Wednesday, 2 October 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Hardship Grant Scheme
I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting my Commencement matter which is related to the agricultural hardship grant that is available to assist herdowners. While I acknowledge and recognise that the topic is not within his ministerial brief, I thank the Minister of State for coming to take it. As he will be aware, the aim of the hardship grant scheme is to assist herdowners who retain and feed animals during a prolonged period of restrictions following a TB breakdown. Eligibility for the scheme is subject to certain criteria which have been designed to alleviate the additional feed costs incurred while a herd is locked up. I am sure the Minister of State understands the significance of herds being locked up as he comes from an agricultural community and rural constituency. We know that eligibility is not automatic and that herdowners must apply for the grant individually. Clearly, the application must be adjudicated on, while the applicant must fulfil the stringent criteria laid down. That is what I have an issue with. Herdowners cannot be in receipt of any off-farm payment. This presents a difficulty in the case of dairy and suckler cow farmers. While dairy farmers can continue to have their primary supply of milk and receive the associated payments, drystock farmers do not benefit from payments. Income for the supply of milk from restricted holdings is an issue. Farmers have told me, as I am sure they have told the Minister of State in Galway, that the scheme is grossly unfair as a suckler cow farmer cannot avail of funding during the restricted period. Therefore, there is an ambiguity and a need for a levelling. I want to hear what the Minister of State has to say in that regard. I appreciate that this area is not within his brief, but perhaps he will give me an assurance that he will raise this matter with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for his words of welcome. I also thank the Senator for raising this issue which is of importance to me also as I come from a rural constituency. I am presenting the reply on behalf of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine who cannot be here and sends his apologies.
The bovine TB eradication programme has been in place in Ireland since the mid-1950s when TB levels were extremely high in the cattle population. It is estimated that approximately 17% of cattle were infected. Rapid progress was made in the early stages of the programme. However, progress stalled in the 1970s and 1980s. Following a comprehensive programme to tackle wildlife since 2000, there have been significant reductions in TB levels in cattle. Herd incidence, possibly the most accurate reflection of trends, has reduced from 5.88% in 2008 to 3.4% at present. The positive downward trend previously observed in disease incidence has not been evident in the past three to four years. prompting concern among all stakeholders. Getting TB levels to historically low levels was hard earned and a testament to the efforts of all involved in TB eradication, from herdowners and vets to officials in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
Recent trends indicate that the current eradication measures have achieved as much as they can and herd incidence rates have stagnated. With a view to reinvigorating the TB programme and moving towards the elimination of the disease, the Minister has set the target to eradicate TB by 2030. The achievement of this objective will require considerable effort and a commitment from all stakeholders to put in place the necessary control measures. In view of this, last year, under Food Wise 2025, the Minister established a TB forum - it represents all stakeholders - with a view to providing strong, co-ordinated leadership in support of the Department's team in achieving the eradication target. The focus is now on the development of a renewed TB eradication strategy. The strategy will take the TB forum's report into account and it will be the roadmap to drive down TB levels in the coming years, protect cattle from infection and farmers and farm families from the stress and difficulty of a TB breakdown. The Minister plans to launch the renewed TB strategy in the coming months.
The direct cost of the TB eradication plan was almost €91 million in 2018. It comprised a contribution of €35 million from herdowners, while a sum of €46 million was funded by the Exchequer, with the balance of €10 million coming from the European Union. These figures further support the case for intensifying our collective endeavours to eliminate the disease. Those unfortunate enough to have their herd infected and restricted at any given time will no longer have to bear that burden once eradication is achieved. The entire population of herds that bear the risk of contracting the disease, the additional supply chain costs resulting from its
presence in the national herd and part of the cost of funding an eradication programme will benefit.
Under the TB programme, there is a comprehensive compensation regime in place for herdowners whose cattle are affected by bovine TB. The measures acknowledge the difficulty and stress of a TB breakdown and are intended to assist herdowners during a period of restrictions. The regime is not intended to compensate a herdowner for all of his or her losses, but it is among the most supportive when compared with schemes in other jurisdictions. In 2016, the Department concluded a lengthy consultation process on improvements to the compensation regime. A significant majority of the additional costs of those improvements were borne by the taxpayer. The changes included an extension of the hardship grant to dairy herds, the extension of the income supplement threshold to dairy herds that lose at least 10% of dairy cows, the removal of the 100-animal limit for income supplement eligibility, and an increase in the rate of supplement for dairy cows from €25.39 to €55 per cow per month. Following these amendments, expenditure on the supplementary support schemes grew by €1.7 million, an increase of 80% relative to 2015 even though disease levels have remained broadly stable.
It is clear that additional resources allocated to the TB programme must be focused on measures to reduce the incidence of the disease and the associated burdens on all farmers. The Department intends to invest in additional staff resources, particularly in the area of disease transmission from wildlife, the development of initiatives focusing on areas dealing with high levels of TB and engaging more closely with chronic herds.
I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive report on this issue. I welcome any effort or renewed effort to eradicate TB, as well as the renewed strategy. We have been talking about eradication of TB for a long time, certainly longer than my time on the planet. The key point I wish to drive home today is that there must be fairness in the operation of the hardship grant scheme as between dairy and suckler herd farmers. I refer, in particular, to off-farm income and how that is calibrated into the grant payments. Suckler farmers have asked me to state their case for a fairer and more balanced approach in regard to compensation and supports. I ask the Department to take into consideration the issues I have raised.
I take on board the Senator's points in this regard. The principle the Minister is pursuing is the eradication of the disease once and for all, which would mean no requirement for compensation in the future. It has been a long journey, with plateaus and periods of stagnation. There is a problem at the moment, albeit the rate of incidences is much lower than it was in the past. Our objective is to eliminate the disease for good. I accept the Senator's point regarding the need for fairness and a relative spread of the compensation. I will convey his concerns to the Minister for his consideration.