point of view for factories to be doing this.

Finally, I want a simple "Yes" or "No" answer to this question. Will the Minister and his Department consider providing a compensation scheme for those poultry farmers who have experienced culls as a result of bird 'flu outbreaks? These are farmers who have suffered devastating losses in recent days and weeks due to an occurrence against which they cannot insure. In the absence of an insurance scheme, the Government needs to provide support.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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That leaves a minute and 25 seconds.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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The structure of this is very difficult because it is not opportune-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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If Members asking the questions consume all the time allocated asking the questions, they cannot expect the Minister to be able to answer them. It is quite sensible.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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We produce-----

Matt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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That is why I asked simple questions.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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We will try to give the Deputy simple answers which he might understand.

We produce approximately 600,000 tonnes of beef every year, of which we export 90%. Approximately 300,000 tonnes of that goes to the UK. UK farmer representatives are complaining to UK retailers about stocking Irish beef. We see a story running about the Polish approach to renationalisation. Deputy Carthy's proposal, for which I understand there is some popular traction, is that we should be here clamouring for Irish beef for the Irish market. The logical conclusion of that, however, is a renationalisation across Europe of all markets. If we say the Irish market is exclusively-----

Matt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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On a point of order, if we are exporting 90% of our beef, how does it make sense for factories to import beef?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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That is not a point of order. Please allow the Minister to respond.

10:45 pm

Matt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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How does it make sense?

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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Does the Deputy want an answer?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I ask the Minister to resume his seat. I call the next speaker.

Ruairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Gabhaim buíochas ó chroí le toghthóirí dáilcheantair an Lú, a chur muinín i Sinn Féin nuair a toghadh mé féin agus an Teachta Imelda Munster don Dáil seo. Ní ligfimid síos iad.

The Covid-19 crisis has visited suffering and sadness on many and our thoughts are with these families. It has also forced us to look at how we organise our lives, work and society. We realise we can do better, from remote working to introducing universal healthcare for all, from cradle to grave and really tackling the climate crisis. Even during this crisis we still have to contend with other viruses such as drug dealing and criminal gangs. It does not need to be like this. We need to act together to provide for all and not just the few. Politicians must provide clarity to all sectors as we face possible changes so that we can operate in a Covid-19 world. We cannot operate without robust testing, sufficient PPE supplies and dealing with the tragedy that we have in some of our nursing homes.

The importance of a quality food supply and all those who work from farm to fork has been brought into stark focus in this crisis. Family farms have helped to ensure product on the shelves. They have kept us fed and their vital contribution must be recognised by the Government. We need real actions and not just rhetoric. The Minister, Deputy Creed, must make known to the European Union that the €76 million fund across Europe is pitiful. As has been stated here, it has been estimated that this works out at about €8 per farmer across Europe. The farmer from Knockbridge was right when he told me that you would not get enough for two pints, although he would have difficulty at the moment getting even one pint.

Operating capital is vital to farmers as much as it is to the SME sector. We need to ensure that the farming sector has access to debt-free liquidity. Money needs to be freed up from the BEAM scheme to help beef farmers who are facing brutal prices at the moment. I ask the Minister to consider a postponement for the time being of the BEAM requirement for bovine manure nitrogen production to be reduced by 5% over the next 12 months, because in order to meet it, farmers will have to sell herd at a time of terribly low prices.

Much of the red tape that was once a feature of sectors such as business, social protection, schools and healthcare has been rightly put to the side during this pandemic. Family farms need to see that happening too. Farmers continue to face quibbles and inspections over non-consequential boundaries that are holding up their single farm payments. That cannot be allowed to persist at the moment. The same flexibility that has been shown to other sectors needs to be shown to farmers.

Online audits for Bord Bia are proving troublesome. Instead of making life easier, some farmers are struggling to complete them without access to the know-how, proper technology and adequate broadband. Many farmers have difficulties with Bord Bia, but that is for another day. The audits can easily be postponed and I ask the Minister to consider that.

This House is seeking guidance for businesses as to how they can safely open in a staggered way when robust testing and other factors are in place. I ask the Minister to outline what steps he has taken regarding the care, safety and rights of casual labourers so we do not see a re-run of the problems caused by the Keelings incident. We need delivery for farmers and other sectors from this House.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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I alluded to the BEAM conditionality earlier and the willingness to keep an open mind on it, but I do not recognise at this stage that there has been any adverse impact on the operations of farmers.

My response to the EU response has been quoted out of context. We were in a situation where the EU's initial response was to free up state aid flexibility and after that we were on our own. We contacted every member state to galvanise support for a common approach across Europe and in so far as there is a common approach we welcome that, but we said the extent to which it has been delivered is inadequate and we will continue to work in that regard, particularly in respect of the missing chapter to date, which has been around exceptional aid measures for the livestock sector. That is where we are focused. We will continue to apply maximum pressure in that regard at the next Council of Ministers meeting in the second week of May. We are part of a Common Agricultural Policy and there should be an appropriate response from the Commission to that.

On the issue of Keelings, it has to be said that during the previous recession and in recent years when there were low levels of unemployment, it has been difficult for the company to get workers in the Irish economy, as is the case generally for the horticultural sector. Changes that have been brought in for workers coming into the country. However, the consequences of failing to harvest crops here will be that produce from elsewhere will be on the supermarket shelves. We need to make sure that businesses in the horticultural sector are enabled to harvest their crops.

10:55 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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That was Deputy Ó Murchú's maiden contribution, and I congratulate him.

Photo of Martin HeydonMartin Heydon (Kildare South, Fine Gael)
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I will share my time with Deputy Peter Burke and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee.

The Minister is well aware of the challenges facing farming and the agricultural sector throughout this Covid-19 crisis. Never before has there been such a focus on the importance of food security. It is important that the general population does not take our top quality food production for granted.

There is a financial strain on farmers, as there is on all sectors of business. Successive Fine Gael Governments looked to agriculture and tourism to drive and lead the way out of the previous recession. Farmers were not found wanting then and they will not be found wanting in the recession and with regard to the challenges we face in the economy in the future. To be able to drive and lead again, farmers need to be supported throughout this time of crisis. I support the Minister's efforts to get national and European support, particularly for areas such as the beef sector given the challenges it faces.

With regard to the exceptional measures, the beef scheme has a deadline of 15 May. What is the level of take-up with that scheme and what is the position with the application process? I take this opportunity to encourage my constituents - farmers in counties Kildare and Laois - to apply to the scheme sooner rather than later because it would strengthen our hand in seeking more funds if the scheme were oversubscribed.

On horse racing, particularly flat racing and the knock-on implications for the breeding sector, the sector is worth more than €1 billion to the economy. The Ceann Comhairle will be well aware of how important it is to many rural areas. Horses are only two or three years old once. There is a knock-on effect on the breeding sector. We need to put our best foot forward with the team in Horse Racing Ireland, HRI, even if it means operating behind closed doors in a safe way and protecting the staff.

In terms of horticulture, Bloom at Home is a Government initiative. The horticultural sector has had a tough time. We talk about the mental health benefits of people being able to garden. Some easing of restrictions in that area and in the areas of farmers' markets and allotments, which were mentioned earlier, will be important. I will leave it at that.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister and am grateful for the opportunity to speak.

It is important that we continue to work through this crisis in supporting the farming sector, including the beef sector, which has been under pressure for the past number of months.

One of the issues raised with me is that farmers have a small window for improving their infrastructure, for example, with sheds, and drawing down finance do so. The planning laws have been extended by 40 days. Some farmers are encountering difficulties with routine planning applications in drawing down finance for that short window. This is in the new legislation and I ask the Minister to look at whether anything can be done to expedite that.

