Dáil Éireann - Volume 365 - 10 April, 1986

Agriculture (An Chomhairle Oiliúna Talmhaíochta) Bill, 1986: Second Stage.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture (Mr. Hegarty): I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time”.

The purpose of this Bill is to enable ACOT to charge for agricultural advisory services provided by them subject to the approval of the Minister for Agriculture. As Deputies will be aware, the national plan, Building on Reality provides as follows at paragraph 2-42.:

Farmers who can afford to pay for an advisory service which is tailored to their individual needs will be required to make an appropriate payment for the service.

As the existing legislation does not empower ACOT to charge fees for advisory services it is necessary to have the relevant Acts amended in order to enable the stipulation in the national plan to be implemented.

I should like to emphasise, however, that there is no question of the general body of farmers being charged fees for agricultural advice. The plan is quite specific, as I have indicated, in restricting charges to an appropriate payment from those who can afford them and proposals by ACOT in the matter will receive [480] approval only where this requirement has been met.

The national plan also calls for ACOT to concentrate their advisory effort on that segment of the farming population which has real development potential. It would, therefore, be the intention to ensure that any charges which are made will not inhibit the overriding objective in the plan which assigns a key role to ACOT in accelerating growth in agricultural output and helping farmers to increase productivity and efficiency through the adoption of modern cost-effective technology and better farm management practices.

Nevertheless there is no doubt that there are a number of farms, whether operated by individuals, firms, or other bodies, which are at a high level of development and generating good profits. It is eminently reasonable that those with such farms should be required to contribute an appropriate share to the cost of ACOT's professional services which are of financial benefit to their farm businesses.

While this legislation will enable ACOT to charge for advisory services it also provides that any such charges and the criteria on which they are based will be subject to prior approval of the Minister for Agriculture. Furthermore, should the Minister consider, in the light of changing circumstances, that any fees or charges should be varied or, indeed, terminated, the legislation will enable him to direct ACOT to vary or terminate them.

Some may think that the introduction of charges will be a disincentive to some farmers to seek advice and I am, of course, conscious of this possibility. There will be full consultation between my Department and ACOT prior to the introduction of any charges regarding their level and the criteria to be used in their formulation.

The provisions of the Bill, therefore, provide adequate safeguards to ensure that the charging of fees by ACOT will not inhibit in any way the achievement of the objectives assigned to ACOT under the national plan of promoting the [481] efficiency of Irish farming and assisting it to develop its full potential. To the extent that increased income is generated under this measure to augment the considerable funding already provided from public finances, ACOT's ability to service the needs of the less-developed farmers with potential for expansion will be enhanced.

I commend this Bill to the House.

Mr. Noonan (Limerick West): I am appalled that the Minister for Agriculture is not here to present this Bill which will affect the vital interests of agriculture over the next number of years. The advisory services are paramount in relation to future agricultural development. The careless way in which the Minister has treated this Bill leaves a lot to be desired. Where is the Minister for Agriculture this morning? Is this job not important enough for him? It is not good enough for the Minister to be missing and to treat this in such a cavalier fashion. I also draw the attention of the House and the Chair to the lack of Members on the Government benches. This illustrates the light way in which they treat agriculture.

This Bill will push back the cause of agriculture for many years. It proposes an unusual and sinister taxation on farmers and it proposes to negate the powers of the board of ACOT irrespective of what the Minister of State said in his brief speech this morning. The Minister did not outline the fact that in this legislation the Minister has powers not alone to levy and vary charges to farmers, but he also has power to direct ACOT to impose charges irrespective of the decision of the board of ACOT. This Bill contradicts the national plan. It will not produce any worthwhile revenue to the Exchequer as it will cost more to collect the charges than the amount of revenue that will accrue as a result of them. As a result of this Bill the cream of ACOT advisers will leave the public service. The Bill is anti-farmer and reflects the penny pinching short-sighted defeatist attitude of the Government to agriculture. The Bill should not have been introduced here. It is an insult to ACOT, to the farming [482] community and to anyone with the interests of agriculture at heart. Fianna Fáil strongly oppose this Bill and propose that it be refused a Second Reading.

I know the commitment of the Minister of State, Deputy Hegarty, to agriculture so he could not be in favour of this Bill. The Minister of State must be unhappy with the introduction of this Bill and I ask him to use his influence with his colleagues to have it withdrawn. There are many reasons why ACOT services should be provided free of charge. A means test in reverse is what is proposed here. Those who can afford to pay will benefit from ACOT services and those who cannot afford to pay, those who need ACOT most, will be denied the benefit of this State service. This is neither just nor democratic.

Imagine the outcry if it were proposed that those attending AnCO industrial training courses should have to pay. ACOT are the AnCO of the agricultural world and they provide more direct and more meaningful advise and education than AnCO could ever provide. Endless funds are pumped into AnCO year after year. I know we must have the most highly trained industrial workforce in the world, but most of them are without jobs. However, a highly trained workforce is not the Government's motivation for providing AnCO training courses. They are motivated by the fact that every person on an AnCO training course is one less on the dole queue, temporarily at any rate, and this keeps unemployment figures down. Small farmers struggling against the odds at a time of Government cut backs, EC quota restrictions and price freezes do not increase the numbers of unemployed and they are an easy target for this greedy Government.

The charges proposed in this Bill are an unusual and sinister form of taxation on the beleaguered farming community. I know the Minister of State will accept that. Section 1 (3) (a) of the Bill gives the board of ACOT power to charge for their services. However, subsection (3) (b) enables the Minister for Agriculture to vary those charges as he sees fit. Here I [483] wish to contradict the Minister's statement that the Minister for Agriculture can vary or reduce the charges as he so wishes. That is so, but this Bill empowers him also to direct ACOT to increase the charges over and above those recommended by the board of ACOT. In other words, the board of ACOT may, in their wisdom, reach a decision with regard to charges if the Minister so wishes but, by reason of the terms of this Bill, the Minister may then direct ACOT to increase those charges.

The Minister cannot have it both ways. He can hardly set up a board and then direct them as to what they should do. It has been my understanding always that it is the function of the Minister for Finance to levy taxes, yet this Bill empowers the Minister for Agriculture to levy taxes on farmers. I have no doubt that, in line with our experience of this Government in the past three and a half years, there will be an annual increase, an extra budget item specially for farmers. That should go down well with the Minister of State's friends in Dublin 4.

Unfortunately it seems that once again the Minister for Agriculture has allowed his Finance colleague to wipe his eye just as has been happening since the Government took office. The Minister has presided over successive cuts in the State's supports to agriculture, some £200 million to date. In other speeches in the past months I have outlined the areas from which that money has been withdrawn. The Minister comes here this morning and proposes a further burden of taxation on farmers. One must ask whether the Minister for Agriculture is calling the shots in his Department or whether he is merely carrying out the orders of the Department of Finance. The Minister's absence today is noticeable and suggests that I am not far wrong in assuming that he is merely carrying out directions from the Department of Finance.

A few months ago the Minister appointed a new ACOT board. On two occasions since then he has cut drastically the amounts to be allocated to ACOT and now he presents a Bill that will have [484] the net effect of reducing further the board's powers while at the same time reducing their influence and effectiveness. Ultimately the Minister and not the board will decide the level of charges and only an elite group of wealthy farmers will be able to avail of ACOT's services. The Minister's claim that nobody will be denied ACOT services is only wishful thinking because, for the reasons I have outlined, he no longer calls the shots in his Department. It is a sad day for agriculture that the Department are dictated to by the Department of Finance.

A short time ago the report commissioned by the Minister for Agriculture to consider the proposals for the future of ACOT and of AFT was completed. That report should be made available to Members of this House. It is synonomous with this legislation. I trust the Minister will respond to this point when he is replying.

It is deplorable that as spokesman for my party on agriculture I must rely on the newspapers in the matter of finding out what the report contains and how the committee regard the future of ACOT and of AFT. I appeal to the Minister to use his influence to ensure that the report is published so that we may have the benefit of a considered opinion while discussing this Bill.

There are some welcome aspects of the report. I welcome in particular the recognition that both bodies concerned should remain separate and independent. Each has an important and individual role to play in the development of agriculture not only through the eighties but up to the end of the century. I welcome also the call for a higher profile for food processing in a new linkup between AFT and the industry. That move is very much in line with this party's policy on the food industry.

There are some aspects of the report about which I would not be happy. For instance, I am concerned about the recommendation that the role of the chief agricultural officer be dispensed with and that the county committees of agriculture as we knew them when they were worthwhile and comprised democratically [485] elected members are to be downgraded further with the liaison posts between AFT and ACOT being scrapped. This party regard these moves as very backward. For this information I am relying on a report that appeared in The Irish Press of March 24 last.

I welcome the recommendation in the report that ACOT's structures should be decentralised with increased resources deployed throughout the country. That recommendation is in line also with my party's policy. However, an aspect of the report that must cause concern is the cutback mentality that permeates it. This has all the hallmarks of the influence of the Department of Finance. It is unsustainable given the comparatively low level of State investment in research and more particularly the low level of investment in education in the area of agriculture. I am not criticising the cutback mentality. I am merely pointing out that it contrasts sharply with the unchecked millions of pounds spent on the IDA and on youth employment programmes, none of which has the economic potential of the agricultural and food industry. I am making that comparison to show the approach by the Government with regard to the agricultural industry which I think has potential for the future. Therefore, I strongly condemn the negative approach of cutting back on services offered by ACOT and AFT. Both bodies have already been severely and adversely affected by cutbacks of more than £2 million in the recent budget. That budget is very low and inadequate for those bodies. I am annoyed and this party is very upset that this report is not being made available to the Members of this House. I wish to ask the Minister when this will be done so that we can discuss constructively the contents of this Bill.

As I have said, it will only be an elite group of farmers who will now be able to avail of the services of ACOT. The Government's national plan, Building on Reality, suggests that semi-State bodies [486] should be allowed to act without interference from the Government. This Bill blatantly contradicts such a worthy philosophy. That is a disturbing aspect. Building on Reality states:

Farmers who can afford to pay for an advisory service which is tailored to their individual needs will be required to make an appropriate payment for the service.

