Dáil debates

Thursday, 19 January 2023

Agricultural and Food Supply Chain Bill 2022: Second Stage (Resumed)


Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

2:35 pm

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I listened to Deputy Cairns's contribution. She has put a lot of detailed work into the Bill, which I commend. Like any Bill, I have no doubt it can be improved. I hope that as the Bill goes through the House, the Minister will be open to suggestions for building on the basis of the Bill to see how it can be improved. On the other hand, it is time we moved ahead and brought in the Bill. The House must be more adaptive generally. If there are flaws in a Bill, and issues arise fairly rapidly with all new legislation, it should not take ten years to bring in the necessary amendments. I have seen that occur with a number of Bills over the years. It is a bad habit.

I always have a conflicted view on the word "independent", or not so much a conflicted view but a view that there needs to be a balance. We want everything to be independent. I know where people are coming from but when they get what they ask for, they are often frustrated. When one says "independent", that often means independent of the Oireachtas, the Minister and the people. The relationship between a Department and any agency is a delicate one. We must recognise that no matter what structures are put in place, humans will always find a way of doing it very well, not so well or sometimes very badly. It is very important that we do not wind up in the farcical situation, which I seem to hit against every week, where those asking questions of a Minister are told the matter is one for the National Transport Authority, NTA, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, or the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, and has nothing to do with the Minister. I asked a simple question today about whether it was intended, as was done with rural broadband, to put piped water into every house, rather than people having to depend on wells. About 10% of houses need piped water. I was told that was a matter for the CRU. It is not; it is a matter for the Oireachtas. It is important that the right balance is struck between the Minister and the powers and right of the regulator to get on with the job and do so efficiently. As I said, it must be debated in detail and that debate must be balanced.

While the situation is not analogous because it did not involve a regulator, with regard to the Údarás na Gaeltachta Bill, although I could not tell Údarás na Gaeltachta to put a factory in a particular spot, I could say I wanted certain industrial policies pursued in the Gaeltacht. I did that, for example, with regard to the most indigenous resource in the Gaeltacht, the language, when I instructed that 30% of funding was to go to language-based industries. I could not say where or set out the details. I had it written into the Act that I could give any general instruction I wanted. I would be answerable to the House at the time if I abused that. The issue of not putting it so far away from the Oireachtas that the people no longer have a say is something we need to get right.

I welcome this Bill. I first suggested this in 2014 when I was the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on agriculture. I looked at this vexed question and the agriculture committee at the time did a lot of work on it. I had raised in the committee the question of where the villains were. There are major issues in the supply chain in terms of pricing, cartels and all sorts of arrangements. I asked whether the big multiples were really dictating the price or if it was the processors. I visited the European Union a number of times. We did a lot of research and I received good help at the time. It became clear, for example, that the French were well ahead of us in at least analysing where the problem was. One cannot solve any problem if one does not know where to get the information. It became obvious that they were well ahead in legislative terms in getting and forcing the information. It can have a chastening effect on people if they know they are being watched. It is like CCTV cameras - if people know they are being watched, it can have quite a good effect. For this reason, I welcome the Bill. Más mall is mithid.

It is very late coming, but I hope it has an effect.

I concur with what Deputy Cairns said about the big boats. It is a scandal the way the fishing industry is organised. What we are doing in our society generally across the board is corporatising everything: the ownership of houses, the ownership of the boats and now ownership of the land for forestry. We are corporatising our society very fast. I do not know where the influence is coming from and whether it is the European influence or whatever else. I am still old-fashioned enough to believe that if we want a stable society, we must have diffuse ownership so that as many people as possible own something. It is the way to economic and social stability in society. It might not give the exponential growth, but it will give what is much more important in any human society, which is stability. Therefore, it is important that there would be a clear philosophy as part of this. What we want to do is keep the basic structures of Irish farming viable and to have a diffuse ownership of land rather than a few corporates slowly but surely holding more and more large tracts of land. As I stated in the Dáil yesterday, we took a long time to break that down and we do not want to go back to where we started.

2:45 pm

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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We have spoken here many times previously, and the Minister has spoken himself, about the necessity of having a decent food supply chain that provides people with adequately priced safe food. Beyond that, in the context of the wider agricultural industry, we are talking about the sustainability of family farms.

From the point of view of rebalancing, we all welcome the prospect of a food regulator. We have all spoken many times previously about the big processors, in particular the meat factories and the cartel-like behaviour, and the power differential. It is necessary that a rebalancing is done. We all accept that the EU unfair trading practices directive did not go far enough. We did not follow it up in this State with a sufficient number of teeth. I welcome the food regulator, but let us be clear: this will only work if the regulator has sufficient power and resources to do the business. Otherwise, it is another farce.

I welcome that the Minister has indicated that he is open to discussion and to hearing the ideas many Members will put forward to strengthen the regulator. The scope of the regulator is too limited. It can deal with business to business relationships, but that is not the entire agrifood supply chain. We must be able to deal with issues between businesses and consumers to ensure fairness and transparency. That is the idea behind the initiative.

In the investigation of complaints, the regulator must have the ability to look at breaches of competition law or cartel-like behaviour. We need those type of teeth. The regulator must be able to draw on information beyond what is already available in the public domain and, therefore, it needs to be able to examine all the ins and outs in the agrifood supply chain. We must also be able to compare prices and price differentials and take an international perspective.

As has been stated, at times there will be a need to update legislation. We must ensure that any proposals put forward by the regulator on changes that are necessary would be published alongside the reports. My colleagues have spoken about many other issues that require to be addressed. That is a necessity.

As this is the only opportunity I will get, we must examine sustainability regarding Coillte. We must have a strong conversation with the European Commission. We cannot have a sell-out to a British investment fund. That is not acceptable to anybody.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this important legislation. I have listened attentively to the speeches made by colleagues.

It is a timely intervention by the Minister to introduce this legislation. I am not sure it will do the job that we expect it to do. This is an indigenous industry that is self-sufficient. It kept this country going at times when there was nothing else going for it. There is a tendency in recent times to believe that there are alternatives. There are alternatives, but we do not like them.

Like other speakers, I am deeply suspicious of the use of vulture funds to intervene. I cite the case of the sugar beet industry, which was a vibrant entity. All of a sudden, we were told that we are not going to produce sugar in the future. Who told us that? We were told that the rest of Europe was doing the same. The rest of Europe did not do the same. Our nearest neighbours continued to successfully produce sugar beet for the manufacture of sugar. Other countries throughout Europe did the same time. I do not know why we should have gone down that road, but it was a mistake because it was a rotational crop that was beneficial to the soil and to regenerating the fertility of the soil and it was very important.