It is important to get the marts up and running in a safe manner and to get a trading environment going for the farmers. That is another critical issue, one which I have discussed with the Minister in my constituency of Longford-Westmeath.

In terms of any payments that can be expedited from Europe, while the overall basket will not change, cashflow is key at this difficult time. I would support any improvements that can be made in that regard. As we all know, cashflow is the lifeblood of any business. As we get the economy and agriculture sector back up slowly, we need to ensure these businesses have timely access to cash. I thank the Minister for progressing the European and national efforts to try to get support for all these measures.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I remind Members there should be no more than two Members of any party or group in the House at any given time.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I will be as brief as possible, if I may. As I did not have an opportunity earlier, I will take this time to thank all of our front-line workers who are fighting Covid-19. I thank our healthcare workers, the workers in supermarkets and other essential shops that are open, our gardaí and members of the Defence Forces and, in particular, the farmers who are producing the food in our supermarkets that we are now buying and which many of us are probably cooking at home for the first time in a long time.

Many could be forgiven for thinking that everything is fine because our farmers are farming, food is on the shelves and people are eating it. That is simply not the case. The Minister has outlined several things that have had a significant impact, not just on beef but also on dairy and across the entire sector. Exports and prices are down. Farming is at the mercy of weather, global markets, prices and demand at the best of times. As we can see, all of these have been hit in the perfect storm.

I ask that the Minister continues to prioritise the beef sector as he has outlined. We can provide this sector with financial support at home and through our European colleagues and the European Commission. The beef task force has been mentioned. It has been raised with me by many farmers. While they might not be able to meet in person, the Minister has said he has spoken to all of them. We had started the process of setting out a roadmap for the beef sector. Now more than ever we need to continue in that regard.

I commend the Minister on leading the charge and getting all 26 member states to sign his response to the Commission's initial package. Can he outline the most recent response he has received from the Commissioner?

What additional supports have been put in place in the context of farm safety? There are now a lot of children and others at home who would not normally be there. The last thing we want as we enter the summer months is more farm accidents.

Has the Minister had any conversations with representatives of the large supermarkets or retailers? Several fruit and vegetable growers have said to me that they are now being asked to sell at a greatly reduced price. At this moment, we should really be supporting local producers.

Finally I refer to climate, something that is very much on the agenda where farming is concerned. Whether it is a 3% or 7% target, farmers have always been and always will be custodians of our land. They are the ones who have protected it and will continue to protect it. We must work with them to set out a pathway to doing that. Last September we started the process of setting out a roadmap that would help us to achieve the targets set by the Joint Committee on Climate Action. Could the Minister provide an update in that regard? If the target is increased to 7%, how will that impact on the overall plan?

11:05 pm

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. On the latter point, the industry is particularly aware of domestic and global consumer interest in a carbon-efficient production system. We are at an advanced stage in the implementation of the climate action plan that has been approved by this House and the Government. Ireland is a global leader in these industries. Along with their counterparts in New Zealand, Irish farmers are recognised as the most carbon-efficient dairy producers. I see no reason that we should sacrifice the industry on an altar of ambition. There is a global demand for the product. Why should we dismantle a dairy sector that is highly carbon-efficient? There is no doubt that we can improve. We do not need to dismantle the ambition. We need to make sure that we are global leaders in terms of carbon per kilogram of output, whether the product is dairy, beef, pork or tillage. We must ensure that our product is setting the global example of how efficient an industry can be.

Regarding supermarkets, as Deputy McEntee knows, we have undertaken public consultation on unfair trading practices. This is the vehicle by which we will transpose the directive into domestic law by May 2021. That is how we will protect consumers and provide financial support for the horticulture sector.

It is important not to forget that we have domestic supports for the beef industry. There is approximately €85 million in funding for schemes this year, including an additional €20 million for the beef environmental efficiency scheme. I urge Members who are concerned about the sector to encourage people to apply. We have about 12,000 applications at the moment. The closing date is 15 May. That scheme offers up to €8,000 in income supports per suckler farm. That should not be dismissed. It has been revised to take account of the pilot experience and has been welcomed by all farm organisations.

Regarding Deputy Burke's points on TAMS, we have acknowledged the difficulty arising from the planning process and are now accepting applications without planning approval, though planning approval will need to be submitted before approval will issue. We are trying to tweak our schemes as we become aware of particular problems.

We accept that there is a gap in the availability of working capital for farmers. One of the ways we can address that requires a legislative fix.

We are doing all of the other preparatory work under the assumption that in due course, hopefully before too long, there will be a possibility of a legislative fix being approved by the Houses of the Oireachtas. On the point about further engagement with the European Union, I will have a bilateral engagement with the Commissioner by telephone next week to progress further the campaign that we have to deliver additional supports. We are continuing with that. I concur wholeheartedly with the matter relating to farm safety. We are in the beginning of the silage season. There are more kids around farmyards and more people walking and cycling on country roads while social distancing. Let us all send a message to be extremely careful. We have had too many accidents already. Pedestrian accidents on our roads are already double what they were by this time last year. Considering the horror of children on farms with heavy machinery during silage season, we can all help to convey that message.

11:15 pm

Malcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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In response to the point raised by the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, I think that the 7% is achievable across all sectors. It will require much constructive dialogue. It is important that constructive dialogue will lead to a much more climate-resilient future but also to a much more sustainable future for Irish farming. Farming is the anchor of our rural economy. Our family farms not only support our food needs but a wider ripple in rural Ireland, including mechanics, fitters, vets, contractors, co-operatives, local merchants, shops and schools which all benefit from our farming sector. The agrifood sector has been hit as hard as any sector by falls in income and profit through the Covid-19 pandemic. Farm businesses are the fabric that hold our rural communities together. They are the biggest employers and generate the most wealth and income as primary producers in these regions. Beef profitability is at an all-time low and dairy incomes are forecast to fall by at least 20% this year. Prices in dairy have taken a big hit in these crucial peak milk production months. It is imperative that these sectors be supported through these unprecedented market disruptions that we are experiencing due to Covid-19.

Farm businesses should not have been excluded from the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, Covid-19 support fund. These funds should have immediately been made available to the agrifood sector. It is imperative that they are supported through this downturn and keep a strong trading position to help the national economy to recover from the impending downturn caused by Covid-19. To that end, in light of the SBCI announcement of the €17.5 million in lower cost funding for small and medium enterprises, SMEs, will the Minister ensure that the next round of SBCI's future growth loan scheme includes a facility for low-cost working capital to help farm businesses to work through this difficult period? Will the Minister put pressure on banks to ensure that they exercise flexibility and forbearance with their farmer customers as they work through this unprecedented crisis?

I want to raise the challenges facing animal welfare charities. More than 100 receive grants from €2,000 to €4,000 from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Most, if not all, have seen a dramatic decline in their income streams and fundraising due restrictions caused by the pandemic. Furthermore, the closure of some local authority pounds, and dog welfare and rehoming charities not being allowed to move animals that have been adopted by families, is causing further pressure on charities. Can we ensure that all local authority pounds remain open just to the charities? Animal rescue centres need clear direction on whether they can transport dogs under the Animal Health and Welfare Act. Can pounds be reopened to allow strays to be taken into rescue centres to reduce the stress on dogs? There is a funding issue too. Some €2.5 million is allocated to the rescue centres, while €16.5 million is given to Bord na gCon. I think some of that funding could be diverted to help these charities through this crisis. I welcome the comments that have been made by other Deputies about allotments and farmers' markets. I think that we could ease some restrictions. Farmers' markets are effectively open supermarkets. With social distancing, they provide an essential food outlet for food producers and people who want to buy essential food.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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I share the Deputy's view that constructive dialogue is the way to go and I look forward to that. I have engaged directly with SBCI and accept that there is a gap in the financial instruments that we have so far been able to deliver, with regard to working capital. As I alluded to earlier, a legislative fix is required to enable us to deal with that. We are making sure that once that is delivered, everything else will be ready. I have also engaged with the pillar banks about forbearance for the industry.