That is certainly a far cry from this proposed legislation which will require all farmers, whether they can afford it or not, to make payment for services. This Bill, if passed, will place ACOT in the impossible position of being required to implement two conflicting Government directives. Firstly, in accordance with Government policy ACOT's advisory staff are concentrating on developing the middle segment of farmers, a high proportion of whom could not or would not pay for the services and certainly not at this juncture. Secondly, in being required to raise income by charging for their services ACOT will now be compelled to redeploy their resources so as to provide the more commercial and developed farmers with a high quality service capable of commanding fees. That is the contradiction. I will expand on those points by quoting some more from Building on Reality:

The Government believe that efforts to accelerate growth in agricultural output must concentrate on that segment of the farming population which has real development potential. ACOT is, therefore, being asked to concentrate its advisory services on those farmers who have the resources and motivation to achieve such development.

In their proposal for the national plan, the National Planning Board point out:

There is a significant number of farmers who have considerable potential for development that can be realised with the support of an intensive advisory service, which only the State is in a position to provide. It is the existence [487] of this group which justifies the continued involvement of the State in the provision of farm advice.

I have argued adequately the contradiction in this legislation. If proof is really needed the Four Year Plan for Agriculture published in 1984 comes back to this point. It states:

There are some 40,000 to 50,000 farmers in the country who have the potential and the capacity to expand production ... these must be the primary focus of any plan aimed at accelerating growth in agricultural output.

As noted in the Government's national plan:

The re-organisation and restructuring of the advisory services with a new emphasis on client/enterprise advisers organised on a local basis, will provide the best framework within which assistance can be provided to those with the greatest potential.

ACOT are now concentrating on some 70,000 farmers who have been identified as having the potential to develop. About 25,000 are currently receiving planned intensive advisory packages.

A sizeable number of this middle segment of farmers up to recently have not been regular users of advisory services, apart from the various schemes. We all know that. I support this laudable approach by ACOT. At this stage many farmers would almost certainly do without advice if they had to pay for it. This is particularly true of dry stock farmers. The introduction at this point of direct charges for ACOT's intensive advisory service will jeopardise the Government's own stated objective of getting the middle segment of farmers with resources to develop. It will be particularly damaging to the concerted effort currently underway by ACOT to develop the cattle and sheep sectors, in my opinion the major areas of potential growth in the years ahead.

I wish to refer to the development of the cattle and sheep sectors. The sheep [488] sector certainly has potential for growth because it is the only sector where there is under-production within Europe. Here we have a golden opportunity to develop the sheep sector thereby providing a very worthwhile and necessary income for our small farmers. It is mostly small farmers who are involved in sheep rearing. Because of the cutback in the advisory services and the imposition of charges, these farmers are now going to be denied advice by ACOT.

Our beef cow numbers have potential for development. This contradicts the Government's plan, Building on Reality. This year the Government have introduced grants for the increase in beef cow numbers in disadvantaged areas. This is contradictory in so far as if there is going to be an increase in beef cow numbers those farmers are going to need intensive advice and attention. This is necessary in so far as agricultural development, particularly in the beef sector, is concerned. We should develop the value-added aspect of beef. As I have already pointed out time and time again, there is vast potential in that area provided we have a positive approach and the political will of this Government. Irrespective of the lack of a political will or a positive approach, if we do not have the advisory services which are necessary for the development of that sector all our efforts would be wasted. The money being spent on increasing our beef cow herd would be wasted because of the lack of advise and planning.

The introduction of these charges for advisory services run counter to the key role set out for ACOT in the Government's plan. First, in identifying farmers who have the capacity to develop and, second, in encouraging the necessary technical and management adaptations on the basis of individual farm assessments. It will be detrimental, therefore, in relation to the major strides that have been made in the restructuring of the service to provide what the Government plan describes as “the best framework within which assistance can be [489] provided to those with the greatest potential”. Ultimately, it could impair the competitive strength of Irish agriculture relative to our major competitors. It is a sobering thought, in view of the widespread disruptions these charges will cause, that they will not yield any significant income to the Exchequer — certainly not enough to make a worthwhile contribution to maintaining the present level of services — nor will such measures result in any significant savings unless the number of farmers serviced and the number of advisory staff are seriously reduced. I would compare those charges with the property tax introduced by this Government for its own selfish reasons——

Mr. Dowling: Or the resource tax.

Mr. Noonan (Limerick West): ——and to placate a section of this Government to ensure that they remain in office. I would regard the imposition of this tax as being similar to the property tax, which is not yielding any worthwhile revenue to the Exchequer. I want to say further that experience abroad — it is good at times to look abroad for some experience — has shown that the better trained and informed farmers make most use of advisory services. To maintain farm incomes such farmers will need to enlist all the expertise available. They might be prepared to pay for services provided they get value for money. In this regard it is likely that they will insist on nominating their adviser. Furthermore, ACOT, in order to achieve their annual income targets, will find it necessary to deploy their best advisers to farmers who can afford to pay for the service. The introduction of charges could in time lead to a two-tier advisory service. This is something we want to avoid. We do not want an elite service which is going to be confined to an elite section of the farming community, those who can afford to pay. For that reason this legislation is going backwards, not forwards, in so far as our agricultural advisory services are concerned.

[490] The relatively small proportion of farmers capable of and willing to pay will receive a consultancy type service involving the better advisers, but the large number of the middle segment of farmers will be precluded from access to this service. Instead, they will have to depend on a less intensive and low quality service than is now being provided to them by ACOT. This brings me back to the point I raised earlier of a two-tier service, an elite service for a certain type of elite farmer and a second class service for all other farmers. Irrespective of what the Minister has said, this is the situation under this Bill. The Minister for Agriculture has the power to direct ACOT to levy any charges as he so desires and which he can vary and increase. There is no point in the Minister coming into this House with pious platitudes and stating that the situation is otherwise. That is what is written into the proposed legislation.

The introduction of charges will have important implications for the remuneration of advisory staff. It is very difficult to see how the better advisers on whom the income earning capacity of the service will critically depend could be expected to accept the same salary as those not in a position to market their service. Has the Minister thought this one out or has he left it to the Minister for the Public Service to do the thinking for him as he has left it to the Minister for Finance to dictate to him what taxation should be imposed on farmers? Has it occurred to the Minister that the cream of the ACOT advisory staff will probably leave the public service once their services must be bought? Why, in those circumstances, would they not set up their own private consultancies? Who will then man ACOT's advisory services? The writing is on the wall for ACOT once this Bill becomes law. It is only a comparatively short time, 1979, since this House debated and passed into law the Act which set up ACOT. This new national body took over from the county system of agricultural education which had been set up before the founding of the State. The new system, which was overdue in [491] modern conditions was the brainchild of no less a man than the late Seán Lemass who was Taoiseach for some years, a city man who understood the importance of agriculture in the Irish economy and in the life of every Irishman in town and country.

It is a long-established tradition of our system of training in agriculture that advice is freely available to any farmer who wishes to avail of it. Farmers always were and still are strongly encouraged to make use of the system. Yet it takes this Government who are anti-farmer, anti-agriculture, anti-rural Ireland, to bring in this penal taxation on farmers which strikes at the very core of agricultural development, the basis of agricultural development, the advisory services. I am appalled at a man like Deputy Hegarty, with the experience and the knowledge and, indeed, the goodwill towards agriculture, standing up here in the Dáil and reading that script which was handed to him by his advisers. I am ashamed of the Minister. He has let down the people he represents, the noble profession that he and I are involved in, by coming in here and, at the dictate of the Department of Finance, introducing this legislation and outlining in this very brief script what is involved in this legislation. It is a downgrading of agricultural development. It is the introduction of a two-tier system of advisory services for farmers.

When the 1979 Act was being debated, the ongoing system of freely available advice was not disputed by any side of the House. If it had been debated in full the outcome would have been to continue a system of free advice. Now we are being presented with a Bill that will turn the system upside down. A major change of principle is involved. This is not the way to deal with a long-established and fully accepted system. Why change now? Is it that the work of ACOT is so far advanced that every farmer in the country is clamouring at the door of ACOT for service and some restraint or damper has to be put on their enthusiasm? No it is not, I regret to say. The Minister's stated [492] reason for introducing the Bill is unworthy of any Minister and it is particularly unworthy of the Minister occupying the seat across the floor from me.

This Bill will make fundamental and quite unacceptable changes. It will seriously change for the worse the whole attitude of farmers to the advisory service. In the Sixties and Seventies I was involved as chairman of the county committee of agriculture in Limerick and before that in Macra Na Feirme, so I know how difficult it was in those years to ensure that farmers would avail of the services, to get their confidence in the advisers and to build up that contact between the farmer and the adviser on that very confidential basis. Now, with one stroke of the pen, by the introduction of this legislation, that is going to be removed. It is a disgrace and a scandal. I am fearful, under this Government, for the future development of agriculture.

There are of course farmers who ask advisers for help, although perhaps not consistently enough. But there are other farmers, far too many, who for one reason or another make little or no use of the service. Certainly the introduction of charges will make sure that the latter group, who should be encouraged to come to the instructors, will continue to stay away, this time with a very good excuse indeed. I am sure the Minister of State shares my concern that we should have a good agricultural advisory service. But this Bill, as he so well knows, will not achieve that. There is a great deal of progress still to be made before our agricultural industry reaches anything like its full potential. There are two key areas in which progress can be made, first, at farm level and second in adding greater value through processing. By keeping the advisers and instructors off the farm, which is what this Bill will do, progress so badly needed will be more and more delayed.

Further, the contribution by the Exchequer to ACOT and to AFT is being continually reduced. As I said earlier, it has been reduced to the tune of £2 million this year, 1986. Indeed, the total budget for ACOT this year is £27 million. That [493] £27 million is made up of only £16 million from the Exchequer, £4 million in local contributions from local authorities and £7 million from EC funding. I want to pose a question to the Minister with regard particularly to the £7 million EC funding which has replaced the Exchequer contribution to agriculture. When this EC funding ceases, will the money be restored by the Exchequer to ACOT? This is very worrying for the board of ACOT and the farmers who depend on the services of ACOT.

A Bill of this kind is the last thing the Minister should attempt to introduce. Irish agriculture needs encouragement and this Bill encourages nobody. Agriculture is going through a very bad time. The burden of the milk super-levy lies heavily on the industry. The inclement weather conditions of last year are still affecting farm incomes. Now we have zero increase price proposals from Brussels, a further drastic proposal to reduce milk deliveries and a serious weakening of the beef support system. I pointed all that out to the Minister before the Easter recess when we had a debate on the Common Agricultural Policy.