The Bill is necessary, but I am worried as to whether it is sufficiently strong to do the job that is required, such as protecting the producers and ensuring that consumers have a fair deal by having a supply. The carrot was held out to the producers in regard to the sugar beet industry - €177 million. One could not beat that. One could call it a sell-out or a buy-out, whichever way one wants to look at it. Of course they did not get it; it went to the processors, who took it gratefully and walked away.

I fully support the proposal that we must engage and meet climate change requirements. That is important. The rural and farming community has been doing that for years, but nobody identified it. They kept the necessary balance. I am worried that we could find ourselves in conflict between agriculture and the necessity to reduce carbon emissions. Both are necessary. Both must proceed in balance, along with each other, not one at the cost of the other. I hear talk of rewilding, but enough of this country is wild already. Enough of it is forlorn, desolate and wild. There are many thousands of acres of such land across the country. Those of us who come from rural Ireland know that full well. Much of it is not productive or arable and people trying to eke out an existence on it find themselves challenged on a regular basis. What I suggest in regard to rewilding, which is an important issue that must be addressed now, is that no arable land would be used where that is possible. We must maintain the food chain; we must live; and we must eat. We may well be required to produce more food in the future because I believe the next crisis will be a food crisis. We should know about that from the difficulties experienced in transporting food from different parts of the world. There are those who will say that we can get our food from elsewhere. The answer to that is we cannot. We would arrive at the end of the queue and like everybody else, we would have to wait.

I am not opposed to people making a profit. That is their entitlement. Everybody wants to make a profit. If one goes to work, one needs to make a profit. Otherwise, there is not much sense in going to work. I resent being told by multinational corporations such as vulture funds that they have the answer to our problems. Coillte has a bit of a history in this area. It is not so many years ago since it proposed to develop some of the forests for different reasons, sell off large tracts of them and build large houses for select people. We may have forgotten that, but it is still a fact of life.

It was at that, and was proceeding down that road. It was ridiculous and daft in the extreme.

I support the Bill. It is necessary. The Minister has achieved a balance between the environment and doing whatever can be done in that respect and the necessity to ensure that we do not close down the food producing sector. It would be taken up by competitors from all over the world who, very soon, would tell us that we should pay for our food because the sources have changed. While we have resources and the ability to produce at home, we need to nurture that and give guarantees insofar as we can. We need to give context, wherever possible, to achieve some degree of continuity and security and encourage the food producing sector to continue to produce food. If we do not continue to produce food, we may be left waiting. Like other speakers, I would love to speak for a lot longer but this is the way it is.

2:55 pm

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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We would love it too.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I plead with the Minister to bí cúramach and watch out for what is happening because there is a move towards a financial takeover by some interested people who see this as a viable target. Of course it is viable from their point of view, but we cannot eat viability. We have to produce food. Whatever else happens, there will be offers made to the food producing sector to do X, Y or Z and be different. We cannot live on or eat that. We cannot eat timber. We would love to eat timber, but we cannot.

I want to finish by saying that there are a variety of timbers and I have taken an interest in that all of my life. We can be productive from the point of view of the construction industry and contribute to that at home. There are many more areas we could contribute to it. I would like an opportunity to talk about the general issue in the not too distant future.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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I was not expecting to mention this, but as Deputy Durkan brought up sugar beet I want to agree with his comments. The closure of the sugar factory in Carlow was a huge and devastating loss not just to the Carlow but to the wider constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny and the south-east. We have not recovered from that loss. I want to support his comments on that. Various groups are trying to revamp the industry and it is to be hoped we can count on Government support for that.

The constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny has a mix of an urban and a large rural section. I am delighted to get the chance to speak on this Bill. As colleagues have said, the establishment of a food regulator has been a long-standing demand by Sinn Féin and will be widely welcomed throughout the farming community of Carlow and Kilkenny. I am often contacted by various beef and sheep farmers who feel the large processors and, by extension, retailers, that they sell to, through factories or local marts, are reaping huge profits at their expense. Pricing per head has fallen and those I have spoken to are angry. They are losing money on their livestock sales while supermarket prices have never been higher. A regulatory authority with the power to take action against the long-standing stranglehold of dominant processors, in particular meat factories and multinational retailers, is crucial in delivering a fair price to Irish farmers. Carlow and Kilkenny have some of the finest food producers anywhere in the country. Many would say we are very blessed with top quality land and the best of top quality produce is grown throughout the counties. However, for too long smaller farmers, who do not have the same resources to take on factories or marts to get better prices, have been at the mercy of larger meat factories. Our animals are predominantly on smaller family-owned farms and are free roaming with first-class traceability practices which all ensures we are producing exceptional and sustainable foods that many other countries cannot compete with.

My colleague, Deputy Carthy, has spoken on many occasions about the significant delays in getting the Bill to this stage. However, I welcome that we are at this stage and it is positive. It is important that it is seen as a first step as a lot of amendments are needed.

Recently, I was shocked to hear what farmers actually get for their produce. A sheep farmer gets, on average, €70 per animal. The same animal has the potential to earn a retailer well over €400. People who are not involved in agriculture on a day-to-day basis will be shocked because we all know the price of meat in supermarkets or butchers and obviously farmers are not getting their fair share of that in any way, shape or form. A lot of the factories are a law unto themselves. They control everything and dictate prices. I have heard anecdotally that farmers do not get paid for the whole animal and could get another €10 per head for an animal.

Another issue is the increase in cost in tags, which are now €1 each. That all adds to costs for farmers, but they not do not seem to be getting their fair share.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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Agriculture in Ireland is in a state of crisis. I do not say that lightly. Every year a large number of farmers are leaving the sector. The number of farmers has reduced significantly throughout the State over the past decade. According to Teagasc, which analysed the income of farmers, a full third of farmers were making a loss from their business. They were either going into debt or poverty. That is an incredible situation.

The current average salary of a beef farmer is around €16,000, a fraction of the average industrial wage. One third of farmers are only making a living because somebody is working off the farm as a teacher, nurse or some other enterprise off the farm. A full two thirds of the agricultural sector do not make a living wage from their farms, which is an incredible situation. One of the most important sectors in society, which creates food for the country and is the backbone of the rural community is, in truth, dysfunctional, not viable as currently structures and is collapsing in many parts of the country.

If the family farm dies, the whole of rural Ireland dies with it. That is an important point. We can have food lots and industrial sized farms to keep production up and make the figures look okay on a national basis, but they will not send children to local schools, play football for local teams or buy at local shops. As a result, the emptiness Deputy Durkan mentioned will increase in sectors of society. Truth be told, that emptiness is increasing due to Government policies.