Regarding that engagement, they have been responsive. I have also had that feedback from individual farmers and farm leaders.

I accept the issue and the point made, and I have had some engagement with charities in the area of animal welfare. This lockdown is having implications and consequences in ways we could not have imagined. During my tenure as Minister, we have significantly increased the supports we give to these charities. They do invaluable work, which the State could never replicate, by virtue of their voluntary nature. We will have to keep an open mind as to how we will support them in future, given the challenges they are facing and the loss of voluntary support because of the lockdown. We were able to advise them regarding the care of animals and livestock, which includes the care of companion animals etc. I appreciate, however, that this is an area that will require ongoing vigilance. Turning to the opening of pounds etc., that is a challenge being considered in the context of a whole host of other areas. This is the cumulative impact of a host of what are seemingly inoffensive activities, and we have been in contact with the national public health team about farmers' markets, allotments etc.

11:25 pm

Brian Leddin (Limerick City, Green Party)
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I support Deputy Cahill's call for opening allotments in urban areas. These fulfil an essential function regarding food production and provide an outlet for urban dwellers to carry out physical exercise in a safe and socially distant way, while also allowing positive interaction within communities.

The Covid-19 health crisis and the associated financial crisis have focused the minds of many worldwide on the importance of food security and the agrifood sector, which employs 173,000 people in this country. The United Nations has warned that while parts of the world are on the brink of a hunger pandemic, some countries are dumping milk due to a breakdown in supply lines. Irish farmers, meanwhile, are suffering significant financial losses, especially in the beef and dairy sectors. The Covid-19 crisis is affecting the agriculture sector and we must ensure we provide support to farmers.

Farmers are not just producers of food. They have a vital role to play as environmental stewards in areas such as water quality, biodiversity and climate mitigation and adaptation. Without the co-operation of farmers, Ireland cannot reach its targets of cutting emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. We need to engage with farmers and other stakeholders to review and analyse the full range of land diversification options, from horticultural production, protein crop production and organic farming to afforestation and agroforestry. Most of all, we must be guided by science. The science states we must reduce emissions to keep our planet from warming dangerously. We must ensure we listen to scientific advice to ensure every sector plays its part, while ensuring no sector is targeted unfairly.

To that end, I ask the Minister if he is aware that research by Teagasc has shown that multi-species grass swards can reduce artificial fertiliser use by 50%, increase the ability of soil to resist leaching and increase biodiversity. Will the Minister commit his Department to funding further research with a view to promoting widespread movement away from perennial ryegrass swards and an associated reduction in the use of imported artificial fertiliser to help reduce the price of inputs for farmers as they face significant challenges as a result of the Covid-19 crisis?

Finally, I wish to ask the Minister a question about gorse fires. I have a concern about the pressure being placed on emergency services during the Covid-19 crisis. In common with my colleague, Deputy Matthews, I am concerned about recent gorse fires in Kildare and Wicklow. Does the Minister believe his Department is working closely enough with hill farmers in areas at risk of out-of-control gorse fires, and is there anything further that can be done to work in a co-operative manner with farmers to ensure good land management in hill areas at risk of gorse fires?

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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On the latter point, the Department consistently advises farmers regarding the rules and regulations and timelines concerning when the burning of uplands is permitted. It is also brought to their attention that those in breach of those regulations run the risk of disqualifying themselves from their entitlement to payments from the Department. There is also a Commission interest in these matters. I concur with the Deputy that out-of-season burning is entirely unacceptable.

We have been adamant in that regard. People such as those in the Wicklow Uplands Council have been quite proactive in working with farmers and finding ways of managing uplands that does not involve breach of the regulations.

I was interested in the Deputy's reference to the Paris Agreement. We have signed up to targets at a European Union level. It is important to remind ourselves occasionally that the Paris Agreement refers to meeting those targets without compromising sustainable food production. This brings us to the point that, by any comparison, our food industry - notwithstanding that it can do much more - is carbon-efficient by global standards. The Deputy referred to research by Teagasc, which has an independent budget for research that is quite innovative when we consider what it has achieved for the industry. Our ambition in the sector is to implement Teagasc research. Many people refer to the Teagasc marginal abatement cost curve, which is enabling us to tackle nutrient management issues in particular with respect to the application of chemical fertilisers and the appropriate management of organic fertilisers. That is the way forward in terms of science, innovation and research.

11:30 pm

Duncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)
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I hope there will be time at the end for the Minister to answer some questions. If not, I would appreciate it if I could receive some answers by means of correspondence. I first recognise the resilience and commitment of all the workers and producers in the agriculture sector in keeping our supermarket shelves stocked at this very difficult time. It is an industry vulnerable every year to various factors and with a pandemic thrown in, it is a testament to the sector that it can operate to the level it is at currently.

I am delighted Deputies Cahill and Leddin referred to allotments. I was concerned that I might be stretching the boundaries of the Minister's portfolio if I raised the matter. In my constituency of Dublin Fingal, urban meets rural and allotments are a very big deal. Many people have them. They play a big role in people growing their own food and there are mental health benefits. I received a number of representations on this. I am very committed to our public health guidelines - and I am quite strict about them - but I was running this matter through my head. I ask if the use of such allotments could be allowed while maintaining social distance and not risking a knock-on effect that would bring more loosening of restrictions. This could happen as these are private areas and many are gated. A simple rule of one person per allotment would mean that social distancing and any public health guidelines could be adhered to. This is a matter that must be re-examined.

There are public parks and open spaces where people can get outside for a period each day for walks and physical activity. Allotments could fall into this category. They may be even more protected from contamination by Covid-19 than public parks. Did the Government or the Department specifically instruct county councils to close access to gardening allotments and will the Minister consider reopening private gardening allotments operating within public health guidelines, as we can see is happening with public parks and open spaces?

In the context of supports for farmers, we know food production is an essential service and workers in that sector must ensure they can carry out this essential work within public health guidelines. Will the Minister detail the supports and protection being provided for dairy farmers with outside contractors working on their land? Is it necessary for workers to have PPE when social distancing may be difficult in some forms of work, as is the case in other sectors?

What interaction has the Department had with the beef industry since the closure of pubs and restaurants in order to maintain a functioning supply chain while the demand from the hospitality sector has slowed to an absolute crawl? Does the Department have plans to ensure that food produced does not result in waste due to overproduction or cause delays within the supply chain? Has the Department made plans to ensure farm safety inspections can continue to be carried out throughout the Covid-19 pandemic to ensure food production safety and the safety of workers in the sector?

I was very interested in the Minister's comments just now as they brought home to me the fact that on most farms children would be at school during the day and it would be a safe place to work. Farms are now a home and a place of work so those dangers have increased. I will certainly bring those comments to my party to get that message out of increased safety and vigilance on farms. What statistics are available for farm safety since the beginning of February, when the country started to deal with the public health emergency and how do they measure against statistics for periods prior to the outbreak of Covid-19?

I am very interested in the EU support package for farmers. Farmers have already been struggling with cashflows in the beef sector with a basic call for fair distribution of profits over the past year. I know some farmers feel undervalued and underappreciated by certain players in the supply chain in the beef sector. I would argue that regardless of the pandemic we face, farmers are always key members of the workforce that keeps the wheels of our nation turning. It is about time their voices are truly heard on the issue of a fair deal for their produce and decent support for their vital work during this time. Further to the EU support package for farmers, what plans does the Government have for income support for beef farmers? Does the Government have plans to ensure that no farmer working to supply the country with food and to make an honest living does not fall into financial ruin during the period and that income supports are available to the sector?