I pointed out the serious situation that is developing in Europe, the direction the European scene is taking with regard to agricultural development. I said it was necessary for this Government to bring EC thinking back to the fundamental principles of the founding fathers of the Treaty of Rome, particularly Article 39 under which disparities and conditions between one region and another should be taken into account and support provided for family farms. The EC thinking has gone in a different direction and now supports the factory type farmer. Are the people who brought in this Bill thinking in the same way? But what can we expect from a Government who are anti-agriculture and anti-rural Ireland?

The Minister should not add to this litany of threatened punishment by bringing in another tax, a tax on advice. As I have already stated, this is a tax which is being introduced by the Minister for Agriculture at the behest of the Minister [494] for Finance, for the first time in the history of the State. ACOT's efforts have consistently raised the level of education and professionalism among farmers. Today a charge on their advisory services is proposed. How long will it be before we are presented with another charge, a charge on their educational services? There is a saying that if you get your foot in a door the door will continue to open. This is probably the tip of the iceberg and we are about to see further charges being introduced. I hope I am wrong and that it will not be too long before this Government will not have an opportunity to impose these penal charges.

This Bill is sending shock waves through the industry. Disillusioned farmers cannot be blamed for thinking the Minister for Agriculture is not on their side, as should be his role. The Minister should be very careful not to place himself in the role of collector of farmers' taxes. He is not the Minister for Finance; he is not an arm of the Revenue Commissioners. As I said the Minister must be seen to be on the side of farmers and agricultural development not alone on the domestic scene but on the European scene. I have my doubts that he is on the side of our farmers during European discussions because of the proposals which have been implemented in the past three years which further reduced the potential of Irish agriculture to develop. We have said time and time again that the surpluses in Europe are not part of our problem, that we should not be penalised for the oversupply by the larger farmers in The Netherlands and Germany. Yet the Minister allows the EC to impose these measures on our farmers. He must be seen to be on the side of the farmer at the Cabinet table and at discussions at Brussels.

The technicalities of this Bill propose to deal with taxation in a most high-handed way. The Bill assigns to the Minister and the board of ACOT the functions of judge and jury. ACOT are to propose a charge, the Minister is to approve it or increase it, or vary it, and then it becomes a tax on farmers. Is this [495] House to be consulted when these decisions are to be taken? Is there any way these decisions can be laid before both Houses? Will the Seanad be consulted? The answer is no. Without reference to this House the Minister may vary the charge. There is a reference in this Bill to terms and conditions which give even wider scope to the Minister and the board of ACOT. This is the first time in the history of the State that charges were imposed, or were allowed to be imposed, on any section of the community in such a high-handed dictatorial fashion. It ill becomes the Minister to be associated with this type of approach.

I strongly condemn the negative approach of this Bill. I cannot accept that any Minister for Agriculture can seriously believe that this Bill is just, much less the Minister of State, Deputy Hegarty, who has been given the task of introducing and foisting it on us.

I cannot accept that the Minister of State present here this morning with his commitment and his dedication to agricultural development and, indeed, his knowledge of the advisory services can come in here and with all honesty carry out the work of the Department of Finance. I cannot believe that the Minister is bringing in this Bill with a happy heart. He knows as well as I do the bad effects which this Bill if enacted will have on the whole aspect of agricultural development. The Minister and the Minister of State know well that the very bringing in of the Bill will cause farmers all over the country, especially those most in need of advice, to think the Government are turning their backs on agriculture.

Finally, I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Hegarty, is here in this House this morning for the reasons I have outlined, his commitment, his seriousness, his integrity in his approach since he became Minister of State. I appeal to him at this stage to use the influence which undoubtedly he has with his colleagues in Government to have this Bill withdrawn.

Mr. Dowling: The Bill now before the [496] House to which the Opposition spokesman contributed so eloquently is a very minor adjustment to what already exists on the Statute Book in connection with An Chomhairle Oiliúna Talmhaíochta. It is really in response to the findings of an investigation into the advisory service and into levels of taxation and the quality of service being provided not only in agriculture but in many other areas throughout this State. It was felt as a result of expert advice that some contribution should be made to provide a service of this nature. I can only point to the fact that already such a service, which was never foisted upon the farming community, is being paid for through the co-operative organisations. They have set up their own advisory services in many respects and pay through their milk account or in one way or another for an expert to call to their farms and advise them.

I reject some of the comment made by the Opposition spokesman about an attempt by this or any Government to inflict punishment in any way on the farming community or that this Government are anti-farmer. I applaud the service provided by ACOT since they were set up in their present form in 1979 and before that under the old committee of agriculture system which was a very effective instrument in achieving considerable progress in the area of agriculture. It has not achieved optimum benefit for the economy even at this stage. Much remains to be done and many people in our community would disagree with the system of service now available and the manner in which it was changed in the seventies. Perhaps they reflect on the value of the old committee system which operated on a county by county basis.

The Minister confined himself to the terms of the Bill. He did not wade into a long dissertation on what is happening in agriculture. We could do that on almost all legislation introduced into this House and we could deliberate on Second Stage indefinitely. I do not propose to engage in that type of histrionics in regard to what is or is not wrong in agriculture. Nevertheless I would like to refer to what [497] I regard as the important element in the Bill, that is, that farmers who can afford to pay for an advisory service tailored to their individual needs will be required to make an appropriate payment for that service. I see nothing wrong with that. We are charging the local authorities for various services.

For electoral advantage the Opposition arrived at a decision — unanimous or whatever it was — which had the effect in some areas of gaining them considerable local authority support, but will it work out? In that situation the PAYE sector must take up a deficiency elsewhere and provide the additional funding. It is appropriate at any time to examine how public money, taxpayers' money, is being spent in any area and ACOT should not be exempt from such investigation. If savings can be made in the area of the provision of service, if funds available can be supplemented to provide a better service, I do not see what is wrong with that.

It is stated clearly in the Minister's presentation this morning that nobody who is not in a position to pay will be asked to pay. That is a matter for the direction given from the local service. It happens in local authorities in connection with service charges. Where people are not in a position to pay they are not being forced to pay or, in special circumstances, criteria are set out under which they pay only what they can afford to pay. I see nothing wrong with that if it can improve the service particularly when people are already paying for a service of a similar nature through their co-operative organisations. Much has been made of this. It should supplement rather than take from their existing funding and provide a better service.

The Opposition spokesman referred to a £2 million reduction in the funding to ACOT in the current year. I do not know what level of funding will be provided under this scheme. That is a matter to be examined further when the charges are in operation. Let me say that in 1979 when the ACOT service in its present form was set up, inflation was running at 15 or 16 per cent which went to 20 per [498] cent subsequently and the level of funding available then was eaten up with wage increases. The Opposition spokesman knows that. His Government were in power at the time. Now he criticises this administration who have secured a drop in inflation from 22 per cent to almost nil and this must, of its very nature, contribute enormously to the development of agriculture, irrespective of what form of criticism he might like to put forward at this juncture.

Many farmers are still very badly off. Some of them operate in a very progressive and effective way but, because of their level of borrowing, they are working for the banking institutions and, if anything goes wrong with their enterprises, especially in regard to milk, they will go out of business. That is an unfortunate development and one cannot exonerate the advisory service in this respect because the advice they gave to borrow was a disincentive to the development of agriculture. Farmers will no longer borrow to develop enterprises as they did in the late seventies and early eighties.

When the Minister for Agriculture contributed to the budget debate he was gravely concerned at the developments in the major commodity areas, particularly grain, and the over supply of beef and milk. We have endeavoured, through the advice of ACOT and various farming organisations, to modify the super-levy. Nobody likes levies, but there is no market for overproduction. What can we do apart from reducing production? We fought the imposition of the super-levy but, nevertheless, there is still a very serious problem in that regard, particularly for young farmers and those who have an almost insurmountable problem in regard to borrowing. They may dispose of their milk quotas to alleviate the problem which could have a very serious effect on our economy.

We appluad the service and I hope it will not be diminished by the fact that there will be consultation on the possibility of providing additional funds for a service through a small charge system. Farmers pay veterinary and other fees [499] and there does not seem to be any objection to them. I should like to know what percentage of farmers avail of the service on a regular basis? The service is now structured differently and farmers are brought into a central area where there are educational aids and equipment which provide a good range of advice. There are also organised visits to farms and, as a former member of a local committee, I was very happy to have had the experience of working with the service and clearly understanding the value of their work to the farming community and the economy. I would not like to see that diminished and I hope that is not the object of the legislation. However, I hope that the service will be expanded to an even more valuable degree. Organised visits to farms benefit only a minority of farmers and those who could benefit most do not participate in these schemes. Younger farmers, of course, take a more enlightened approach to the various services and educational courses available.

The Minister said that the national plan calls on ACOT to concentrate their advisory efforts on that segment of the farming population which has real development potential. That is a pious statement. Farmers know that there is overproduction even in beef. The Minister indicated that he is withdrawing hormonal treatment which helped to produce beef at a much earlier stage and clogged up the intervention system. Yesterday the EC refused to accept forequarters into intervention. That will not help the farmers' income. They are advised to produce a commodity but the cost involved just about balances the budget. The fact that they did not open up intervention poses a major problem for beef producers. There is also a problem in regard to grain——

Acting Chairman (Mr. Barrett, Dublin North-West): This Bill merely deals with the provision of an advisory service and the charges for providing such a service. It has nothing to do with grain or beef. The Deputy should come back to the Bill.

Mr. Dowling: I beg to differ. It deals [500] with it in an indirect way. I do not wish to dispute your decision and I am always very happy to keep to the subject being debated. However, that does not seem to apply in all cases which is very annoying because we could get through legislation much faster if people confined themselves to the Bill under discussion.

Sometimes people get wrong advice and the advisory service should be about producing a product which is marketable. This Bill is also about collecting money which is in scarce supply. If additional money is provided it must be by extra taxation because that is the only way the advisory service can provide it. I know that the EC provide a sum of £7 million to ACOT but that money also comes in a form of taxation because the EC are funded by a certain section of the community. The Opposition spokesman indicated his total abhorrence of taxation but he should cast his mind back to 1979 when Fianna Fáil were advocating a 2 per cent levy on farmers without taking into account whether some farmers would be in a position to pay it. At that time, farmers were paying rates and they now pay income tax on what they earn. There could not be a fairer method than that. The Opposition opposed the land tax for their own reasons. The intention in introducing that tax was to provide a level of income for local authorities to do many of the things the farming community earnestly desired. Many in the farming community are prepared to contribute their share if the conditions and services they require are provided.