I was in Castlepollard at the start of the week. People there are up in arms because the Government has closed the social welfare office. One of the key stakeholding enterprises or community organisations in the town which brought people into the town is gone. People are suffering as a result and have to travel further. Fewer people are coming into the town, which is hitting other enterprises.

I do not think this change in farming is happening by accident. The Government has driven it in many ways. There is a close relationship between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and many of the stakeholders in the sector. That is an important thing to say.

I was a member of the Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the last Dáil. I made the case for an Aontú Bill, namely the Equitable Beef Pricing Bill. If implemented, it would put a floor under the price beef so that factories could not buy beef from farmers at below the cost of production. I made the case for the Bill before the committee. The Fine Gael Chair of the committee at the time said it was unreasonable for farmers to expect a price above the cost of production for beef. That was an incredible statement. The current Minister, who is on his phone, was also at the meeting of the committee on that day. He agreed with the Fine Gael Chair of the committee that it was unreasonable to expect a price above the cost of production for beef. There is a difficulty straightaway in terms of how the two political parties are treating this issue.

The second issue is that Ireland is becoming a city state. There is no doubt about that at the moment. The spatial planning in this country is heavily focused on Dublin to the detriment of that city. Dublin is overheating. People cannot get homes, they cannot travel around, they cannot get their children into schools and so on. A third of the country is a sprawling commuter belt where young people are spending three hours a day commuting back and forth, in commuter hell, to Dublin to work. At the same time we have rural and regional Ireland emptying of its young people. It is incredible. The average age in Mayo is ten years older than the average age in Balbriggan. If young people want a job, they have to go to the commuter belt to get one. Again, that has not happened by accident. If one looks at the centre of political gravity in Fine Gael in particular, it is very clearly in Dublin. Just in the last week, Fine Gael nominated all of its Deputies from the Dublin Rathdown constituency as Ministers of State. It was kind of like "The Late Late Show". I wanted one for Deputy Durkan too but unfortunately the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, was not listening to me at that moment in time. It was like "The Late Late Show" for ministerial positions, with one for every Deputy in the constituency. We now have 12 Ministers or Ministers of State in Dublin. Put another way, 40% of those holding ministerial positions are in Dublin but County Dublin only makes up 26% of the population which means that there is a serious discrepancy in relation to representation and population. At the same time, 60% of counties in Connacht have no ministerial cover whatsoever. Human nature is human nature and people make decisions on the basis of the place that they know and they typically make decisions in favour of the places they know. That is one of the reasons we have a farming sector that is absolutely stuffed. Bad and all as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are with regard to rural and regional Ireland, it is wrong that the Labour Party and People Before Profit have not shown up for this debate. A national party should want to represent everybody living in the country but members of regional parties will not turn up for debates such as this one.

Farmers have fought hard to get this Bill to this stage. There is no doubt that they have had to pull the Government, kicking and screaming, to this point. I stood at a dozen factory gates during the protests back in 2019 when farmers were simply seeking a decent price for their beef. I went to the High Court on behalf of particular farmers who were suffering at the time. I was asked by farmers supplying the Dawn Meats factory in Slane to be their representative in talks with the Government. That was a very difficult protest for them but I am glad that there was some result from it. That said, poultry farmers in Cavan and Monaghan were forced recently to protest outside certain supermarkets and pig farmers were also forced to protest.

At the heart of this crisis is the supply chain for farming products, which is very profitable. The three elements of that supply chain are farmers, factories and supermarkets. Typically, all of the profits go to the factories and the supermarkets, with the people who are producing the goods getting very little. That is at the heart of this crisis. We have a dysfunctional market that favours the two end elements of the supply chain. In a normal economy, those factories and supermarkets would not be allowed to get to the critical mass that they have reached because it affords them enormous buyer power. There are so few of them and so many farmers that the factories and supermarkets can dictate the price and all of the other conditions of supply. That imbalance is the heart of this and that is what needs to be tackled through this Bill.

It is not unusual that the agricultural market is broken. The State's housing, banking and insurance markets are also dysfunctional. Unless we rebalance the agricultural producer element of the supply chain, we are not going to fix the market. How do we do that? Aontú's Bill would have put a floor under the price of beef. Teagasc would have been tasked with setting the cost of production every year and the factories would have had to purchase beef at a price above the cost of production.

3:05 pm

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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Will the Deputy explain that a bit more? It would be great to hear more.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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That is funny because Fianna Fáil backed my Bill previously.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I ask the Deputy to explain it.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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Fianna Fáil actually supported the Equitable Beef Pricing Bill. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is asking me to explain a Bill that his party is already on the record as supporting when it was in opposition.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy has the floor so why does he not explain it some more?

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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I would be happy to reintroduce that Bill to the Minister.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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Here is the Deputy's chance to explain it.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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At the moment we have factories which can, at times, push the price below the cost of production.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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What about the 90% of beef that is exported? I ask him to explain that piece.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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I am getting fierce heckling from the Minister so I can only assume that I have piqued his interest in the debate rather than in his phone-----

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I am curious about what the Deputy is saying.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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That is good. I am delighted the Minister is engaged now because it is important that he engages with this debate.

The Government must make sure that the body created by this Bill has teeth. That is really important because we have many State agencies with particular roles in overseeing the implementation of legislation that do not have teeth. The truth of the matter is that the first key element is resources. We can have all of the good laws on the planet but if we do not have the resources necessary to implement them on the ground, then they are not worth a hill of beans. The other important element is independence. The overseeing body must be able to do its job independently of any stakeholders and any pressure they may exert within society. It also must have access to all details and records relating to the functioning of the supply chain. If it does not have access to those records, it will not have full knowledge of what is happening within the sector. It also needs to be able to make unannounced visits to various locations to obtain that information. If we announce visits, then human nature means that those visits will be prepared for. That will stop information being clear and concise in terms of feeding into the system. It is really important that we have clear information in relation to this. We also need to have confidentiality, as mentioned by other Deputies because there is a lack of trust and confidence among farmers in the processes that exist today. When a farmer or a group engages with the system, we need to ensure that there is full confidentiality. There must be full inclusion of all of the input costs for farmers in the sector.

I want to mention a number of issues that have also been mentioned by other Deputies today. The first is the major crisis that is looming in the land market in Ireland. I refer to the potential for vulture funds to come in and acquire large swathes of land in this State. Vulture funds have already completely distorted many markets in Ireland. It is the nature of such funds that they tend to compete in an unbalanced fashion with others in a given market. In the housing sector, we had vulture funds that enjoyed really low interest rates and had access to massive amounts of capital competing on a daily basis with young couples who wanted to buy houses. They have completely changed the nature of that market. They have also been buying up rental properties and they own so much now that they have a had systemic influence on rents payable in the market. All of the alarm bells should be going off now vis-à-visthe Government's plans in this area.