Are there plans to reopen marts in line with public health guidelines? I know other Members have raised this in the last hour. We are coming into the peak dairy production season. Have measures been put in place to ensure high-skilled workers across this area of manufacturing and production can work to ensure we meet the demands of peak production?

The horticulture sector is a big sector in Fingal. In the past two weeks a matter known as the Keelings issue has come to light. Of course, this is an issue that exists nationwide. There are many different strands to it and we need to be very careful when discussing the issue. In recent years we probably turned a blind eye to the need for seasonal migrant labour to come here. They are skilled labour force coming in, reaping our crop and making sure it gets to our supermarkets. There have been issues with pay and conditions that have gone unheralded by the majority in recent years. These have been brought to light in recent weeks. Are we, as a society, happy to stand over poor pay and conditions for seasonal migrant labour? I know I am not. This matter needs real attention in coming weeks and months.

We also have issues with public health; we are working in a pandemic. Are the seasonal migrant labourers coming to work in our country being protected? Are the companies looking after them? Are they being accommodated correctly? How can we be sure that the restrictions the companies claim are in place are actually being put in place? That applies to the workers and to the communities in which they work because they need to shop, socialise and exercise in the surrounding communities.

These are really important issues that we need to get hold of. The elephant in the room and the issue Keelings exposed and for which we all have responsibility is that we have a particular element in Irish political life at the moment. We have these far-right ethno-nationalist people trying to sow division and hatred. I know this is absolutely rejected by the vast majority of people in this House. When we are talking about seasonal migrant labour, we need to be cognisant that there are toxic elements in our society seeking to harness these issues, pollute them and turn them into political footballs to sow division and hate and to promote their absolutely toxic politics.

I ask the Minister and everybody else to condemn that and to commit to being cognisant of that so that when we have issues relating to pay and conditions, which need to be looked at irrespective of the pandemic, all workers who come to work in our country in whatever sector are looked after appropriately. When these elements are trying to use them to promote their horrible racist agendas, we as a State and as a society need to protect them from that.

11:40 pm

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. I will try to deal with many of the issues he has raised. On the issue of migrant workers, the European Commission in a communiqué in late March made a specific appeal to member states to recognise that this section of the workforce needed to be facilitated. They have been an integral part of, in particular, the horticulture sector here for many years. Many people who work here come back year after year.

That in itself is a statement in respect of the terms and conditions under which they are employed. I do not wish to comment on social media posts and so on but I acknowledge the Deputy's point about some people hijacking this issue for other motives. If there are issues which need to be brought to the attention of the relevant authorities, that should be done. Otherwise, it is a case of give a dog a bad name and you hang him. People will deliberately conflate issues and that does a significant disservice to those who provide valuable and honourable employment opportunities for migrant workers, and they are an integral part of the horticultural sector in particular. I accept many of the points made by the Deputy in that regard.

There are supports for the beef sector other than those from the EU. As I stated in response to Deputy Heydon, €85 million has been allocated to direct support schemes. A long time ago, the Common Agricultural Policy moved from supporting product prices to supporting incomes. The market determines the product price but the schemes funded by the State or the European Commission support incomes. There is €85 million available through schemes for beef farmers this year in addition to anything we may secure through our endeavour at European Union level. I ask Members to encourage farmers, particularly suckler farmers, to apply under the beef environmental efficiency programme.

11:45 pm

Photo of Holly CairnsHolly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)
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I join other Deputies in expressing sympathies to the families of all those who have passed during the pandemic and in paying tribute to all essential workers.

Compared with education, health or housing, food is rarely thought of as being an area of public policy, but it is. It has taken this crisis for many people to realise the importance of our food producers and retail workers. It has forced us to ask where our food comes from and it has exposed our vulnerability in terms of food security. The flour shortage became a bit of a joke for some people looking to bake their way through the crisis, but it shows that many have been surprised to learn how much we rely on imports for basics such as flour, fruit and vegetables. Even the majority of our potatoes come from abroad.

When we rely so heavily on imports, we leave ourselves exposed to disruptions that are completely out of our hands, such as this crisis or Brexit. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has warned of disruptions to supply chains. Closer to home, the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association has pointed to our flour shortage, and a fresh outbreak of avian flu is causing an egg shortage. We have seen the impact that panic buying and stockpiling is having on food banks. The Committee on World Food Security has stressed the importance of strengthening government management of food markets, yet in many areas Ireland is a net importer of food. Central Statistics Office figures show that we import more seafood, milk, cereals, vegetables and fruit than we export.

The Government needs to take an active role in transforming our agriculture sector to ensure it is balanced and capable of producing the food we need. This emergency and future emergencies demand that food systems move towards a more self-sufficient model. Small change is not enough. It is time for transformative and systemic change. It will not be easy. Our food system is so complicated, as is the global one of which it is a part, with competing priorities such as consumer preferences, carbon footprint, animal welfare, economics and biodiversity, that there are inevitable conflicts.

What lessons can we learn from this situation? If we had known five years ago that this crisis was going to occur, how would we have prepared better for it? What we grow and eat is the result of our political choices. We know that, unfortunately, there will be more hard times like this as a result of Brexit and the climate and biodiversity crises. The bottom line is that families need access to healthy and affordable balanced diets, and farmers and other producers need to be able to earn a living.

With this mind, I ask the Minister what plans the Department would put in place to prepare for future potential disruptions to international food supply chains and end the country's reliance on imported fresh produce. What steps would the Minister take to expand our capacity to produce our own fruit and vegetables instead of importing produce that could be grown here? Throughout this crisis, we have heard politicians referring to taking expert advice, something I think we all agree is a great call, but it is not just during a pandemic. We talk about achieving a balance between a fair price for food producers, a fair wage for those who work in the food industry and a fair price for consumers.

Experts have advised that, where possible, shortening the supply chain between producers and consumer is vital which is why I, like many others, was shocked at the closure of farmers' markets. Just like supermarkets, they are essential food retail outlets. After I drew attention to this, people were in touch with me from Cork, Waterford, Limerick and beyond, seeking their immediate reopening. Thriving markets in west Cork and nationwide create supply chains that help us secure food sovereignty and attract thousands of tourists. Many market traders are small-scale producers with extremely tight operating margins who rely on the markets with direct access to customers taking out the so-called middle man. Before closure, markets showed great ingenuity in enabling social distancing and responsible transactions. Initiatives like NeighbourFood have helped connect consumers and producers during this time but what rural communities really need is a return to weekly markets. Bearing all this in mind, I ask the Minister to ensure that farmers' markets will be allowed to reopen as soon as possible as forms of essential retail outlets. Like everybody here today, I ask him to enable allotments to reopen at the same time as sources of small-scale food production.

Respecting workers is fundamental to a sustainable food model. In the recent Keelings controversy ,the media focused on the spread of the coronavirus but the incident highlights a broader issue within the food industry, namely, the treatment of workers. Although the jobs were advertised, it was not economically viable it seems for local people to take them. This is typical of the sector. Ireland, like the UK and other countries, relies on international, seasonal and temporary workers who are often treated poorly. This situation is even worse in the developing world where agricultural workers are subjected to horrendous abuse and exploitation. We need an agrifood system that can support families and communities, both in west Cork and Ireland and globally. To give us all confidence that the food we consume originates from a fair and just system, can the Minister instruct the Department to play a more active role in ensuring that the food produced in Ireland and imported here has been produced ethically? Bearing in mind that tomorrow is International Workers' Day, what measures are in place nationally and on a European level to ensure the protection of the rights of workers whether permanent, temporary or migrant, during the Covid-19 emergency?