I do not think the imposition of the charge proposed in the Bill will make the slightest difference to the service that is being provided but there is an abuse of the service by a small section of farmers. Some of them ring their adviser for almost anything while others never seek advice. That is where the problem lies. We have to reach out to those who never seek advice and try to control the number of visits to those who get a very good service free. Those farmers should get a reasonable service but should not be allowed to monopolise it. There is a big [501] cost involved. Advisers must travel to farms and may spend up to half a day dealing with two farmers. That represents a considerable cost to the Exchequer and on the level of expert advice available from ACOT. It is only right that that should be looked at in the light of what is available through funding by the taxpayers.

With regard to the level of borrowing I must point out that many farmers are working for the banking institutions. Last year one farmer paid a bank £14,000 on a cow herd of about 60. After paying that amount that farmer had nothing for himself. Farmers would be better off paying a level of taxation to the Exchequer and not having to meet payments to lending institutions. A lot of those lending institutions are living quite well off the farming community and farmers are only realising that now.

It must be remembered that the charges will apply only after consultation with the Department. The Minister reserves the right, and rightly so, to refuse an increase in the charge. He would be unwise to vary a charge if the advice locally was to the contrary. If those on the local scene do not want to impose a charge they should suffer the consequences, like local authorities who refuse to impose a charge. The day has gone when the PAYE sector should be asked to fund everybody.

The making of a charge for ACOT advice will not be a permanent feature. Conditions will improve, as has happened in the last 12 months. The benefits accruing to farmers who do not have borrowings more than they can sustain are considerable. They are making a profit and doing quite well. The drop in oil prices has meant a considerable reduction in costs to farmers engaged in beef and grain production. If they need to avail of the advisory service I am sure they will be able to use some of that saving to pay for it. It will not be necessary for them to call an adviser out twice or three times a month. An adviser may be needed to give advice on the amount of fertiliser required or if disease hits a crop. There will not be an enormous charge involved, [502] as envisaged by the Opposition spokesman. We have to take a more realistic view of the provisions in the Bill in the light of what is necessary on the agricultural scene.

Interests rates will fall and that will result in a considerable saving for a number of farmers. I have not heard many farmers expressing a critical view of this measure. There are ways of funding the service rather than leaving it a free service. I am pleased that the Minister has the power to deal with cases where farmers are not able to afford to pay for the service.

Will the Minister outline what the average cost of a visit to a farm will be and how it will be calculated? Will it be a percentage of the total cost involved? Will the charge be based on the distance the adviser has to travel, as occurs in the case of a visit by a vet? I reject the statement by the Opposition spokesman that the Government have meted out a lot of punishment to the farming community. It was most unfair to make that statement because the Minister, and his two able Ministers of State, are committed to working on behalf of the farming community. They have done excellent work. The Opposition spokesman suggested that we may now face a charge for educational services but the sooner we realise that there is nothing free here the better. Nobody gets anything for nothing and we should accept that.

The question of a charge for a return visit to a farm is a matter for ACOT. That body do excellent work and we should not interfere with them in their pursuit of important objectives. We must remember that salaries and wages account for more than 80 per cent of the expenditure of the Department of Agriculture. There have been many calls for cutbacks but we must be careful where we make them. If as a result of the imposition of this charge people do not avail of the service we should examine the matter again. In that regard I am glad the Minister has the power to deal with that. I am aware that the committee of which I am a member has rejected this charge but I have no [503] doubt that when they examine the contents of the Bill they will adopt a different attitude. The charge will not be applied across the board and committees may adopt their own charge or decide not to introduce one. Obviously, in that situation, they would suffer a loss of revenue which would have to be recouped by some other method.

Although it may be slightly outside the terms of reference of this Bill advice given in the milk area is important. There is a good service being provided by ACOT and the co-operatives to farmers in regard to the projections of levels of milk necessary in order to finance their operations. Indeed it could be said that farmers barely tick over on various projects set out for them on a year-to-year basis. Nonetheless it forms a very important part of the ACOT service and I would hope it would not be interfered with in any way by the provisions of this Bill.

I should like to know to what extent the problems with regard to the cessation scheme, or what might be described as the national redistribution scheme, has been resolved. There were difficulties experienced with certain co-operatives. I know that farmers are anxious to relieve themselves of the burden of debt by selling off their milk quotas. If that milk was sold to the EC it would have a devastating effect on the whole of our economy.

I accept this Bill with a measure of reservation. I do not think it will have the effect forecast by the Opposition. There has been much consultation. I believe there is a need for a service charge in many areas. I have always supported and promoted service charges. I have met very few people who disagree with paying for a service provided it is an expert one. I do not think the fear expressed by Deputy Noonan about a two-tier service being provided by ACOT is justified. It should be remembered that all of the ACOT people are qualified, dedicated and up-to-date with developments in agriculture. It is my view that the agents available to the farmers render good advice. It is not a question of greed on the part of this Government endeavouring to secure [504] additional funds. Rather it is a matter of endeavouring to have scarce resources deployed in the most advantageous way in our economy.

Mr. J. Walsh: I oppose this Bill. I call on the Minister to withdraw it and abandon the campaign for financial withdrawal from the agricultural industry. I believe this Bill will spell the death knell for ACOT.

A crucial question was raised by the Minister in the course of his remarks when he said:

The plan is quite specific, as I have indicated, in restricting charges to an appropriate payment from those who can afford them and proposals by ACOT in the matter will receive approval only where this requirement has been met.

I want to know who will decide on who can afford to pay them. Will it be the tax inspector, the ACOT advisor who will now become a tax inspector, or on what criteria will the affording of payment for services be based? For example, will it be P60s, on categorisation—commercial or development farmers—or on what basis will it be decided? The last speaker said that the charges can be varied dependent on the advice being given by the local inspector or adviser. If the local adviser or inspector, who for decades has honoured the confidentiality of his business with the farmer, will henceforth be used to decide whether a farmer will be charged, that will spell absolute disaster. Like anybody else, the farming community will not discuss their enterprises in an open way if, at the end of the day, they find that the information they give is used by the advisory services and ACOT personnel to lead to the introduction of charges for those services.

It is particularly regrettable that a decision has been taken to introduce charges, ACOT, having restructured their organisation, revamped their services, having got into over-drive in providing a comprehensive service to the farming and agricultural community. The ostensible reason is that they have to earn a certain [505] amount of their income from charges and areas other than State subvention. The reality is that in the last three years the State subvention to ACOT has been reduced annually. They have reached the position now in which 40 per cent of their total income is provided from sources outside of State subvention, that is from EC funding, their own farms, colleges and the Youth Employment Agency.

I believe the introduction of charges will have very damaging effects on the competitiveness of Irish farming and agriculture. It should be remembered that we must complete in an open market with other countries in the EC. There is money being poured into the development of agriculture and the enhancement of the farming community in all of those countries, in particular our nearest neighbouring country. I believe it will accelerate the drift from the land, causing additional unemployment in rural areas, leading to increased amounts of dole and social welfare payments in those areas. Furthermore, it will accentuate regional imbalances in rural areas, as opposed to industrial areas.

In general there is nothing to commend this Bill. It is totally negative. I understand that the amount of money projected to be collected is in the region of £500,000. I do not think it will yield even that amount and certainly there will be at least twice that amount expended on the administrative machinery to set up the system.

With regard to the erosion of the competitive position of Irish farming I should like to draw the attention of the House to what our neighbours in the House of Commons decided in relation to the advisory services in the United Kingdom. Here I should like to quote from the House of Commons Sixth Report from the Agriculture Committee, ordered by the House of Commons to be printed on 10 July 1985, paragraph 54 which states:

We recognise the special importance of agriculture to Northern Ireland. Professor Furness from The Queen's University stressed that the proportion of labour engaged in agriculture in the [506] Province is four times greater than in the rest of the UK and the actual contribution of agriculture to GDP is three times that in the UK as a whole. We also accept that relatively low input farming has already been achieved there. We conclude that there are special difficulties facing the Province's agriculture, itself a mainstay of the social fabric, and we oppose any reductions in spending by the Government on the advisory services.

I suggest that our Department of Agriculture take a similar, positive attitude to our farming industry which plays an even more fundamental or pivotal role in our economy. Again, in the House of Commons First Special Report from the Agriculture Committee, ordered by the House of Commons to be printed on 28 November 1985, recommendation 20 says:

We conclude that there are special difficulties facing the agriculture of Northern Ireland, a mainstay of the social fabric of the Province, and we oppose any reductions in spending by the Government on the advisory services.

Paragraph 26, under Recommendation 20, continues to read:

The Government is aware of the social and economic importance of Agriculture in Northern Ireland and will have regard to its special needs when considering the implications for Northern Ireland of measures taken in regard to the advisory services in Great Britain. We have to compete in the EC with other countries more advantaged from the point of view of advisory services for farmers, and it is very regrettable that we are introducing this change in legislation which will make the competitive position of Irish agriculture even worse.

It is a sad reality that, apart from having to compete in European and world markets, we have to compete on the home market. This is shameful. Last year we imported £1,000 million worth of agricultural produce, though by any [507] standards Ireland, with its climatic advantages, could produce all we need here. That is a disgrace. Of course we could produce all our own needs if we had a mind to get down to work, but to do that we need the best possible advisers. We had them in ACOT, but because that body is now being turned into a commercial entity, our best advisers and experts will no longer work there but will join their colleagues as consultants and find greater scope and rewards for their talents.

This will mean that we will have a less developed service to give to our farmers when they need the best that is available. We have at least 75,000 farmers who need extensive expert advice which they are not in a position to pay for because, despite what PAYE and urban people think about it, farming owes £1,500 million. The last speaker referred to the advantages to farmers of our low inflation rate which, he said, would benefit agriculture. That is so if interest rates were not at their highest level ever. Inflation is running at 3 per cent or 4 per cent, but interest rates are at about 17 per cent. Therefore, there is a crippling imposition on developing farmers particularly, who have to meet repayments and produce goods for which there is widespread need not only in the world but at home. We have ceilings and thresholds in regard to milk, beef and tillage, but we are to have less advice available to farmers.