I have heard people say that we must adhere to the EU rules. If this country has made any mistake over the last 20 years, it has been to try to be the best boy in the class when it comes to the EU. Deputy Durkan mentioned that we have gone way beyond what other countries have done in terms of meeting understood EU requirements. The EU is obviously a positive element in the development of this country, particularly in terms of enterprise and trade, but there are costs attached to the EU too. We need to stand up to the EU in terms of those costs sometimes. On the issue of land, Coillte and forestry, we need to tell the EU to back off. We also need to tell the EU to back off in relation to investing in State housing bodies so that we can build houses for our people.

We should have told it to back off the sugar beet sector.

Now we need to tell it to back off in respect of the fishing sector. This is an incredible issue. I have been speaking to Patrick Murphy of the Irish South & West Fish Producers Organisation Limited recently. He has met the Department and been negotiating on behalf of Ireland and fishermen at the EU. What is happening to fishermen and fisherwomen right now is incredible. The EU is seeking to decommission up to half of the boats in the fishing fleet. The loss of those boats, especially in the south west, would devastate those communities. Many of their enterprises and jobs still come from fishing. It is difficult to believe sometimes. The State is going to pay €1.5 million to trash a brand new fishing boat. What is wrong with a society that gets a boat and trashes it for €1.5 million? Why can that boat not at least go into some other enterprise such as tourism or transport in those community areas? I am opposed to the whole process.

We should be fighting to keep the quotas and the industry we have at the moment. It is interesting that the EU is currently negotiating with Norway, a non-EU state, to give Norway greater access to Irish waters for a bigger catch of blue whiting quota in exchange for EU access to Norwegian waters. The idea that a non-EU country would have 18% of the quota for blue whiting in our waters when we only have 3% of the quota in that area is absolutely wrong. It is happening in large part because we have had successive weak Ministers for agriculture who have gone to the European Union but not stood up for our rights in respect of the massive resources that exist in our seas. We have lost tens of billions of euro of our resources as a result of the deals they have made in the context of fishing.

As regards the Bill, I welcome that there is a level of change and oversight, and potentially a regulator, but what I am saying to the Minister is that the regulator must have teeth. It must be able to stand up for farmers. It must be able to equalise the unequal relationship that exists between farmers and two other elements of the supply chain, namely, factories and supermarkets. Those two elements of the supply chain are massively profitable. Supermarkets have a responsibility here too. Supermarkets get off lightly in terms of blame being apportioned in this regard. It is often the case that beside the cash register in supermarkets there is a wonderful big picture of a farmer standing in front of field of crops but the reality is that supermarkets are squeezing the prices being paid to farmers by pushing them down again and again. I say to citizens that we need to use our spending euro to incentivise good behaviour from supermarkets when it comes to the production of food in this country.

3:15 pm

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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The main purpose of the Bill is to establish a new independent statutory authority to be known as the agrifood regulator - the office for fairness and transparency in the agrifood supply chain. The objective of the new office will be to promote the principles of fairness and transparency in the agriculture and marine food supply chain.

According to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the office will principally do this in the following ways. It will perform a price and market analysis and reporting function. The regulator will bring greater transparency to the agriculture and food supply chain by carrying out analysis and regularly publishing reports on price and market data, enhancing understanding and enforcement of agrifood unfair trading law, including being designated as the national enforcement authority for the unfair trading practices directive, EU Directive No. 2019/633. The regulator will have the powers to investigate suspected breaches, promote alternative dispute resolution procedures between suppliers and buyers, bring proceedings for offences under the Bill and refer cases to the Director of Public Prosecutions where it believes an indictable offence has been committed. The Bill provides for the imposition of fines of up a maximum of €10 million or 10% of aggregate turnover, whichever is the greater, for indictable offences concerning non-compliance. The Bill also provide for the promotion of public awareness on agrifood, unfair trading law and related matters, including through public information campaigns.

The agrifood sector is a significant part of the economy through its exports and employment. In 2021, there were €15.2 billion total agrifood sector exports and it is estimated that the sector accounted for more than 6% of Ireland's modified gross national income in 2020. This office must ensure that a fair share of the consumer euro goes to the farmer and the fisherman. In the context of regulating unfair trading practice, if it does not ensure a viable price for farmers for their work and investment, more farmers in the horticulture, potatoes, pig and poultry sectors will go out of business.

Large retailers are using their dominant position to drive down prices to farmers to unviable levels, often below the cost of production, and this has to stop. Can the Minister provide the House with a guarantee that the Bill will end that practice? Meat factories have consistently been cutting prices while farmers are struggling with rising input costs. Confirmation of this is provided in the agricultural price index released by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, which shows how much input costs for farmers have increased in the past year. It is profoundly disturbing to see the meat processors doing their utmost to push down the prices while farmers are grappling with costs of production that are completely out of control. For example, the CSO agricultural price indices show the cost of feedstuffs increased by 34.2% in the 12 months to July last year. The input price index for fertiliser is up by 133.8% and energy prices are 51.3% higher than 12 months ago according to CSO figures. Increases can also be seen in output price in some industries. The price of milk rose by 51.1% in the year and the cattle price increased 16% annually.

Right now, primary producers, particularly those in the low-income sheep, suckler and beef sectors, are facing a perfect storm, with costs continuing to rise while factories appear even more determined to pay producers as little as possible. It is a mistake to believe that farmers can shoulder these additional costs and stay in business. It is time for meat processors to show solidarity with their suppliers. It is also time for retailers and consumers and the Government to get to grips with the reality that food cannot be produced out of thin air. We remain sceptical as to whether this new regulatory authority will have sufficient powers to take on the vested interests in the beef cartel in Ireland. The Minister might be able to clarify whether it will be able to do so, but other questions remain open for answers.

There is no doubt this is a very difficult time for farmers and fishermen. The livelihoods of inshore fishermen are in serious danger and that is why the Rural Independent Group is putting forward a motion next week to at least raise awareness of the crisis facing inshore fishermen at this time. Larger fishermen are now being forced to decommission in huge numbers, so the supply of Irish fish from Irish waters is under massive threat. Extra quotas have eluded us through the years, which is astonishing. Even the bluefin tuna quota, although it has not been applied for this year, has eluded us through the years due to total inactivity by the Department, which has been failing in its duty to fight on behalf of fishermen in this case.

There are fishermen whose lives are in danger. I contacted the Taoiseach regarding the near ramming of an Irish fishing vessel off the south-west coast just before Christmas. He failed to come back to me on the matter, and the previous one did no better . The boat was continually surrounded by a foreign vessel for a number of days. This was all reported to the relevant authorities but nobody did anything about it. I hope the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine will be able to deal with this going forward because we have to find answers. Who is protecting Irish fishing vessels on our seas?