11:55 pm

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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When we talk about food security it is important to remember that while we do import substantial volume and value of food, we are a very significant exporter of food to over 180 countries. Our exports in 2019 were valued in excess of €14 billion and sustain employment for over 170,000 people. There is a global complexity to the food market to which the Deputy alludes and I accept that consumers are interested in shorter food supply chains but we have certain global advantages in terms of our capacity to produce certain foods and I do not think they are incompatible with each other. Farmers' markets, the organic sector and allotments are all part of the milieu of shorter food supply chains. There is a role for that. The value of the organic sector relative to the value of the agrifood industry is minuscule and not everybody will become organic and not everybody can afford the premium associated with it. There is a role for both. We have a support scheme for the horticultural sector in 2020 in the order of €6 million. It will grow the products that it is commercially viable for it to grow. It is cheaper to import some things and that is the reality of the market place and we cannot force people to engage in enterprises which will not give them an economic return. We do support the horticulture sector.

On the question of the ethics of food production, we have laws in respect of minimum wage for example. All employees are protected by that. It is one of, if not the highest minimum wage levels in the European Union.

That is a fundamental protection for workers. Many employers pay more than that. Many provide accommodation, as well as the minimum wage, or higher, for their employees. I would be concerned if the impression went out that this is an exploitative industry operates without any reference to the legal framework that applies to it. I have no evidence to suggest that, and it would be wrong to create the impression that we are dealing with a sector that is indifferent to ethics or workers rights. Obviously, we operate within the EU in the context of ethics in the broader sense, in terms of animal welfare and so on. An issue which attracts a great deal of concern is that relating to live exports but we have standards here that are higher than the minimum requirements set down by the EU for live exports. We are very conscious of our obligations in that regard and of our customer's concerns in that regard. We operate to EU standards-plus in that area.

In the context of food security, there is no room for complacency. I have often made the point that across the EU there are challenges regarding the age profile in agriculture. We have an ageing workforce across the EU and that is a big challenge. There is a real danger, if we do not attract new blood into the industry, that we could run off a cliff in terms of our food security. Ireland is, as an island nation, one of the most food-secure countries on Earth. It is joint first with Canada but there is no room for complacency. We have an age profile problem in agriculture, as do many countries across the world, not just in the EU. Nothing can be taken for granted here. In terms of the reform of the CAP, this is one of the areas about which we must be careful. We cannot just seduce young people into a career in agriculture but must also ensure that we can give them security in terms of an income that is comparable to what their peers earn in other sectors.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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I have three questions. I would like to pose a question, get an answer and so on. I raised earlier the issue of Keelings with the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, and she informed me that the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, has the authority to go into any workplace and inspect it. Does the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine agree that the HSA should inspect the Keelings workplace?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Can I just intervene for one moment? I am very conscious of the fact that several Deputies have alluded to a particular fruit producing company. We have had references to employment standards, ethical production and so on. I put it to Members that this House is not in a position to make a definitive judgment on any employer or place of employment. I do not want to interfere with people asking questions but I ask Members to be very careful.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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I am asking for an inspection in order that we can find out. I have an internal document from the company - which I will not name again - which refers to family groups and hostel groups which, in my opinion, clearly indicates that social distancing guidelines are not being followed and that workers' health is being endangered. The document states that the accommodation units will be regarded as family units. It indicates that family units are of 50 people or more, with effectively no social distancing between those 50-plus people who are considered to be part of one family unit. It also states that workers may at times be required to "change family unit", meaning that this workplace may well be a hotspot waiting to happen. The company also admitted to RTÉ that its workers share bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens, making social distancing impossible and putting workers' health at risk.

There are two issues here. One is the issue of the union Unite which, in the past, has tried to represent these workers, to access these workers to discuss their rights with them and help to organise them. The second issue is that of a Government or State agency being able to inspect the workplace. I, along with workers, have been sent from pillar to post trying to work out the body with responsibility here. Originally, we were sent to the HSE but we got a response from the executive saying that this is not its responsibility.

The Minister said today that the HSE has powers. We will see about that. The HSA has said that it does not have powers to enforce the Covid-19 guidelines.

Earlier, the Minister said the HSA has power. Let us accept that as it is and presume it does not need to be granted additional powers. The question then is simply should workplace inspections take place so that we can see precisely what the problem is and whether workers' interests are being endangered.

12:05 am

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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I am reminded of Deputy Duncan Smith's comment earlier about people who want to conflate a load of issues to point fingers at people who may have done no wrong. We have the appropriate authorities within the State to inspect and protect workers. As it happens, the HSA is not under the remit of my Department and I am not in a position, nor do I think it is my function or that of the appropriate line Minister, to direct those authorities to do their job in a particular way. They are set up to carry out their functions and they do so quite well. I share the concerns that there is an attempt to malign, without any real evidence, a particular company and sector. This is a sector that provides very valuable employment to many people who come back again and again to work for the same company.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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The evidence I have is a document from inside the company that I will not mention again and is not disputed by the company. The document indicates that 50 or more people are being considered part of a family unit and people can be moved from one family unit to another. A statement given to RTÉ indicated that people are sharing bedrooms and so on, which suggests to me that social distancing is not possible. I asked the Minister a question earlier and I did not get an answer, but I suspect the answer is zero. I asked how many on-site inspections have taken place in respect of the Covid-19 guidelines.

I will move on to a similar issue, namely, meat factories. I will not name the factory concerned, which is in Ballyjamesduff. Many people received an email containing allegations about conditions there. SIPTU and the MRCI issued a statement confirming that they received calls from SIPTU members, many of whom are migrant workers, who are concerned about health and safety. Social media reports allege that up to 160 workers at the meat plant were continuing to work while showing symptoms of Covid-19. Meat factories and other workplaces could follow nursing homes in becoming the next big Covid-19 clusters. The original response of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine was to say that responsibility for health and safety lies with the management of each meat establishment, taking into account the relevant public health advisories issued by the HSE and other Government agencies. It simply is not good enough to say that companies are responsible and for Departments to wash their hands of the situation.

The Minister for Health has since responded to Deputy Boyd Barrett and said the alleged outbreaks are being investigated by the Health Protection and Surveillance Centre and local departments of public health as a matter of urgency. Have there been on-site inspections yet? This is important in terms of workers' health and safety.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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I alluded to this point in previous questions. We are aware of six clusters within the meat processing industry. We have direct staff and contracted staff in those operations who work closely with management and the HSE. I am assured that all steps are being taken. The import of the Deputy's question seems to be that management in these companies would in some way jeopardise the ongoing production of their own plant operations. The primary concern in all of these cases is the safety of employees in plants and citizens in the country generally. Where there are issues of concern, companies work with the Department and local HSE officials to deal with them. I am aware testing has been carried out on workers because of co-operation with the HSE and management and that is as it should be. This is a pandemic. People get infected by one source or another.

8 o’clock

Plants have responded by reducing throughput and implementing social distancing, putting in place Perspex screens and introducing a host of initiatives that are appropriate in various different workplaces, including those relating to the meat industry. That is as it should be. We are involved in an industry that is critical to the food supply chain and keeping supermarket shelves stacked, but not at the expense of putting the workers in jeopardy. I am assured by the information I have in my Department, as well as the staff working in those places and their co-operation with management and the HSE, that everything is being done in the first instance to protect workers.

12:10 am

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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I do not share the Minister's touching faith in the attitudes of these employers.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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Why am I not surprised?