Although our farmers can produce good food, they are not producing the quality products for which there is a ready market here and abroad. Therefore, though there are ceilings and thresholds in regard to production levels of certain products, there are no ceilings in regard to quality produce which we must begin to grow to meet a special niche in world markets provided quality is present and that our products are free of contaminants. To produce them, specialist advice is required, but this legislation will result in a reduction of such advice.

This Bill is a continuation of a long list of measures in the past three years introduced with the purpose of taking [508] money out of agriculture in one way or another. Yet, if we try to make a case for farmers, people will forget conveniently that 17 per cent of our population are directly employed in farming and that out of every three jobs in the country one is related to agriculture. It is the outstanding area for investment. It is a pity that in the last three years various supports for farmers have been reduced and that a number of outstanding measures have been terminated and their benefits no longer available to our farmers.

The situation was very bad last year. We had difficult weather conditions. A strong plea was made by farmers' representatives for relief or aid, but it was rejected out of hand by the Department of Agriculture who said that the money was not available. Nevertheless, at the end of the year it was found that £57 million had been unexpended, left in balances, in the Department of Agriculture. Here we are talking about a trifling £500,000 for ACOT, a relatively small amount which will mean the death knell for ACOT.

I oppose this measure as a fundamentally bad piece of legislation and I urge the Minister, before going ahead with implementing it, to consider establishing an all-party committee which would look in depth at the implications of this legislation.

Mr. Sheehan: Listening to Deputy Nonan this morning accusing the Government of being anti-agriculture I thought it was nonsense and downright misleading because he must have realised that never in our history has more money been put into agriculture than in the past three years. I admit that for every £1 spent on agriculture by the Exchequer we get £5 from the EC, but this only goes to show the commitment of the agricultural plan drawn up by the Government to tackle farmers' problems.

Therefore, we must come to the conclusion that what Deputy Noonan said this morning was making a mountain out of a molehill. Everybody knows that if there is to be a future for Ireland it will be brought about by a sound agricultural [509] policy. This can be brought about only by making available the best possible aid to agriculture. The help given to agriculture represents only the scraping of the bottom of the pot compared with the position of industry.

I want to pay tribute to the work of our agricultural advisers who deserve the greatest credit for their efforts on behalf of our farmers down the years. They are an excellent band of men, committed and dedicated to the future of agriculture. I do not have to remind the House that were it not for their tenacity, courage and determination, output from the farming industry would be much less than it is. However, there is vast room for improvement and we are sadly lacking in achievement by comparison with our EC partners. I would like to see our farmers on par in production with their agricultural counterparts in Europe.

Mr. J. Walsh: They would be if the Government matched pound for pound.

Mr. Sheehan: They would have been if the Deputy's party had given them the needed fillip in the early days following our entry into the EC. They held the farmers back then for lack of finance and of a commitment to agriculture.

Acting Chairman: I would like the Deputy to come back to the Bill. This talk about the service charge has nothing to do with it.

Mr. Sheehan: All my remarks are encompassed by the Bill. I noticed that the Deputy spokesman on Agriculture was allowed great latitude this morning to quote ad lib on anything from EC policy to matters at the very root of agriculture.

Mr. J. Leonard: Which Government were in power from 1973 when we joined the EC?

Mr. Sheehan: I can assure the Deputies opposite that were it not for the sound agricultural policy of Fine Gael down [510] through the years there would be no such thing as a viable agricultural industry.

Mr. J. Walsh: What about the £47 million sent back this year?

Mr. Sheehan: What about the economic war? The Deputy's party stabbed the farmers in the back.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: What about the Bill?

Mr. Sheehan: I shall come back to it if my friends across the way allow me to. I can assure the House that agriculture is on a sound footing under the leadership of the Coalition Government.

Mr. J. Walsh: God help us.

Mr. Sheehan: An impetus has been given to agriculture second to none in Europe in the short time that we have had responsibility in this area. Our Minister for Agriculture and his two junior Ministers have produced excellent results for their work in the past three years. Agriculture is to the forefront of the minds of the Coalition Cabinet and this will continue for as long as they are in power.

I would ask the Minister to outline the charges proposed to be levied at the discretion of the ACOT advisers on farmers in a position to contribute. We have received an assurance from the Minister that no farmer unable to pay will be levied with these charges. The Minister is sound in his judgment in that connection. However, at this stage I ask the Minister of State if he would seriously consider exempting all farmers in the disadvantaged areas from these charges? It is hard enough for small farmers in those areas to survive without having to pay an extra charge. I appeal to the Minister, Deputy Hegarty, to get this exemption.

Our young farmers today are well educated and have the benefit of 150 hour EC courses to lay the foundation for their becoming connoisseurs in the agricultural world. The training and education to which young farmers have access today [511] is second to none. This in turn will have an effect on the demand for service instructors over the years. This demand will diminish quite considerably because of the standard of education of our young farmers. Gone are the days of the farmer who took over the holding from his parents and found that if he was to advance in agriculture he had to contact an agricultural adviser. Only in regard to difficult problems will a young farmer of today consult these advisers. They are fortified by the knowledge gained from the EC classes and they can contribute to our economy. There is a bright future for our young farmers.

Mr. Lyons: If they can pay for it, with the charges levied by the Coalition Government.

Mr. Sheehan: They have a bright future provided they are given the necessary finance to put them on a par with their European counterparts.

I noted that Deputy Noonan described ACOT as the brainchild of the late Seán Lemass. I wonder how wise was that brainchild. I have yet to be convinced that ACOT have given as good a service to our farmers as the old county committees of agriculture. I had the privilege of being a member of Cork County Committee of Agriculture from 1960 until the setting up of ACOT. I am still proud to serve as a member of that committee under ACOT administration.

Mr. Lyons: The Deputy will become redundant now.

Mr. Sheehan: With 26 years of experience as a member of a county committee of agriculture, I know only too well the achievements made over those years. I know the state of agriculture as it was in 1960 and I can see the strides which have been taken. I should like to have seen greater gains for the agricultural community. Throughout those years Irish farmers were bedevilled by red tape, bureaucracy and dictation from “book” farmers. Experience was not taken into [512] consideration. The average Irish farmer today, especially the young farmer, is well geared to meet the challenge of the nineties in the EC. To fulfil his role he will still need support from the Exchequer. Such support should have been provided during the past 26 years. Had we the foresight in the past two decades to build up our farmers, we would be better equipped to meet the challenge from our European counterparts. Work begun is half done and I have no doubt that the future of agriculture will be very bright, provided we take the right road towards development.

The previous speaker, Deputy Walsh, who comes from my own constituency, states that interest rates were never higher at between 16 per cent and 17 per cent, while inflation is running at 3 per cent. In regard to interest rates, we look forward to an imminent reduction, thanks to the achievements of the Minister for Finance when he met his European counterparts last week.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: This is a very limited Bill. I would be very grateful if the Deputy would come back to the Bill.

Mr. Sheehan: It is all bordering on the Bill.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Deputy is covering the borders of the world.

Mr. Sheehan: I am only answering the remarks made by the previous speaker.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I was not then in the Chair and this is a very limited Bill.

Mr. Lyons: Tell us how the small farmers in Cork will fare.

Mr. Sheehan: I remind Deputies that the 3 per cent rate of inflation is the lowest level of inflation we have had in the past 20 years, thanks to our Taoiseach and the able Coalition Government.

[513] Mr. Lyons: They are all emigrating from Schull. There is no work there.

Mr. Sheehan: All Deputy Lyons can think about is parochial matters, nothing more. A new pier costing £1.5 million has been built in Schull, which the party opposite failed to provide during their term in office. They talked about it for 40 years. I invite the Deputy to come and see the new pier and the progress which has been made, thanks to the Coalition Government and to Deputy Sheehan.

Mr. Lyons: They need the pier to get on board ship when they are emigrating.

Mr. Sheehan: If my colleague across the House wants to engage in dialogue, I am prepared to keep it up.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Will the Cork Deputies forget about the pier and deal with the Bill?

Mr. Sheehan: Perhaps it would be no harm to invite him to see the pier.

Mr. Lyons: It is a monument.

Mr. Sheehan: Yesterday Deputy Lyons was talking about the pub with no beer. I am sure he would be a very good customer in a pub with no beer. He does not contribute much to the pubs which have beer.

Mr. Lyons: Who built the pier for emigration?

Mr. Sheehan: The following are guidelines for the future of agriculture: gradually to reduce production in sectors which are in surplus and to alleviate the burden on the taxpayers; to increase the diversity and improve the quality of production by reference to the internal and external markets and the desire of consumers; to deal more effectively and systematically with the income problems of small family farms.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Would the Deputy deal more specifically with [514] the Bill? This is more like a debate on an Agriculture Estimate.

Mr. Sheehan: This contributes to the Bill. There must be support for agriculture in areas where it is essential in regard to land use, planning, maintenance of the social balance and protection of the environment. All this comes into the work of an agricultural instructor, on which I am dwelling in my contribution.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: You are on a very narrow line. Stay with the Bill.

Mr. Lyons: Tell us about the charges. It is all about payments.

Mr. Sheehan: The Deputy opposite had not the guts to stand up to his commitments as a member of Cork Corporation and will probably be sacked by tonight.

Mr. Lyons: The people cannot afford to pay.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: No advice from Deputy Lyons, please.

Mr. Sheehan: I am amazed that Deputy Lyons is allowed to come into this House and interrupt me during my contribution to a debate on matters of vital interest to the farming community. If he is allowed to do so I will give him crossfire.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I have great patience and I appreciate Deputy Sheehan's interest in agriculture. Please return to the Bill.

Mr. Sheehan: I return to the Bill after a barrage of interruptions. The Bill provides that charges will not be levied on people who are not in a position to pay. We have got that guarantee.

Mr. Lyons: That is the entire community.

Mr. Sheehan: The Minister has the power to curtail the imposition of charges [515] at any time he sees fit. This should be a clear indicator to the doubting Thomases opposite that there are no sinister moves in this Bill. I appeal to the Minister at the outset to include in the Bill an exemption from charges for all farmers in disadvantaged areas. I know very well the hardship experienced by small farmers in disadvantaged areas. These are the people who could be most affected by those charges. The big farmer from the Golden Vale, the strawberry gardens of Wexford or the plush acres of the midlands in County Meath have access to private agricultural instructors. Many of them avail of the services of instructors employed by the co-operative societies. For the small farmer along the western seabed, along Mizen Head and Malin Head, the situation is completely different. It is important that the interests of this section of the farming community are taken into account and they should be made exempt from these charges.