There is also a massive threat to food supply. We heard the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, stating yesterday that there will be a cut in the national herd. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have continuously told us that will never happen. I do not know whether they are in conflict with one other or talking to one other or if there is just a little bit of a nod and a wink going on. To me, it is a nod and a wink because Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have decided to call it a fancy name. They will not call it a cut but it will mean that one cannot grow further. Progressive farmers are going to be in dire trouble. This is obviously the green tail wagging the dog. The only winners in all this will be the Brazilians. We will have plenty of Brazilian beef on shelves in Ireland but we will not be able to produce our own product.

The next thing is that there will be little or no funding for TAMS. I know farmers. I was talking to two in west Cork recently. Their circumstances, which are slightly different, are interesting. One has a growing farm in which he wanted to invest. He asked me what was going to happen and I said that, to be honest, the Greens are wagging the tail of Fianna Fáil and that Fine Gael has gone off the pitch. He has approval from the bank but pulled the plug on investing in his farm. He said that if I could not guarantee that he would be able to progress after investing in his farm and have more cattle, he would not do so. The other farmer was asked to spread slurry differently and has to buy equipment, but he does not have the funding for it. He owes money for works he has done on the farm and is now in a dire situation. These people will not be able to produce food in the future in our country.

3:25 pm

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. It is long overdue. My colleagues and I in the Rural Independent Group introduced a motion as far back as 2020 calling for more transparency in the beef sector and fairness for our family farms to protect them and ensure their survival. We know the family farm got us through the bleakest times in this country. We know it certainly kept the lights on in rural Ireland. It remains the backbone of rural Ireland, but the way farmers have been treated for decades has been nothing other than shameful. It is high time, therefore, that robust legislation was introduced to ensure reasonable objectives, namely that farmers will achieve a fair price for high-quality purchase and that they will not be left in circumstances in which they cannot plan or go forward on their farms. Farms are businesses and involve planning, so it is only right that they get fair play. This is long overdue. The farming organisations and people who protested to achieve fairness deserve great credit today. I acknowledge all their efforts. The farming organisations raised these matters with all Deputies from time to time.

I acknowledge the constructive and positive engagement I have had with the head of the unfair trading practices enforcement authority within the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Mr. Noel Collins, and his staff. They have always responded to my inquiries promptly and comprehensively. In June last year, the enforcement authority informed me that although the number of complaints it had received to that date was relatively low, it was not surprising given the perceived fear factor that comes with making a complaint. Unfortunately, this is very real. We have all heard it from farmers. What I wanted to clarify with Mr. Collins and his team was why so few farmers and producers were engaging with the new trading protections regime. I also wanted to clarify the kind of response received from the five major multiples. At that point, the authority had received just six complaints, but four of these were outside the scope of the unfair trading practices regulations and two were still at scoping assessment stage. That is an issue I would like addressed to make clear to farmers and producers the exact remit of the new agency. There are many questions still to be answered. I hope the Minister will clear them all up.

This is a new regime. As such, a process of education around rights is vital to ensure widespread engagement. I say that because it was also made clear to me in June that there was still significant concern and even fear among farmers and producers when it came to having their rights vindicated or protected by the authority. I accept that the unfair trading practices enforcement authority engaged with farmers actively and constructively to try to address their concerns. I warmly welcome that. It is a step forward. Indeed, in the authority's response to my queries on this matter, it stated clearly it would use every power available to it to ensure any threat or act of retaliation by a buyer arising from a supplier exercising its legal rights would result in the strongest sanctions against the buyer. That is the key message we need to get out. We need to instil confidence in farmers that this will be a robust regime they can welcome.

I also welcome the fact that there is now at least an attempt to address certain issues concerning payments made later than 60 days for agricultural and food products, short-notice cancellations of perishable agricultural and food products and unilateral contract changes by the buyer. This may be of value to horticultural operators, in particular. They continue to struggle with the many crises affecting their sector due to the lack of effective peat alternatives. We hope to see some movement in addressing and preventing the risk of loss and deterioration being transferred to the supplier and the refusal of written confirmation of a supply agreement by the buyer despite the request of the supplier.

On a related issue, I am aware that the enforcement authority required major multiples to submit implementation reports, which should provide evidence of how they are ensuring compliance with the new regulations. However, I want that aspect of oversight strengthened, and I am sure farmers also want that.

I am aware that buyers had to nominate a compliance officer to deal with the enforcement authority. I can only assume this will continue under the new regime. In talking about agricultural products, I condemn the disgraceful attack on Irish agriculture. Dublin Bus is parading misleading advertisements on its buses. I ask Deputy McConalogue, as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to stand up for Irish farmers and the agriculture sector. He is in government with Deputy Eamon Ryan, the Minister for Transport. I implore the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to ensure the Government intervenes urgently and condemns what is happening, because it is just not right. Farmers continue to struggle. They continue to struggle for a fair price, and now they are facing more attacks. It has to stop.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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Being a farmer's son and having family still in farming, I am delighted, not before time, to see this Bill finally introduced for debate. It was promised back in 2004 by the then Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Mary Coughlan, who was followed by Ministers Smith, Creed and Coveney. I am sure that if Deputy Cowen had been in office long enough, he would have pursued this, as would the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Dara Calleary, when he was Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It is now with the current Minister, Deputy McConalogue, so it is not before time.

The regulator must have the teeth to represent the farmers and producers or else it is a waste of time. We are facing the death of agriculture, with those in forestry, pig farming, beef and horticulture, including the wonderful growers of our fruit and vegetables, exposed to the giants in their industries around the world. As in other food industries, there are suppliers of products who are allowed to monopolise by exercising control over supply and exerting pressure. I call on the new regulator to ignore external pressures and work with the producers such as the meat and dairy producers and our fruit and vegetable growers. These are the growers who are forced to tender blind six months in advance, regardless of environmental factors such as the energy crisis in 2022. The steps the growers and producers must take to have products placed on the supermarket shelves are extraordinary. Every country is getting premiums for growing produce while the producers of vegetables and meat in this country are getting only a pittance.

I say again to the Minister that the regulator, as with the grocery regulator in the UK, must have the powers to access all information, for example, primary documents of sale, purchase invoices and contracts. The devil is in the detail. The regulator must be able to access all information.

Did the Minister know that Grant Thornton was commissioned in June 2021 to conduct a report for the Department on the beef task force? It reported that it was curtailed in making its findings by the absence of data in the market transparency reports. Did the Minister know that? The regulator needs to have the powers to access all information. It must be able to investigate.

I will say it again: the regulator needs the powers to investigate. Grant Thornton has told us this in a report on the beef task force. It is evident they were not getting the proper information. They were commissioned by the Minister's Department to do that inquiry.