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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They are not driven primarily by the safety and the health of their workers; they are driven primarily by the maximisation of their profits and sometimes workers' health and safety can be sacrificed at the expense of that. That is the allegation made by some of these workers.

My final question is about the future of agriculture. Small farmers are facing the brunt of the coronavirus crisis right now. When the crisis comes to an end, climate change is going to hit them hard. Are we going to continue with a model of agriculture which prioritises the profits of the big beef barons - Larry Goodman and others - or are we going to use this opportunity to start working on a different way of using the land which gives priority to the interests of small and medium-sized farmers? We need to rapidly transition away from intensive beef and dairy production to a sustainable low-carbon model of agriculture, without loss of income and, indeed, with a guaranteed decent income for small and medium-sized farmers. Will the beef task force meet, will the BPS payments be brought forward for small farmers, and will the Minister work on developing such a plan?

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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With regard to the previous issue, the Deputy does not substantiate his allegations but he is prepared to propagate them. That is unfortunate.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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The Minister did not substantiate the claim that these people care about their workers.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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I am substantiating the defence insofar as staff from my Department are working in conjunction with management in those plants as well as local HSE officials. There is nothing to suggest the allegation the Deputy is making, whether against those meat plants or any of the aforementioned workplaces, is true.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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I should-----

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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It is a smear tactic dressed up as concern, which is regrettable.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Minister.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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I was not-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Please. We now move to the Regional Independent Group. I call Deputy Denis Naughten.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I turn to the issue of EU supports. After weeks of intensive lobbying, the European Commission eventually announced an aid to private storage scheme for both lamb and beef, which is paltry in value terms and the conditions regarding the cuts make it virtually worthless. The United States has introduced a Covid-19 support scheme for its farmers which is equivalent to €9,518 per individual. The EU, on the other hand, has provided a Covid-19 support equivalent of €8 per farmer. That is 1,190 times less support being given by the European Commission to European farmers than the US is giving its own farmers. As a very first step, will the EU ensure that the aid to private storage scheme for both beef and lamb caters for the cuts where there is no demand for them at present, rather than the current conditions being placed on it?

Will the Minister ensure that we have a second beef exceptional aid measure, BEAM, scheme to offset the loss in income for beef farmers as a result of the fall-off in trade due to Brexit? Some €100 million was set aside last year to compensate beef farmers for the first six months of losses from Brexit. That was €16.6 million per month for the first six months. We need another €166 million to cover the losses over the last ten months as a result of Brexit, plus €20 million in the underspend in the first round of BEAM. That is before we look at the issue of losses due to Covid-19.

A fund of at least €186 million needs to be put in place to compensate beef farmers for the loss of income as a result of Brexit. In addition, a scheme of exceptional aid needs to be put in place for the lamb and beef industries due to Covid-19. What are the chances of securing real investment from the European Commission in line with what is happening in the US?

12:15 am

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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I am somewhat surprised that Deputy Naughten has followed the path worn by Deputy Carthy, who has left the Chamber, and is advocating for the US model of agriculture. I am staggered by it. US farmers are dumping milk and have seen their beef plants close. At least we have managed to keep milk collected and farmers paid for that milk, albeit there is a price challenge in that regard.

Deputy Naughten cited the EU's response. I agree it is inadequate and we continue to make that case, but that inadequacy is on top of levels of support that are there generally. American agriculture is a free market model with no supports for family farms. It is an industrial model of agriculture that we should avoid like the plague. I am surprised Deputy Naughten is following the example of Sinn Féin in advocating a Trump-style agriculture in Ireland or the EU.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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We said nothing about that. That is not what-----

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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We will continue to work in the EU with colleagues to try to deliver the best possible deal. As to whether that might be a BEAM 2, we are seeking exceptional aid measures for the livestock sector generally because we foresee difficult challenges ahead for it. We have moved from a situation where the response to countries was to relax state aid rules and tell them to go off and fix it themselves to one where the Commission has shifted ground. We hope it will shift ground more, but if it does not, we are aware of what our obligations might be domestically.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I never advocated a US model.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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I am glad to see the Deputy is not.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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Rather, I showed the stark contrast in the levels of support being provided in the US versus Europe. Many colleagues in the Dáil have highlighted the disparaging level of support of €8 per EU farmer that is being provided.

While we are on the issue of the European model of agriculture, I listened intently to the Minister's response to Deputy Carthy regarding beef imports from other EU states. Will the Minister explain why beef processors are importing beef for reprocessing in this country at a time when we are exporting 600,000 tonnes of beef and Irish finishers are losing between €200 and €250 a head?

My colleague, Deputy Lowry, asked the Taoiseach about bringing forward direct payments from October to July. The Taoiseach stated that he believed it was a good idea and that he had already spoken to the Minister about the possibility. Will the Minister give the House a response to the Taoiseach's request?

Given the six Covid-19 outbreak clusters that have been identified in the meat industry, has any concern been brought to the Minister's Department by its officials in those plants or by the veterinary officers, who are paid by the Department, in those plants about the operation of same or the social distancing that should be applied therein?

Will the Minister clarify something for me? I have been told of allegations about the plants. I do not know whether they are true, but I would like him to investigate. I have been told that staff have been brought into some of these plants from third countries who have high incidences of Covid-19 without the 14 days of quarantine being applied before they start work. Will the Minister confirm this practice has not happened?

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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If the Deputy has evidence of the latter, he should bring it to the appropriate authorities.

Evidence from my chief veterinary officer and staff in the Department is that at these individual plants, everything is being done by management, in conjunction with my Department and the HSE, to deal with these issues.

On the issue of bringing forward payments, we have had discussions with the Taoiseach on these matters but as they currently stand, EU regulations do not permit the bringing forward of payments earlier than 16 October. That may change.

On imports, I know there is a populist element to this in saying that we should not bring in any beef. In an ideal world, we would not bring in any beef, we would eat our own beef and we would send it everywhere else to be eaten. The National Farmers Union in the UK is kicking up about Irish beef on UK supermarket shelves. We export 90% of what we produce. We would be the biggest losers if there were to be a renationalisation. The Deputy is effectively calling for a nationalisation of the Irish market for Irish beef.

12:20 am

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I am not. I notice the Minister is not answering the question.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy is calling for an Irish market for Irish beef. I would love for that to be the case while, at the same time, selling our beef everywhere else without any consequences. We need to be the most vigilant about renationalisation because we are very dependent on exports.

This issue is not something that I welcome but I am certainly not going to jump on a populist bandwagon because our primary interest is in making sure the European market works for us and we have access to those markets. If there were only an Irish market for Irish beef, we could have beef for breakfast, dinner and supper and we would still not eat all the beef we have. We need to make sure that we maintain access to markets in the UK, France and every other market within the European Union. That is the most important thing for the beef farmers we represent.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I note that the Minister did not answer my question about beef imports. That is the point I am making. I understand the broader issue very well. As the Minister knows, the United Kingdom is not a net exporter of beef. Ireland is a net exporter. We export nine out of ten animals, yet we are importing beef. What is the justification for that? I do not believe there is one.

There is a lack of equitable support from the European Commission. That is something the Minister has acknowledged and a weakness that I have identified. Can the Minister redouble efforts to ensure, at a minimum, that those regulations that restrict the payment of EU supports until October are amended this year to ensure we get income support to farmers much earlier in the year and also secure an additional tranche of funding for the income losses arising from Covid-19 and Brexit?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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As the time is up, perhaps the Minister will correspond with the Deputy on the other matters.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I thank and congratulate the farming community around the country, especially in Kerry, for continuing to work, as it always has in the past, when most other activities are closed down. I am glad that, when we look out the door or go down the road, we are meeting farmers with tractors, jeeps and trailers and that they are continuing to work, carry on and do their bit.