The Bill as a whole does not in any way curb agricultural output. The charges are in keeping with charges made on other sections of the community. The wording of the Bill leaves ample room so that the Minister can ensure that charges are not imposed on farmers who are not in a position to pay and I was glad of the assurance given by the Minister in his opening remarks. I accept the fundamental principles of the Bill, provided hard cases are sympathetically considered and aided by the Minister and future Ministers.

Mr. J. Leonard: Speaking on a Bill one approves or rejects the measure before the House. In this case we have no option but to reject this Bill out of hand. In considering this Bill we must consider the problems at present facing agriculture. The last speaker talked about the bright future for agriculture. I would like to have the same optimism. The previous speaker should have listened to the Minister for Agriculture speaking on the budget before the recess. The Minister gave a realistic assessment of the problems facing agriculture and he was on a [516] totally different wavelength from Deputy Sheehan.

Agriculture is at a crossroads and there is no signpost to indicate the best road forward. There is overproduction of cereals, beef and milk in the EC. It is time to consider other areas of production. For that we need the assistance of the ACOT advisory service. For years we have developed in narrow areas and ignored the possible markets which we could have filled by producing fruit, vegetables and so on. The second paragraph of the Bill declares that farmers who can afford to pay for an advisory service which is tailored to their individual needs would be required to maintain appropriate payments for the service. This is typical Civil Service language. It is not realistic. Most people will be able to put a case for inability to pay. This morning the Minister said:

Some may think that the introduction of charges will be a disincentive to some farmers to seek advice and I am, of course, conscious of this possibility. There will be full consultation between my Department and ACOT prior to the introduction of any charges regarding their level and the criteria to be used in their formulation.

I hope that there was consultation with ACOT and other bodies before the introduction of the Bill. The Minister referred to changing circumstances and said that any fees or charges could be varied or terminated and that the legislation would cover that. The wording is all very fine, but at the moment we badly need a free advisory service to promote other avenues of production.

Whatever the Government's approach in their proposals in Building on Reality, the small farmers in the Connacht-Ulster region have very few options available to them to secure their livelihood. In the present climate they need every encouragement and advice. On the industrial scene there are county development teams, the IDA, and various other agencies who just provide advice, but this is one area where there is a possibility of job production and further development.

[517] Over the years there has been massive importation of fruit and vegetables and we could have supplied that market.

This Bill will damage agriculture. It is as well to look at other EC countries and how they operate. France and Belgium are to the forefront in agriculture and they are similar to Ireland in relation to restricted acreages, and so on, and they do not charge for agricultural advisory services. Down through the years Britain has been very liberal in providing money for agricultural advisory services generally as agriculture is a small element in the total British economy. Years ago potato production was a big thing here and added much to farm incomes. At that time Britain supported their producers and created a monopoly in that area. Britain has now decided to impose charges, and we have decided to follow suit. The British Farmers' Weekly referred to ADAS, as this new advisory service charge is called, and said:

It's now less than a year before ADAS enters the commercial arena. But the scenario is that its future may be blighted unless farmers and advisers are told quickly exactly how ADAS will operate.

The present uncertainly is extremely frustrating for advisers who will have the added burden of switching from a Civil Service mentality to one of raw commercialism. Many advisers do not see how they can compete with firmly established bodies like the Milk Marketing Board and the Meat and Livestock Commission which have been running fee-paying advisory services for many years. Ironically such costing packages have been given away to the MMB and MLC in the past 10 years.

That was their reaction to the introduction of a paid for service in an area which had been cushioned by the taxpayer down through the years. In the area of social welfare, and so on, we copied the British ideas too.

Some of the best agricultural producing countries in the EC have not moved towards this type of charge. There is always the fear that the introduction of any [518] charge is the thin edge of the wedge, that once a charge is introduced it will be developed further. The Minister says that in this instance the charge can be varied or terminated but we all know that charges generally are not terminated.

We are introducing a two tier system of payment in terms of advisory services, in other words, services based on a person's ability to pay. Obviously, this will bring demands from those who will be able to pay for the best advisory services possible and this could bring about the introduction into the system of outside agencies. Perhaps the Department would examine the question of outside agencies coming in here offering advice on various aspects of agriculture. I would be apprehensive about such advice, whether it is based purely on commercial grounds, or whether it is said to be to the advantage of agricultural production. In my county an agency from across the Border are operating. These people are carrying out soil tests, not in terms of the presence of phosphate, potash and nitrogin, but in terms of traces of mineral and other elements. This is being done with the claim that massive amounts of money could be saved by the farmers concerned if their soil structures were diagnosed totally and if they then followed the recommendations of the agency as to what they consider to be the best use to which the soil should be put. One man I know who has availed of this service paid a fee of £50. A sample of soil was taken from a 20 acre area of his land. He is awaiting the results of the analysis but he was told that the operation could save him a lot of money. Perhaps that case was supported by the person selling the service being able to say that he was not selling a product, that he was not working for any fertiliser firm, but that he was merely selling his knowledge and expertise. If we embark on a pricing situation in the matter of advisory services, we could have much more of that type of operation engaged in by such agencies. It could happen that some of our best advisers would be attracted to commercial bonus rather than to ACOT.

Since immediately after the war I have [519] had association with a co-operative and I have been in close contact down through the years with my county committee of agriculture so far as trials, the provision of seeding, of fertilisers and so on are concerned. When the various aids to farming became available during the years following the war, there was the belief that farming had a great future, but I am disappointed in the progress we have made and in the way we have used EC moneys. Thirteen years after our accession we are talking of the serious problems besetting agriculture.

A tremendous amount of work has been undertaken by ACOT who had available to them some of the best advisers, people who worked long hours giving advice during the day and holding classes in the evenings, very often up to the hour of midnight and in country halls that were not well heated. It would be very regrettable if the type of relationship these people had with the farmers were to be damaged in any way because of the imposition of a fee. The amount that will accrue from any such fee is questionable as also is the matter of how optional the fee will be.

As I have said here before on a number of occasions, the county committees of agriculture and ACOT should place much less emphasis on the top 25 per cent of farmers who are well versed in agricultural production and should concentrate instead on the next tier and so on down the line. Obviously ACOT concentrated more on those who sought advice and who were interested in new projects. It was difficult to get through to the man who had no interest in such advice or projects, or in changing his system of farming. But these were the people on whom ACOT should have been putting more emphasis.

The ideal would be that we would not need advisory services but that is not the position. One would expect that after so many years we would be in a better position in that regard, but the reality is that farmers in many areas must change their system of production. This is true especially of farmers in those 12 western [520] counties mentioned by a previous speaker. These farmers should be exempted from charges, but we are aware of the consideration given to them in various other areas, particularly in regard to the super-levy in which respect they should have been exempt. We are talking of farmers in areas where there is no such activity as beet, wheat or barley growing because of the unsuitability of the land for such purposes. Because these farmers have not been given special consideration up to now, I expect it would be futile to hope they would be considered in the case of these charges.

We are living in changing times and when areas of production are changing, so obviously there is a need for advisory services. It is my opinion that there is an over-emphasis on education in the area of agriculture. There has also been an over-emphasis on the illiteracy aspect of farming down the years. I do not accept that it has been that bad or that education will be the be-all and end-all of agricultural production in the future. Admittedly, it is ideal to have had a background in an agricultural college. From my experience, having spent 25 or 26 years in a co-operative in the agricultural field discussing problems with farmers on a daily basis, many farmers who had not a very high education had a common-sense and down to earth approach to agriculture. They had no difficulty with over-borrowing because they kept a fairly tight ship and kept progressing on a gradual and steady basis. As far as ACOT are concerned, education or the lack of it has been over-emphasised in the last number of years.

We will have to take a completely new look at the agricultural scene. I mentioned three areas, beef, milk and cereal production. There are other areas such as sheep and cattle production. Cattle production will have to be more specialised and there will have to be a greater emphasis on the breed, the carcase quality and the confirmation of the carcase. This will result in a much lighter carcase and a lower tonnage of meat being produced from a certain amount of animals. It will necessitate a substantial increase [521] in our cattle herd. Most people have a good knowledge of milk production and milk management generally. They have not the same knowledge of sheep production. This is an area which should be examined very closely. We are talking here about food conservation and that is where the cost arises. It determines the profitability or non-profitability of any project.

The western package which was introduced has now run half of its term. In that programme beef was a non-starter. It never took off the ground. In an area where we should have a good experience of the working of the system it was tied up by restrictions and by red tape. We are now faced with changing the farming system and looking at new areas. Mention has now been made of Building on Reality. There is much selectivity in it and concentration is on a small number of farmers who had a potential to increase production. The advisory service concentrates on those. I always claimed that that was disregarding a large section of the producers. At a time when 78 per cent of our produce is over-produced, rather than wailing about the surpluses and food mountains we should be examining the alternative areas of production. This should have been done years ago. The only way this can be done is through our advisory service, through An Foras Talúntais and by providing a service. We will not provide that service by introducing charges. In most areas where charges are introduced the administrative cost of introducing those charges is great. It has a very damaging effect on the goodwill which has been built up between the farmers and the advisory service. There are many options here which will not be introduced and this will not be to the benefit of agriculture. The Minister should take a serious look at this in view of the agricultural situation so that there will be more optimism for the future.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture (Mr. Connaughton): I am delighted to have an opportunity of speaking on this Bill. It is a relatively minor measure but it seems to have got [522] great airing today. There are a few myths which I would like to explore. From listening to Deputy Noonan one would think that there was not a single ill that ever befell Irish agriculture but that the Coalition was the cause of it. I was beginning to think that the next thing that would fall would be the sky. Like everything else in this world all matters are neither right nor wrong. To put things in perspective and on a more even keel I wish to raise a number of points about this Bill and about ACOT and matters relating to it.