For example, with the supermarkets' promotions, who pays for the promotion? What are the long-term discounts? Are they entirely paid for by the supplier while the larger retailers cream the profits? There must be transparency between the producer and the processor and, equally, between the producer and the retailer. The regulator must have the teeth. This is an opportunity to just do that.

Before Christmas, the Government directed the National Oil Reserves Agency, NORA, to release stock for the purposes of electricity generation. This is also important to the agriculture industry. Did the power generation sector make any contribution towards NORA or did they get away with it? After all, it is the ordinary punters such as the farmer and the producers who end up paying, and these multinationals get away with it. I appeal to the Minister to ensure the proposed reversal of this excise duty in February does not happen. If he is committed to the farming industry, he will lobby his Government, as we will lobby the Government, to make sure that this excise duty is not reversed, and that there will not be further taxation, not only on the farmers but on everybody in this country who are depending on producers and farming in the State. The excise duty is up to be reversed in February. I ask the Minister, on the record of the Dáil, to make sure he goes to his Government and the Government partners, to make sure this is not reversed and that we make sure this stays as it is, at a minimum to keep down the fuel costs. The excessive taxes the Government is already taking are enough. Everything in this country is transferred. Everything that produces food in this country uses fossil fuels. The Government already has it on the taxes. This excise duty is only a minor concession that was given. We cannot have it reversed. We need to make sure that it is not reversed for the future of farming going forward.

I met the Minister in County Limerick when he was in Kilmallock last year. We were in the mart. At the time I said to him that when we looked around the mart there were only four people at that meeting under the age of 30, two of whom were female and two male. The rest of the people in the sector there were aged between 50 and 70. They want to see that the rest of their families would take on the business of farming, which is in our blood. The younger generation look at farming and see that it is not a viable option for them to farm. They say they would have to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to make a farm viable. Any farmer now wants to be able to grow the farm and have the time to make sure the profits are there. This would mean that the younger people of today can take on farming. I believe the Minister would like to see this happening. I ask that he would please make sure his Government does not reverse back on the excise duty in February.

3:35 pm

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I welcome the introduction of this Bill. It is certainly long overdue that this issue would be addressed. Along with many in this House, and many farmers - I wish to declare that I am a beef farmer - I took part in some of the protests outside. It originated with the Beef Plan Movement in 2018 or 2019. Contrary to what previous speakers said, in a way this Bill has its genesis in that. I heard Deputy Ó Cuív's contribution. He spoke about his efforts back in 2014. I was a member of the agriculture committee then when he raised the issue. Indeed, he proposed former Deputy, Andrew Doyle as the Chair of that committee. Quite an interesting report was done by the committee at the time. A number of interesting experts from across Europe were brought in, in particular from the French Observatory of Food Quality. Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned the fact that they seemed at that time to have one of the better systems in Europe for looking at who exactly is getting the profits in the sector. At the time it was increasingly apparent that it was not farmers. That trend worsened certainly in the beef sector, leading to the Beef Plan Movement and the protests. Like many, I was quite disappointed with the lack of any tangible outcome to those protests. There was a little bit of movement on the bonus issue, but essentially the difference between in-spec cattle under 30 months and cattle over 30 months remained the same. I would have to say that realistically very little was achieved by those protests. Unfortunately, I am of the view that very little will be achieved by this Bill as it stands. I very much welcome the intention behind the Bill, and I also welcome that the Minister has said he is willing to look at suggestions from across the House as it progresses through the House.

One of the big problems is that in Ireland it is hard to ascertain who, if anyone, is making money out of agriculture. I find it hard to believe that nobody is making money. People will say that farmers are always complaining. However, I am beef farmer and 2022 was quite a good year for prices for beef farmers, at least up to last summer or the earlier part of it. Prices were cut quite severely as the year progressed. It made up for the fact that the beef factorises had to pay quite handsomely for beef in the earlier part of the year. They more than compensated for that towards the end of the year. Weather conditions meant that farmers were under pressure to get cattle off the land and sell them into the factories. They become once again price takers. They were not in much of a position to negotiate the price they were going to obtain for those cattle. While farmers' margins are being squeezed throughout, especially within the beef sector, big processors have done very well. I am not one to criticise a successful businessman but Larry Goodman's success as a businessman has been remarkable. He has done sufficiently well to be able to own the building, along with others, that the Department of Health is located in - I am not suggesting there is anything untoward in the fact that he owns it - but this is not indicative of a sector where nobody is making money. Certainly he has managed to make quite a lot of money out of that sector.

The big problem we have is that we do know where the money is being made in the sector. We know what farmers are being paid for their beef. We know what their input costs are, so we have a rough idea of the cost of production. We know what beef is being sold for. One can go into any butchers to find out what they charge for a kilo of various cuts. One can go down any supermarket aisle to see what the supermarkets are charging, but we know nothing in between. That came to the fore during those protests. We do not know what the various outlets are paying the processors for the various cuts of meat. We do not know what their conditions are around age, for example. This was one of the issues that featured in those protests. If I am not mistaken, Aldi said they did not care whether the beef was under 30 months. This announcement was very much welcomed at the time. The others, including Supermacs, said the same thing. While Supermacs is not a retailer of raw beef, it sells a large volume of Irish beef, which is welcome. The processors always hid behind, "Well, that is what the retailers are looking for and they want beef under 30 months". Nobody was in a position to independently verify that.

If the retailers were looking for beef under 30 months, what was the reasoning behind that? Was there any reasoning behind it other than that it was something they were able to use to push down prices? There was quite a scarcity of beef in the first part of last year, such that prices were okay for farmers. We could not complain about what the prices were. Nobody cared whether they were under or over 30 months. It did not really feature in the discussions. When beef was plentiful again towards the latter end of the year, the weather was bad and farmers were under pressure to sell, suddenly there was a world of a difference between cattle that were in-spec under 30 months and cattle that were over. That leads farmers to be very cynical about this grading system and the 30-months requirement.

I appreciate the Minister is from the west and from a farming background, as are many Deputies. It is difficult, if not impossible, to finish cattle on grass under 30 months unless they are fed meal or nuts. We had a discussion once and the Minister said it was very possible. I still disagree with him and believe it is very difficult to finish cattle under 30 months in Ireland unless they are given supplements. Of course, supplements are expensive and becoming increasingly so. Many of the ingredients that go into those rations are imported from across the world, many of them from the southern hemisphere. That brings with it its own carbon footprint. One of the Department's responses has been to suggest that we are going to reduce emissions in the agriculture sector, particularly the beef sector, by reducing the age at which cattle are finished. It will simply not be possible to finish cattle at 24 or 26 months without giving them large amounts of rations. If we are going to count in the carbon footprint of those rations, it will be highly counter-productive. While the beef retailers and processors are forcing cattle to finish earlier, I am not convinced it is particularly environmentally beneficial to do so. The majority of cattle in Ireland are born in the spring. If they are not being fed supplements, they are ready to be killed towards the latter half of their third summer when they are 30 months if the farmer is lucky, or up to 36 months. That is the cheapest way to produce cattle in Ireland. This 30-months requirement is forcing farmers into a more expensive production model. Whom does that benefit and what is its purpose?