There is another thing I have to say that I have said to other Members in the Chamber. It is widely recognised that there is no excess carbon being emitted, or emissions being created, by farmers now, even though they are working to their maximum as they always have done. People who were focusing their attention on farmers and asking them to reduce the national herd had better start looking elsewhere. Maybe they should look up at the sky on a fine day. We can now see a blue sky from end to end so maybe the planes up there were the cause of the trouble. Maybe other things around the world were causing the trouble because it is not the farmer.

The farmer is in serious trouble. Whether a weanling is to be sold or an animal is going to the factory, farmers are losing between €200 and €300 per head. I ask the Minister to do something about the marts. Every mart, whether in Macroom, Kenmare, Castleisland, Cahersiveen or Dingle, has a capacity to hold maybe 200 or 300 people.

Yet, at present the farmer is being asked to drop his animals off at the gate or maybe the mart manager will come out and buy the cattle with some buyer or whatever. That is not satisfactory. While I recognise that it is important to sell the animals, it is equally important to get a good and fair price. There is no competition in the market now. I am asking the Minister to talk to the mart people, the Irish Farmers Association and everyone involved to see if we could get the marts open in a capacity whereby perhaps 20 buyers could go in with ten sellers at a time. That should surely be possible. I call on the Minister to do that sooner rather than later. If there is no competition - there is none at present between buyers - then farmers will not realise the best price, the price they should be getting.

The question of meat processing plants has been raised here. Some of the meat plants admitted that they had to process Polish beef. At the same time, I know farmers around me everywhere who cannot get their animals into the factory. If they have 20 animals to sell or put through the factory, they have to wait. Maybe the factory will take five or six. They then have to wait weeks and that is costing them.

John Tyson of Tyson Foods in America says he is closing down many of his processing plants. Surely there is an opportunity for us to explore other markets, whether they are west or east of us. Anyway, we have to do something. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has been the Minister all this time. It is him I am asking what can be done. Can he do more for the farmers? How much money was sent back from the beef exceptional aid measure last year? The rules were totally wrong and the regulations meted out to farmers did not allow them to get the money. Many farmers did not access the BEAM at all. Will the Minister address that? The money we are getting from Europe is paltry. They should be doing far more for the farmers.

12:25 am

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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First, I want to outline that earlier this week I met the leadership of the IFA in County Kerry. We had a comprehensive meeting because the representatives knew there would be speaking time before the Minister this evening. It is important to speak on behalf of the farmers and not only those from Kerry. The farmers in Kerry have the same problems as farmers from around the country. What I would like to do is address the issue of the €24 million that was unspent last year from the beef exceptional aid measure. At the time of the last budget in October 2019 the Minister said he had €85 million for beef farmers. There was no mention of taking any money from the BEAM to finance the beef environmental efficiency programme at the time. I am aware of comments the Minister made since to the effect that the €24 million is not available to us now and that it is already spent. The Minister cannot go around spending the same money twice. It was either there or it was not there. The funny thing about it is that the Minister never told us it was money that he was announcing twice. I want clarity on that. Is the €24 million there or not?

The Minister is well aware that before the Covid-19 crisis the price of beef had gone down considerably. It could have gone down by between €100 and €200 per head. As of today, it is €3.40 per kg. People are losing money. Farmers are losing money by producing beef right now. People want to keep working and farming. They are doing their best in these hard times but we will need help. We need practical things to happen. For instance the Minister could bring forward the farm payments. For God's sake, will the Minister do everything he can to bring forward any farm payments that will be out at the end of the year? Will he do this with his counterparts in Europe to bring forward all payments as early as July, or beforehand if he can, to help people with their cashflow?

I also want to speak about our milk farmers. Milk is down in price. It was down 2 cent per litre for March. We do not know yet what the price for April will be. Anyway, in every sector, whether it involves sheep men or beef men, people are finding it so difficult to make money.

I want to tackle the importation of beef from outside the EU. Last year, we imported over 320,000 tonnes.

Surely be to God that type of importation of beef from outside the EU should be suspended in these difficult times. I am calling on the Minister to do everything he possibly can do to help our farmers.

I also want to speak about our fishermen who also are in trouble. I know the Minister has been negotiating with his EU counterparts. He discussed it with me and I thank for him for doing that. As the Minister has said himself, the best place to store fish is in the water. It is about not bringing in fish, storing it and then flooding the market at some other time. The proper thing to do is have a scheme to allow the fishermen survive while being tied up at the pier. It is not sensible that they should be fishing for intervention. We have these categories of fishermen who are in trouble. We also have the situation with trawlers under 10 m which are in trouble. Will the Minister do everything he can to help all sizes of trawlers and all categories of fishermen? They are in west Cork in Castletownbere, Cahersiveen and Dingle. All they are trying to do is make a living or supplement their existing incomes through fishing.

We have mussel farmers trying to do their best but who are also in trouble. Now more than ever before, I am calling on the Minister to do his level best for these people. He must remember that we want him to be togged out on the field fighting for our farmers and fishermen. We want him to do everything he and his Department can do in these difficult times.

With regard to regulations, now is the time to show leadership. We know we must have cross-compliance and regulations in place. However, common sense needs to be put in place too. Officials in the Department must be instructed by the Minister to give farmers a break. They are tied up with red tape and every other colour of tape that one could possibly imagine. Will the Minister please give them a break and allow them to do a simple thing, namely, make a living or part of a living to the best of their ability?

12:35 am

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Minister has only 20 seconds. We can ask him to correspond with the Deputy.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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Will the Ceann Comhairle give him a little more time? After coming all the way from Kerry to hear what he has to say, will you give him one minute?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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If I do that for you, Deputy, I will have to do it for everyone else.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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Will you give him a chance, please?

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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As it was not raised in any great detail by other Members, I will reply to the fishing points.

I have had a lot of engagement, including as late as yesterday, with representatives of the fishing industry. The Deputy is correct in his analysis that there is a challenge whether one is an inshore or offshore fisherman. We have been granted a freedom to reallocate European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, EMFF, funding. The problem is that there is not a lot of funding under EMFF that is not previously committed. We are looking, however, at the opportunity to do something for the sector. I appreciate it is a question of doing it as soon as possible. I have had much engagement on this.

On the point about imports to the European Union, I alluded to it earlier that we export to 180 different countries. If we ban imports, those countries to which we export may well say they do not want our exports either. We need to be extremely careful. I have spoken to the Commissioner about the issue of imports to see if there were legal instruments available to us in certain circumstances. I am advised there are not.

A similar point was alluded to previously about the renationalisation of markets. If fish from Dingle was on its way to the Spanish market, as happens, and the Spanish said they did not want our fish and stopped it at a port in Spain, we would not be happy. We must ensure we protect the European market because we are the biggest beneficiaries of that free market.

I have had much engagement with marts. I know the mart in Kenmare which is near my own area. Dan McCarthy does a great job there. We are engaged with the marts to see how we can liberate them further without transgressing HSE Covid-19 guidelines. I do not want to raise expectations that anything will happen in the short term. However, we are in constant engagement with the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society, ICOS, and with the Association of Livestock Marts, the private mart operators, to see what other progress can be made.

