Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I assure the Minister of State that it is not a sign of things to come. It is great to have him here again. It is the second time I have had the pleasure of seeing him perform in the Seanad. He was here last week, I think, and was very comprehensive in his response.
The Commencement matter I have tabled concerns the need for the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation to provide an update on the efficiencies of the farm safety schemes.The Minister of State has been involved in this space for the past three and a half years. The number of unfortunate deaths is a blight on the agriculture industry, which has the highest percentage of loss of life of any industry. As a father, the frightening statistic that always gets to me is that 10% of those deaths are of children. It is a major issue that we need to start discussing. This House conducted a report into farm safety a few years ago. While that was welcome, we need to keep debating farm safety.
I will raise a few issues. This is about trying to ensure that we get appropriate coverage of the level of farm injuries and deaths. Farms have improved dramatically in this context in recent years, but the nature of farming, particularly under the new regime, sees someone out working by himself or herself. The demographics of the farming population are changing dramatically, with those involved being older. Older people's ability to get away from cattle, machinery and so on is an issue.
Something that always annoys me about the question of farm safety is that farmers have the ability to claim back VAT on everything bar farm safety equipment. If one changed a power take-off, PTO, shaft on a tractor, one could claim the VAT back. The tax code, though, does not allow for VAT to be claimed back on them on hard hats, visors or even farm safety signs. The Minister for Finance needs to examine this matter so that we have the ability to claim back VAT on those products. There are farmers whose finances are tight but who would love to do more, and giving them 23% VAT back would be a fifth or more off the original cost. We need to consider innovative approaches to encouraging farmers to do more around their farm yards.
Speaking as a farmer who works by himself when farming, the main issue is the use of a mobile phone. A farmer in a pressurised situation could ring for help. Three or four weeks ago in my parish, a farmer got into difficulty. His mobile phone saved his life. Promotions along those lines should be considered. The Minister of State has done much in this space. It is a sad statistic that so many young families are bereaved every year because of these issues. Like we all do, I look up farming websites. We read the tragic stories every two weeks. They would frighten someone as a farmer.
Today is about trying to raise awareness and get a handle on where we are with this year's figures. It is also about the possibility that we could do more in terms of promotion and awareness. We need to consider the VAT issue as well. A VAT exemption on farm safety equipment is something that the Minister for Finance should consider for next year's Finance Bill.
I would welcome the Minister of State's response to my points. I might then ask a supplementary question.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue. As a farmer in Cork, he is conscious of the issue of farm safety and has spoken to me about it a number of times. I have also met him at a number of farm safety demonstrations. It is an issue that is close to the heart of most people. No matter where I go, everyone knows someone who has been killed as the result of a tragic accident. These are life-changing situations that affect many family farms. As the Minister of State with responsibility for the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, one of the events that I attend each year is a memorial at which we lay a wreath for all those who have lost their lives in accidents. It is one event that I can think of quickly each year, and I recall there those who have lost their lives in farm accidents.
I encourage Senators to continue raising the issue of farm safety. I have focused closely on it in recent years. I mean it passionately when I say that I remain deeply concerned at the high numbers of fatalities in the sector. The HSA has consistently prioritised the farming sector in its annual programme of work. In addition to targeted inspection campaigns, the authority has in recent years through high-profile information campaigns and collaborative efforts with stakeholders sought to embed a crucial mindset change in the farming community to embrace farm safety and, importantly, take ownership of this critical situation. A mindset change among farmers is needed. When they get up every morning, they should think about their own safety. They should think about their families and loved ones and about how something can change their lives forever in the blink of an eye.
The HSA has a significant presence at the main agricultural events, including the National Ploughing Championships and the Tullamore Show. Such events provide invaluable opportunities to interact directly with the farming community and provide information, advice and practical demonstrations of good farming practices while highlighting the devastation caused by bad farming practices. Someone attending the ploughing championships in recent times would have seen the line of clothes, Wellington boots and shoes that have been donated to the HSA's stand there to highlight those loved ones who are no longer in their homes. It is poignant to see at first hand the names of those to whom the Wellington boots or shoes belonged, be they children or whoever.
The HSA utilises the expertise of the farm safety partnership advisory committee. The committee is drawn from the heart of the farming community itself with representatives from the Irish Farmers' Association, IFA, the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, ICMSA, Macra na Feirme and other organisations such as Teagasc and the Farm Relief Services Network.
Arising out of the recent farm safety task force that I convened, work is being finalised on the proposed regulations to make the wearing of appropriate protective head gear mandatory when using all-terrain vehicles, ATVs, quad bikes and so on at work. This has the potential to contribute to improved behaviour, prevent life-changing injuries and save lives. Let us consider the statistics for those who have died in farm accidents. They involve older farmers who are probably not used to modern machinery on their farms, and children. People also die after falling from heights. They climb roof sheds and do not realise how dangerous that is. We have witnessed many such incidents in recent times. Senator Lombard might recall how members of the same family died in Northern Ireland a number of years ago from inhaling slurry tank gas. It devastated that family, but it created an awareness in farmers' mindset about the dangers of slurry spreading. We saw a reduction afterwards, but it took that terrible accident to get into their heads the dangers of inhaling this invisible gas.
As a good farmer, Senator Lombard will be well aware that farming is unique in several respects, not least because it predominately comprises self-employed and self-supervised people who often work alone. The farm is linked to the family home and family life and several generations can live and work on farms. That is a factor in the number of elderly farmers' deaths, with many old and young people exposed to workplace risks.
Notwithstanding all the challenges, I have noted the Senator's comments on VAT for our next meeting with the HSA on this subject. I am working closely with the farming organisations and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed. We need to drive the message about farm safety home and continue to work closely with the farming community to ensure that we can bring lasting change and improvement to the family farm.
No, but I thank the Minister of State for his contribution. It is important that we get the message out there that there is so much happening in this space. I saw the line of clothes at the National Ploughing Championships. It was a frightening demonstration of the loss of life happening on farms. That is the kind of promotion we need to see.
Farmers work on their own, so they need a little more help and reassurance to make sure that everything is okay.We need to consider the VAT issue. It is quite unfortunate that the Government might claim 23% VAT on a product that could save a life.
At any time of the year farm accidents are devastating for the family involved, but particularly so at this time of the year as we approach Christmas. I appeal to all those who are watching this debate and the media to highlight this. The fact that the Senator has raised this matter demonstrates his awareness of this as a farmer. I appeal to farmers to ensure their own safety and the safety of others on the family farm to prevent more fatalities. Statistics can be an unsympathetic measure but, over the past ten years, more than 200 people have lost their lives while at work on farms. These deaths have an impact on families, friends and the community. Some people's lives are changed, they lose their sight or a limb. The family farm may have to be sold as a result of the farmer's death. We have to remind people of these things. An interesting statistic is that so far this year, 16 people have died on family farms.
The best way to reduce these figures is for farmers to look into better farm practices and have an acute awareness of what is happening around them, the high-risk nature of farming practices. Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations. That safety first message must be embedded for everybody on the farm. The HSA and I stand ready to continue to work closely with the farming community and to bring in some new initiatives in 2020 to ensure that we can make the farm a safe place of work. I sympathise with all those families who have lost loved ones over the past 12 months. It is devastating for them but as legislators we need to make sure to make the farm a safe place.