Can we have a little bit of transparency around this? Unfortunately, the Bill relies on information that is already in the public domain. The price that retailers pay processors is not in the public domain. There is a Bill in America that was introduced in response to the power-----

3:45 pm

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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It was Lidl.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I wish to correct the record. It was Lidl that said it was going to buy cattle at over 30 months. It is very important because Lidl was willing to go against cartel-like behaviour by all the other retailers. It was quite an important development at the time. Going back to the 30 months, the price the processors are paid by the retailers is important. They are not going to give that out unless they are forced to do so.

Section 58(5) states:

Agri-Food Unfair Trading Regulations may prohibit a requirement for the supplier to bear all or part of the cost of any discounts on agricultural and food products that are sold by the buyer as part of a promotion unless the buyer, prior to a promotion that is initiated by the buyer, specifies the period of the promotion and the expected quantity of the agricultural and food products to be ordered at the discounted price.

Even that will still enable buyers to force producers to pay for the cost of the promotion in the supermarkets. They will not have any choice around that if they want an outlet for their product. I look forward to discussing the Bill in greater detail. Those are two of the flaws I see at the moment. I welcome the fact that the Minister is moving it forward at last.

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of the Bill. One thing that needs to be recognised, and I am not going to refer to "my amendment" or whatever like some do, is that everyone in the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine put in amendments. We discussed it and worked together. One good part of being up here is that at least in the committees we are not badgering and going at each other. In fairness to the agriculture committee and its Chair, Deputy Cahill, members from all parties and none worked very constructively. Everyone put an effort into it and went through it at the private meetings and heard different points of view from everyone. We agreed unanimously on all the different amendments we wanted made to the heads of Bill. While every amendment might not be in it, the Minister has taken on a lot of them, which is a good thing.

This is going to be a fair test over the next year or two. Farmers do not know where to go. They have lost faith in the CCPC. Every time we write to it, it is nearly coming back attacking the farmers and asking are they in a cartel. There was a feeling that the price of cattle was the one price everywhere and people were asking how come. Those in the CCPC would tell us it was the person eating the meat they were worried about. People would not know what road they were going down with the CCPC and I think a lot of people have lost faith in it. There has to be faith in a system. This new regulator has to have teeth. It has to be able to go in, if there is an anomaly, and check where the money is got or lost. The other thing we have to attack for the sake of farmers - I see these people kicking the daylights out of agriculture but they all have to eat a bit of grub in the morning, the middle of the day and the evening. They think they can live on fresh air and keep writing about the farmers and giving out about them. That does not add up.

We have a situation in the agricultural sector, not alone in cattle, sheep, dairy or pigs. There is horticulture, with lettuce and onions and everything coming in from different parts of the world. North County Dublin is a long way from where I live but those people who are growing different types of vegetables are very important as well. If we have learned anything from the war that went on, it is that the more we can encourage people to become self-sufficient, the better. One time long ago when we were little gougers, the technical schools had a competition for the best garden in the country. Every youngster went to horrid trouble with their garden to try to win this thing. Every type of vegetable and everything was in it. The EU has a fair bit to answer for in all of this. Then we were told we were better getting the head of lettuce or cabbage flown in a plane. If we had a head of lettuce or cabbage here in Ireland for a few days, we would say it was going off and throw it to the cattle. Damn me, but the heads that come in from the other countries can stay looking good for about three weeks, which is rather unusual. We should be making sure that we encourage our own people. It happened in milk, it is happening in beef and it is happening in the vegetable sector that the big multinationals that buy all this gear are dictating to the farmer. That day has to stop. There is this business of 90 days' credit and they say next month they will put on offer so many pounds of vegetables or whatever for basically damn all money, to get people into the store.

Who is paying the price for that only the farmer who is supplying it?

We have seen in the milk market that some people got out of the bottling plant. There was a lot of distress over that. When places close down no one wants to see job losses. We also see farmers being dictated to. We have been told anecdotally by fairly senior people that some of the big multinationals have threatened the co-operatives that they might put out to tender the whole milk market, the amount of milk they take for tender on a Sunday evening. They have threatened that whichever co-operative makes the cheapest bid can have the contract. That is no way to treat people or have a forward contract. There were more people than me in the room when this was being said. If we keep going down that road, it will be a race to the bottom. What happens then? People will get sick of it, farmers will decide not to keep getting kicked and we will end up in a scenario where we are bringing in beef from Brazil, while they are blowing down the Amazon rainforest, and we are getting milk from America or somewhere else. We need to cop on about the way we are treating people. Farmers are fairly enduring people but sooner or later they will get sick of producing something if it is not providing adequate rewards.

The Bill makes provision to tighten up regulation. The regulator needs teeth, as has been pointed out by previous Deputies, to be able to go in with enforcement power and to take computers or whatever it needs to see if something is going on. I am not saying this practice is happening in the meat industry but the likes of HIQA will announce it will be doing inspections the following day or the next day. If someone is told they will be inspected tomorrow or the next day, they will have the floor washed and everything looking good. That crack needs to stop. There has to be on-the-spot inspections, like what farmers unfortunately get. Farmers get on-the-spot inspections like that but seemingly everyone else will get the call a day or two ahead of time and be told the inspection is coming so they can be sure to have the Daz out and have everything looking well.

This is the last bite at the cherry. Confidence must be brought into the industry that there is somebody there who can investigate, make decisions, regulate, bring out a report and issue fines if someone is doing something that is not legitimate or is making a big amount of money out of it. In certain industries, if there are cartels, we need to make sure we have that covered. I know the Bill will be coming to the committee and I presume there will be amendments. In fairness to everyone on the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, they made an honest effort and I will not be opposing the Bill.

3:55 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome this long-promised and long-awaited legislation. We have been waiting over a year for it and there have been multiple promised delivery dates that were later than what farmers would have wished for, particularly in light of the current inflationary pressures and input costs. An appropriate and empowered sectoral regulator has the potential to finally deliver a level playing field for our farming families. This has been demanded by and is especially important to our beef and sheep farmers who simply do not receive a fair price for their produce.