In 1984 funds available to ACOT, who have responsibility for agricultural education and advice, amounted to £27.75 million. In 1985 it was £27.34 million and in 1986 it will be £27.42 million. There is a very small shift there when one considers that the inflation rate is so low. I am the first to acknowledge that there are problems. Of course there are. Within those figures there are certain areas that one can quibble about. The European Social Fund, which was over £2 million last year, now stands at £4 million. The money is available to ACOT. A number of fundamental problems have arisen because of this debate. Any matter to do with farming or with land is something on which everybody has a view. That is a good thing in its own way. There are great changes sweeping through the entire advisory service and there were great changes even in my time. A man for whom I have great respect, Deputy Leonard, spoke about some of them. I find it hard to understand it when he says there is an over-emphasis on education. I did not think we had reached the stage in this country where anybody was overeducated. I agree with him in regard to common sense. Even a university degree will not bestow common sense and has not bestowed it on some people down through the years.

There is no doubt that when all is said and done — and I am speaking as a farmer — a man should always have the ability to know where to go to look for the service and advice and having got that he should then make up his own mind as to what he should do. I agree with Deputy [523] Leonard that some people believe everything, whether it is right for them or not. In so far as that goes, our educational system will always have to try to ensure that people are able to make up their own minds despite all the advice available. That is true in every walk of life.

In so far as the advisory service is concerned, we are at a particular point where new directions have to be given. The service has come a long way since the time of agricultural meetings and winter farm schools held in cold, draughty places around the country. In their time that was the only way knowledge could have been imparted and it was fundamentally new at the time. A great bond of friendship has developed between the agricultural adviser and many farmers. I am one of the many people who are very grateful for the efforts of the advisers over the years. I believe also that we must move with the times, which is a well worn cliché at this stage, but it is true. What we need to do now is organise a system which will give to our farmers the same degree of advice as have our competitors in other countries with whom they have to compete on the world markets.

The last five years have seen greater changes in the world of agricultural advice than during the previous 30 to 40 years. These have come about due to a number of positions being taken by various associations, the principal one being that ACOT became an autonomous body. ACOT recieve a grant and it is up to their board to decide what is best. It is extremely important that you decide what category of farmer is most likely to make best use of the resources available. I have a fault to find with the Fianna Fáil speakers so far — in fairness, criticism is something the Opposition can always indulge in — it is simply that it is always easy to cry wolf at a time when changes have to be made and hard decisions have to be taken. We have to ask Deputy Noonan and his colleagues where the extra finances have to be taken from in order to pay for what it is hoped to collect from this system. Nobody has given the answer to that. At a time when [524] even the dogs in the street know how big our budget deficit is we have to be responsible in the Department of Agriculture. ACOT have to act in a very responsible manner. The Department of Agriculture want to make sure, as indeed ACOT do, that the £27 million available is put to the best possible use.

ACOT inherited a system in which at one stage there was an adviser to about 700 farmers. Now there is an adviser to about 400 farmers. There are farmers who for one reason or another decide that it is in their own best interests not to have agricultural advice. In fact, there are even many farmers who do not know who their local adviser is. We must change this situation. I am glad to know this position is progressively getting better. There are fewer people now who have no contact whatever with the advisory service. ACOT decided, when they came into being, that they would form a client-based list. In other words, there was a certain category of farmers who, in their view, when given advice were most likely to increase production and thereby increase family farm income. This raises the point, which is certainly directly related to this Bill, that there are many people who for one reason or another do not believe in this advice. That is a luxury we cannot afford. In fairness, I want to put on the record of the House that even thought ACOT's policy is for a client-based list, any farmer is entitled to look for and receive advice at the area ACOT office.

There have been tremendous changes in the way advice is got across to farmers. I mentioned the winter farm schools held in cold, draughty halls and instructors and farmers being out late at night. In its own way that was good in its time. We are dealing in a different world now. This is a time when most important decisions relating to agriculture are being taken in Brussels and not in Dublin. This is one of the facts of EC membership. With our communications system there is not a farmer who is not up-to-date on everything which happens in Irish agriculture through either television or the radio. I do not know the number of people who [525] listen to Michael Dillon's “Farm Diary” radio programme each evening, but many people quote that programme to me. They hear what happens in agriculture on any particular day on that programme. It is against that background that the whole question of agricultural advisory work will have to change.

It has now transpired that there are many agencies who can claim that they also impart agricultural education and advice. The basic principle of this Bill is that there is a certain section of farmers who, though not in the majority, would be well able to pay for agricultural advice. Many of the speakers on both sides of the House have acknowledged the increase in the number of agricultural consultants. Many farmers believe that they would be better off paying agricultural consultants and have them on contract. ACOT have always addressed themselves to this. Some people believe the consultants give the advice they are willing to pay for. There is a certain section of farmers who are able to pay for this advice. This Bill does nothing else other than to put the responsibility for charges on the people who can pay. It does no more and no less. So long as that is all that is involved it will be acknowledged even by the agricultural industry. In itself it is a small step and the agricultural community will be able to accept it.

I want to put it on the record that classes and meetings between farmers and advisers will still be held without cost and small farmers who want to expand and who have a very low level of income will not be asked to pay anything either. I cannot make it any clearer than that.

It is no harm to mention how times are changing. Everybody is talking about the recent issue of the Cashman report on the future of ACOT and AFT. This will command great attention throughout the country in the next few months, and it should. I believe it was a very good development and everyone will welcome the fact that we are having an indepth look at everything. Obviously there are certain sections of the report some people will like, but there are other sections which [526] they will not like. Suffice it to say that this report is another look at two vitally important bodies which will have a great contribution to make to Irish agriculture in the future. It behoves all of us to ensure that we get the best possible return for any money which is available.

Obviously small farmers will not be expected to pay any levy for advice. That is vitally important. My view is that ACOT will have to devise a system when this Bill is passed at which the Minister for Agriculture will take a very close look to ensure that it will help to develop the kind of agricultural environment we would like to see. Some commentators seem to think there should be a charge under the farm improvement programme, but I do not agree. When I introduced that scheme two or three weeks ago I said it was better than the old farm modernisation scheme, that there should be a flow of information between the farmer and the agricultural adviser — this is an important development — and that the advisory services should be free. I genuinely believe that there are some farmers who are well able to pay, and should pay, for agricultural advice and I have no doubt they will gladly accept their share of responsibility.

Three years ago I would not have believed I would see so many young farmers, boys and girls, attending courses organised by ACOT — 100 hour courses, green certificate in agriculture courses, and so on. All the places have been taken in our agricultural colleges.

Mr. S. Byrne: There will be fewer in the coming year.

Mr. Connaughton: I have been listening to that ——

Mr. S. Byrne: It is in the budget.

Mr. Connaughton: —— for the past five years.

Mr. S. Byrne: ACOT will admit that.

Mr. Connaughton: The one thing about which the Deputy will not be able [527] to argue is that a very large number of boys and girls have seen fit to attend these 100 hour, 150 hour or even 300 hour courses. One must ask if there were ever better schemes to give young people a good start in life. Even a critic of the system has to acknowledge that there was never a better stepping stone. I do not want to pretend that everyone attended those courses out of the goodness of their hearts. Maybe there were little carrots offered by way of stamp duty exemption but, even if these carrots were offered, they had a twinfold effect. People were interested in achieving the best possible degree of efficiency and the best agricultural technology was available to these young people. There is nobody more receptive to agricultural courses than young people who are already working on the farm, Perhaps not as owners but as managers. I had the pleasure of presenting 52 certificates at an ACOT 100 hour course at Ballinasloe last week. The average was 27½ years and the average acreage was 63 acres. That will give the House an idea of the type of people attending those courses.

Anything that can be done to provide a service which is essential and important while, at the same time, making sure that the fat of the underbelly is cut out, makes good Government. We have given a guarantee that small farmers will not have to pay for advice. The furore which has been created leads me to believe that there is a certain amount of politics involved because this is not the serious issue some Opposition speakers would like us to believe.

There are a number of organisations who may not be primarily engaged in giving agricultural advice but who are involved in agriculture for one reason or another: agricultural colleges, commercial institutions, co-operatives, universities, AFT and the farm organisations. All those organisations are involved in the betterment of agriculture. As ACOT have primary responsibility for agricultural education, any change in their code and procedure creates great interest. I am one of those who believe that the [528] present system of ACOT district officers lends itself to great efficiency. The idea of grouping specialist advisers in one office to service a fairly big local area seems to be working very well, but there was great opposition to that when it was introduced. Many people thought the adviser would never again be seen in a particular parish, but that has not happened. Through the sub-offices and various meetings I believe the advice given has been very good. It comes down to this. Obviously some of the bigger farmers who can afford it will have to pay. That is not the issue. A Bill such as this shows how important it is to have a good look at fairly frequent intervals at whom the advice is being given to and what type of return we are getting. This House is well aware that from an agricultural point of view we have almost two nations. As far as agriculture is concerned, once you cross the Shannon you have a different type of client with a different requirement. The ACOT system seems to have overcome that. At the moment they seem able to give a very good service in all areas. I have an interest in this for obvious reasons.

Deputy Noonan mentioned today this Government's famous withdrawal from Irish agriculture. I refute that. The amount of money between Irish and EC sources involved in Irish agriculture was never greater than at this moment. Our Minister fought extremely hard over the past two or three years to attain that and, even though his position is much more difficult this year and will be so next year, he will continue to fight in the same way. Another Deputy said today that farmers in the disadvantaged areas were forgotten altogether. That is far from true. Last year a total of £40 million was made available for the various livestock schemes. I am glad to be able to tell the House that because of the extensions to the disadvantaged areas ——

Mr. Noonan (Limerick West): The Minister of State should be talking about the future. There is a £1 million reduction in ACOT ——

[529] Mr. Connaughton: I am talking about this year. That £40 million has gone to £60 million this year that farmers have not yet got. That is the kind of progress I am talking about and it is something from which Deputies opposite and their party are always hiding.

In the fairly near future drastic cuts in interest rates are expected. Deputy Walsh mentioned that today. I agree with him that the rates are far too high but all the reports and indicators at the moment point to a fairly drastic reduction in them. I may be outside the ambit of this Bill and I will refrain from continuing on that, but if we wanted to go into the CAP, and so on, we could be here until night because there are great fears. I accept that all is not well as far as European agriculture is concerned and because we are tied into that system it will affect us. However, we will strive to do what we did with the milk quota. When all seemed lost at that time, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Agriculture did something many Governments in Europe believed we would not be allowed to get away with which was in the best interest of Irish agriculture and of Ireland generally. Against that background and its attendant problems the problems of those charges we are talking about here today will seem to be small, though they are important.