12:45 am

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Minister. We must proceed. I call Deputy Pringle who is sharing with colleagues.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I am sharing with Deputy McNamara and Deputy Fitzmaurice.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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I have one quick question. I am pleased to see that after nearly two hours here fishing was mentioned in the previous question. The only question I wish to ask relates to fishing. I want to know the Minister's plans. Previously, he said he did not want to redirect the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, EMFF, because he felt it was not suitable. What is going to happen in regard to fishing? What is critically important as well is that all fishermen will be assisted. It might take different measures to assist different categories of fishermen, such as those with boats of under 10 m in length, but all fishermen should benefit from whatever measures are introduced by the European Union. It is vitally important to make sure that everybody does benefit. A number of existing financial measures for Covid-19 do not apply to fishermen or farmers anyway. That is in the document. I checked it this evening on the website before I came into the Chamber. Only one out of three of the criteria apply to fishermen or farmers. It is vitally important that the Minister would outline what is going to happen for the different elements of fishermen within the State. Perhaps he would respond to those questions.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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We recognise that we have some room to manoeuvre in terms of EMFF funding that may have been earmarked for expenditure in other areas but due to Covid-19 it will not now be necessary. We are looking at how we might reallocate the funding.

There is a view that up to €30 million is available in the context of uncommitted EMFF funding but there is not the smell of that kind of money. We are looking at what resources we might be able to allocate. I accept Deputy Pringle's point about all the sectors, including the inshore sector. I have been quite proactive in terms of looking after the inshore sector, as Deputy Pringle is aware. I refer to such measures as excluding the larger boats from inshore waters. I am very keen that in any deliberations we have on these matters that the National Fisheries Inshore Forum, NIFF, would be in the room. As recently as yesterday its representatives were in the room in consultation on these matters with all of the other producer organisations, POs, and representatives of processors, including from Deputy Pringle's constituency. We are acutely aware of the situation.

A person employed on a fishing boat that boat is tied up and who becomes unemployed is entitled to the Covid-19 payment of €350. A self-employed person who is now unemployed is entitled to the Covid-19 payment. The sector is as entitled to the horizontal supports as any other sector.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)
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What about assistance for ongoing costs? For a small vessel the costs can be up to €12,000.and that has to be paid continuously.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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That point is applicable to every sector in the economy. I appreciate that in the context of tonight's debate the issue is what other supports might be available. However, whatever other supports are available, we need to make sure that we get the maximum bang for our buck in terms of how we target the funding. In consideration of that, I am following two direct levels of engagement on these matters with representatives of the fishing industry.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I thank the Minister for facilitating this debate. First, we must give our condolences to the families of those people who have died over the past month or six weeks. I also thank the farming community right around the country and across Europe for keeping the flag flying, as well as those who process produce. People who were once kicking the daylights out of farmers should now appreciate what they have done in this time of crisis.

I have a few questions for the Minister. My understanding is that Europe has agreed that the single farm payment or basic payment scheme, BPS, will roll over for a year or possibly two years. Is that set in stone yet? If so, will other schemes such as GLAS and the environmental scheme be rolled over as well until we have the new package in place, especially in light of Brexit and the current situation?

The rules in the EU at present seem to be that one can give state aid or help out in situations. The rule book has been basically torn up fairly well in the line of rules and regulations throughout Europe. I heard a question that was down to the Minister earlier. A few years ago, where France's computer system had glitched in a scheme similar to the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, they paid the money out of the exchequer to the farmers and then recouped it when it came back. Are we considering doing anything for the farming community in the line of bringing the payments forward, taking it out of the national Exchequer, which by the way we are allowed do, and taking it back when it comes in the envelop from Europe?

On a beef exceptional aid measure, BEAM, scheme, we had a conference where each representative talked to the Minister and his officials a few weeks ago. Cattle prices are at 340c/kg at present. Sheep prices are dropping. I think it is €15 per lamb today. Is there a scheme being brought up by the Department to try and put life into this? The intervention or cuts that are going may help, but the figures that Europe has given would be spent by the Minister in Ireland, never mind what 26 or 27 countries will do, in a week. It was a derisory amount of money in the whole-of-Europe effort when one considers what we would produce, be it in milk, beef or sheep. Will we do something to help those farmers?

On the Covid-19 payment, I want to be clear on whether someone who is not working somewhere else and is only a farmer can get it. My other question relates to the plants around the country. Has the Department figures for the numbers of people who have been in isolation or confirmed cases, and what does the Minister intend to do if the shutdown continues for the next few weeks, on the seven-month areas of natural constraints, ANC, scheme? I had more questions but I want to let Deputy McNamara go.

12:50 am

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I thank Deputy Fitzmaurice.

I have three succinct questions. I represent a coastal county. Obviously, I am concerned with the plight of fishermen, in particular those with boats under 10 m. Is the Minister actively considering a tie-up scheme? The Minister said he wanted to do something but he has not said what it is. Is it a tie-up scheme?

I refer to the beef taskforce. There are many constitutional constraints on this House - where it can sit, how it sits etc. There are no such constraints on the beef taskforce. It has not sat since January. Has it achieved its role which was to get Fine Gael through an election or will it produce something that is useful for farmers?

The Minister discussed imports tonight. I accept the position is as the Minister set it out to be but some of those imported foods have been labelled with Bord Bia quality assured labels which is of great concern. Will the Minister engage with Bord Bia to make sure with such imported foods there is not the potential for confusion which now exists because consumers associate a Bord Bia quality assured label with it being an Irish product? Sometimes it is and sometimes it is not.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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On the latter point, bar one exception where Bord Bia acknowledged there was a difficulty, if one sees a Bord Bia quality assurance stamp on it, it is an Irish product and there should be no mystery about that.

In terms of the issue of imports to which Deputy McNamara alluded, does it not send a shiver down his spine when he sees the National Farmers Union in the United Kingdom giving out to our retail partners in the United Kingdom about stocking Irish beef? That is the flip side of the coin.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I acknowledge it is as the Minister set it out to be.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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On the Beef Market Taskforce, I am amused at Deputy McNamara's inference that this was a vehicle - if that was the Deputy's view, it certainly did not work - to secure Fine Gael through the election. Far from it, the taskforce is a serious piece of work. It is in the difficulty that all of us are in in terms of meetings but there is ongoing engagement with all of the constituent members. The job that was identified for it continues in terms of reports that have been commissioned by independent bodies etc.

The work is important and it is ongoing.

There are may different segments to the issues facing the fishing industry, but I refer particularly to the inshore sector, the whitefish sector and the pelagic sector. The options are as outlined by the Commission. I have had a personal telephone call with the Commissioner on these matters. No additional funding is available from the European Union. There is only the flexibility to reallocate funds. A lot of our funding has already been committed to projects that will go ahead. The funding that is available is scarce and we must act on the basis of getting the maximum return on whatever scarce resources we have. The projects I have spoken about tie up our storage aid. We are looking at all of those at the moment.

In reply to Deputy Fitzmaurice I note that there is an issue around the transition period for the Common Agricultural Policy. We are looking for the maximum flexibility within that so that persons who have payments under existing schemes can continue to receive them. We are also seeking the flexibility to introduce new schemes to help us deliver on our climate ambitions, for example. We will need to work with farmers to encourage them to meet those targets and that is part of the necessary toolbox. We are looking for the maximum level of flexibility and we are making progress in that regard.

12:55 am

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Perhaps the Minister will correspond with the group on these matters.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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Perhaps I might make a final point on the areas of natural constraint, ANC, issue. As I alluded to earlier, I am not really in favour of flexibility on the ANC stocking rate. The Deputy alluded to the price of cattle. Removing the obligation on buyers of cattle to meet that stocking density requirement will completely remove the floor from the price of cattle. What looks like a good idea on a superficial level would have an adverse impact on the price of store cattle and weanlings.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Go raibh maith agat, a Aire. Sin deireadh leis na ceisteanna chun an Aire Talamhaíochta, Bia agus Mara. Tá gnó an lae tagtha chun deiridh.

The Dáil adjourned at 8.40 p.m. until 12 noon on Wednesday, 6 May 2020.