It is welcome that the Minister has accepted a number of the recommendations that came out of the pre-legislative scrutiny report of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which has questioned if the Minister’s draft Bill is even fit for purpose. Despite delays, the draft Bill appeared to be rushed and was not in keeping with the best regulatory practice we see. It lacked the teeth to tackle unfair trading practices, which farmers had been demanding and which in recent years have been granted to other regulatory authorities in the State.

There remains, however, some way to go if this new office is to deliver the fairness and transparency in the agrifood supply chain that the Minister has said he wants to deliver. As it stands, the new office will provide little in additional data on agrifood supply chains, which is a problem. It is a matter of public knowledge what farmers get paid and we also know what food costs. This regulator cannot simply be responsible for collating that information and then putting it in the public domain. It must be empowered to examine the margins throughout the length of the agrifood supply chain. That is vital. In the same vein, if full transparency is to be provided, the scope of the office cannot be limited to business-to-business relationships and needs to be extended to business-to-consumer relationships.

My Sinn Féin colleagues on the Select Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine will bring forward amendments to strengthen and empower the regulator further. We stand ready to work with the Minister and we look forward to bringing forward proposals to deliver a regulator that can have a real impact on the lives and livelihoods of farming families, which is so desperately needed.

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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"Long-awaited" is the phrase most associated with this Bill, and I certainly welcome it. Farmers in Mayo desperately need this legislation but we need it to mean something. A number of things need to be done on Committee Stage in order to get this right. I ask the Minister to work with us, including my colleague, Deputy Carthy, to make sure we get it right because it is a one-off opportunity.

The reason this legislation is before us is the reporting of the cartel-like behaviour that farmers have experienced until now. We have heard that from the farming organisations, farmers themselves and many others over the years. The regulator must have real teeth and the pricing data must be available. There is no point in giving people data that are already available. The evidence has to be gathered and we cannot gather the evidence of bad behaviour if we do not have these data. It is vital that these data are gathered and made publicly available so that the contrast can be drawn.

We have an opportunity to get this right and we must do so. We owe that to the farmers in Mayo and across this country who have waited for this legislation for so long.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I thank everyone for the many comprehensive and well thought-out contributions from across the floor. This has been a good start to the legislative journey through the Dáil and Seanad. I will take on board the various contributions Deputies made.

The Bill has been a while in gestation. I acknowledge the pioneering role of my colleague, Deputy Ó Cuív, as the previous Fianna Fáil spokesperson on agriculture, in driving this issue and putting it on the agenda of the then agriculture committee. I mention the work that was put in by all on that committee in putting its report together. When I took over from Deputy Ó Cuív as Fianna Fáil spokesperson on agriculture in 2016, I made sure this was a key priority and was delighted to work with the three parties in government to make sure it was part of the programme for Government commitments. In the past two years, I have brought this issue through the consultation process, working with stakeholders and farming representatives and, subsequently, the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine on pre-legislative scrutiny. I recognise the work that was done by all of the committee's members, including the Chair, Deputy Cahill. Many of them spoke today in great detail on the proposals in this legislation and they brought their various understandings, perspectives, backgrounds and knowledge to the table. The committee put a comprehensive pre-legislative scrutiny report to me, which made a significant contribution to the process that preceded my presenting this Bill to the House. Of the 20 proposals and recommendations made by the committee, I have accepted 18, either fully or along the lines of what was proposed.

I will engage further before proceeding to Committee Stage. I have given the various proposals a lot of thought and I know all parties worked together at the committee to come to a clear consensus on how the legislation could be enhanced. I have taken those on board because the objective is to ensure the regulator's office does the job we are setting it up to do and that it works effectively.

Undoubtedly, there is a gap in the overall infrastructure of the agrifood supply chain and in the sector. This office will fill that gap and meet that need. There needs to be the capacity to have transparency across the food supply chain. We need an independent arbiter operating on a statutory basis with the heft and credibility to be able to assess and dissect an issue, get the key information and explain it without fear or favour in a way that brings transparency to what is happening.

I engaged with Deputy Tóibín earlier because he was making out that it is simply a matter of setting the price and not selling the product for any less than that price. He implied that it is as straightforward and as simple as that and if we just had the will to set a price, it would all be grand. Of course, we are very fortunate that we are a great food producing country, but 90% of what we produce and leaves our farms goes abroad and is sold in markets from Senegal to Singapore to China. It is the markets abroad and the prices that we get abroad which very much determine the price. We are working off international prices. We are trying to get the best possible value for the great product we have, maximising its value and marketing it and continuing to improve and enhance it. Of course, its sustainability, as well as its nutrition and safety, are central to that. In comparison with any part of the world, we are leading in food production and in terms of the quality of what we do. That enables us to maximise our capacity and the price we get. In 90% of cases, the end price is set outside the country. We need transparency on how that price we get outside the country translates throughout the different layers of the supply chain, particularly coming back to the layers within our own country and bringing transparency to that.

Deputy Ó Cuív compared regulation to the use of CCTV cameras. The fact that there are eyes on the sector, it is being watched, we are alert to it and we are making every effort possible to bring transparency will be very effective, I hope, in ensuring farmers get the best deal and a fair crack of the whip in terms of the income they get for the hard work they do. There is no doubt about the early hours, long weekends and late nights that go in at farm level, and the amount of time that is put in from when the lamb or calf is born and the cow starts to milk to the point where that produce leaves the farm. Massive work goes in there. While important work undoubtedly goes in after that too, less time is spent on it. Too often, when there is a squeeze on the system it is the primary producers, such as farmers, fishers and horticulturists, that have to absorb all the pain because the margins can be maintained at other levels of the supply chain as they have capacity to manage it. Farmers ultimately get squeezed. The year we have just had, coming out of unprecedented changes in cost inputs and inflation and emerging from the illegal invasion of Ukraine, has spoken to and very much brought to the fore the need to have responsive supply chains. We need a supply chain that moves with the reality of life and that reflects and understands the challenges for the primary producer and does not leave them carrying the can in terms of the cost and losing money, while others can adjust to maintain their margins. The key objective here is putting in place a statutory office that will be an actor in that space and will ensure it as healthy as it possibly can be. It must be an advocate, a pusher and an enabler to ensure that farmers get a fair deal and that family and primary producer incomes are very much at the centre of all of our thoughts.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and Members for their engagement today. I thank my team, Angela Robinson and Sinéad McPhillips. We have a journey to go on over the next short few weeks to bring this legislation to a conclusion. I look forward to engaging further to ensure we have an office that will work very effectively. As I said, the recruitment process for the CEO has been significantly advanced. We are continuing with the work we are doing. I also want to recognise the work the staff in the unfair trading practices office have done in the interim period on the enforcement and oversight of unfair trading practices and will continue to do until such time as we have a new statutory office in place.

Question put and agreed to.