To conclude, let me say this hot air that has been steaming around the place today on this issue is excessive though well founded to the degree that if small farmers had to pay that could cause great emotion and it would be wrong if small developing farmers were caught in this. However, because of the problems we have with the Exchequer and the very small problem involved here, it is not unreasonable to expect that a certain minority of farmers who are in a position to pay for advice should be asked to pay. The agricultural industry will react favourably to that when they know the ins and outs of this Bill.

Mr. S. Byrne: Rather than hot air in connection with this debate I feel that an anti-farmer Fine Gael air is blowing [530] around here. It is to be regretted that this Bill ever came into the House considering the state of agriculture over the last number of years, and after the worst year in the history of farming due to bad weather and prices. If this Bill, as presented to us, goes through it will have a serious effect on the average farmer. This morning the Minister said farmers who cannot afford to pay for the advisory service which is available will not be asked to pay. Are we to have another marry-go-round of a means test as we have in the land tax with millions of pounds wasted again and services which were built up over the years shattered? Are we to have people carrying out a means test as in the case of the medical card scheme? Is that the type of joker's scheme this will be? Would the Minister like to reflect for a few moments on what it is costing the taxpayer to fund the IDA for all the advice they are providing to bring in a number of maybe Mickey Mouse industries to this country who get tax free allowances for so many years and then are gone overnight?

Mr. Connaughton: Is the Deputy saying they should not be brought in?

Mr. S. Byrne: I am not suggesting that, but I am asking what it costs the taxpayer. That IDA advice is freely available and the average man who wants it does not have to pay for it. The Minister talked about salary cuts. There is to be a reduction in the number of advisers available. What about the 2,000 staff in AnCO? Are they giving value for money? That body are much needed today with all our unemployment, but what value are we getting for that money? That should be looked into and some cheeseparing done there.

This Government have made no effort even to market our products. Three or four weeks ago we were not even represented at the World Food Fair in Barcelona. We got a guarantee from CBF that we would be represented in two years' time. Is that a commitment by this Government, or a lack of commitment, [531] when we could have developed new markets for our beef, lamb and dairy products where 70 countries were represented? This Government showed a complete lack of interest there. The allocation for TB and brucellosis eradication has been cut back severely and that cutback will be reflected as the months pass. Then we talk about commitment.

This Bill should never have been introduced. The IFA condemn it out of hand, and they are correct in that. The advisory service was built up over a number of years when farming was even worse than it is today and the trust and confidence built up between the bank managers and the farmers were as great as could be expected. Many bank managers today are not so kind to the average farmer when thousands of them are on the verge of bankruptcy. Much of that is due to irresponsible lending on the part of banks and institutions, and now they are looking for their pounds of flesh. That should be curbed.

In the past 12 months silently and viciously they have been putting farmers, big, medium and small, to the wall. Every banking group in the country have a scheme in operation to squeeze the last penny from people and even force them to sell off portions of their land. I would like the Minister to look into that. The financial institutions told us some 12 months ago that they would be sympathetic towards farmers and so on. Remember all the hot air about the interest subsidy for farmers. That was tied up with red tape and more than two years passed before it came into operation. In many cases the banks are looking for a refund of that money from farmers who did not reach the required level of productivity. This is laughable, though sad. Banking institutions can do what they like where farmers are concerned. The banks are looking for the few miserable pennies back in respect of the few miserable hundreds of pounds which the farmers got as subsidy on interest. The Minister and the Minister of State should look into that and tell the banks to lay off.

[532] The Minister of State admitted a few moments ago the fear today about the whole scene in Brussels, and that the farming community may be worse off afterwards. We hope the Minister will be successful in his negotiations in the national interest. I wish him well. I appeal to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Agriculture to do everything possible in the weeks ahead to see that the deal hammered out in Brussels will be beneficial to the farmers and the various industries. We have far too many highly educated people with no jobs and we are treating this far too lightly. We should grasp every opportunity to gain new markets for our products. We have officials high up and low down in the Department of Agriculture, CBF or CTT. Why are they not out doing a job in this great crisis of our people? If the Minister does not look into that he is doing a great disservice to the farmers and to the workers who sorely need the jobs. Our workers are the highest taxed people in Europe. We are getting very poor value for all the various semi-State bodies and committees and groups. We have more than any other country for our size. One glaring example was highlighted a while ago — our absence from the World Food Fair in Barcelona. We lost that opportunity and we may regret that in the months ahead when our beef and other products may get into difficulty. The representatives of the meat factories who went out there had to display their products on a British stand. It was very kind of the British to allow them to display their goods there while our own Minister and State bodies were not interested. I would like to hear the Minister's comments on that. It is a disgrace when the farmers are on their knees.

We are going through a deep recession which has created many problems, apart from the EC difficulties. Because of the quota system thousands of farmers cannot increase their milk production. I hope the Minister will approach the problems more seriously than he did the milk super-levy so that we will not make blunders as we did then because our [533] image in Brussels is damaged enough. We have dumped most of the schemes that were hard fought for by the Fianna Fáil Government.

The Minister was blowing his trumpet about the farm improvement scheme introduced three weeks ago. That is a sick joke. Very few farmers will qualify under that scheme, so it is unfair of the Minister to suggest that it is a good scheme. We cannot blame Brussels for this because this was devised by our own Government. It is very poor compared to the old scheme which most farmers could qualify under. This scheme is an insult to farmers because of the income limits and the various regulations. The farmers can see the weaknesses of this scheme. The Minister must think we are all living in could-cuckooland. Average farmers are not living in cloud-cuckooland. They are trying to eke out a living with the bank manager breathing down their necks. I am not talking about irresponsible people who went out and bought land in order to make their holdings bigger; I am talking about the average farmer who developed his farm, his buildings, and bought a few extra acres in order to have an economic holding. Then five years ago prices tumbled and they are still tumbling and the farmers inputs are rocketing. These are the farmers who are being screwed by the banking institutions. I use the word “screwed” because every banking group have changed the system; they are putting the assistant managers in as hitmen to screw the last penny out of farmers even if they are forced to sell their land, and the Minister is sitting idly by and doing nothing about it. I would urge the Minister to have a chat with these people because it is they who have had and effect on land prices when they allowed people to buy farms over the telephone and allowed situations to develop where there were six farmers in one area bidding against each other and getting an open ticket from the same bank manager.

This is the kind of irresponsible lending that the banking institutions have been carrying out in the last six or seven years. They are looking for their pound of flesh [534] and they do not give one damn about the farmers and their families. Now we come in here and the Minister suggests that the farmers should be penalised even further. If these regulations are passed it will open the door for the Government to charge farmers what they like, as in the case of many other levies that have been brought in. It will be one figure today and it will be increased at the next budget. It is a disgrace and it will do very serious damage to the whole advisory service. I do not like to hear the Minister say that farmers are availing of advice from the various co-operatives. Those advisers will not be giving impartial advice such as the ACOT advisers would give. Their advice will be biased in favour of their own co-operatives. The farmers should not be put in a position of having to accept that.

There is also the threat in relation to beef and cereals. What can the young farmers do on their farms when they go home with their certificates? What can they do if they have not a quota? What can they do if cattle prices collapse? What can they do if they cannot grow beet? Should they plant all their land with trees? No longer is the farm inherited from one's father as it was 20 years ago when one could develop any enterprise one liked. That is why we need an advisory service to advise farmers on what lines of production to go into. Here we have the Minister saying that there will be a reduction in the number of advisers and that farmers will have to pay for advice. This is a backward step. The high interest rates in the late seventies and increased inputs got farmers into trouble and now they are being terrorised by the lending institutions, including the ACC, who were set up to develop agriculture. But what are they doing? They are playing ducks and drakes with the lending agencies. They are just as ruthless in their own way as the banking groups. But in recent years certain people got a soft ride from them and got away with a lot of money in the bag as well.

Taking all those things into consideration, including the reduction in the ACOT budget for the next 12 months, the outlook for farmers is very gloomy.

[535] It is sad that we have a Government that treats our most important industry, which has vast scope for expansion, so badly. But there was no shortage of money when the civil servants in the Department wanted an increase in salary. I will come to that in a few moments. There are a lot of officers but no privates. The people who work on the land are to be penalised. But the people in the Department who pour out watery type advice to them are to get an increase in their salaries and in travelling expenses. How can the Minister justify that? These are the faceless people who are trying to destroy agriculture and most of them never saw a green field beyond the Naas Road. They are sabotaging the country because thousands of jobs are involved if the meat industry collapses. Then it will be too late. Brussels did not impose this Bill on this House. It was introduced by the Minister. This Bill should be rejected out of hand. We need greater efficiency by farmers to increase their incomes and we cannot have that without a proper advisory service. The farmers should not have to run to any company or co-operative to get that. It should be freely available just as advice from the IDA is available to people who want to set up an industry. I am not criticising the IDA or AnCO, I am just making a comparison of what they cost the taxpayer compared to the miserable amount it costs to keep the ACOT service going. After all the farmers will be here when many of those Mickey Mouse industries are gone, as we have seen in the past.

Advice is an educational message but there is a grave doubt that farmers will avail of the service if they have to fill up forms or undergo a means test to ascertain whether they should pay. This is the curse of every scheme in social welfare or farming. More money is wasted in handling forms than is spent on the scheme itself. I appeal to the Minister to dump this Bill in the wastepaper basket. It reminds me of the land tax on which we have spent millions already but which will yield very little because most [536] farmers do not have a taxable income and are on the verge of bankruptcy. The Minister wants to crucify the farmers and create more unemployment on and off the land. I am deeply disappointed that Ministers who were born and reared in rural areas should have allowed the Bill to reach the floor of this House. It is nothing short of a national scandal and damages our image in Brussels. We have dumped every scheme which was available to assist farmers, although there were funds available from Brussels to back them up. What must they think of us when they see our lack of belief and faith in the agricultural industry?

There has been very little investment in agriculture over the past few years. Indeed, the farm modernisation scheme was dismantled some years ago on budget day by the Minister for Finance without any prior warning and many farmers were denied their grants. The Minister said they might be paid; that waffle went on for over a year but there was no more about it. Over the past three years the Government have knocked every scheme which was available for the development of agriculture. The Minister has now introduced the farm improvement scheme, the joke of the century, one of the fairy tales of Ireland like Building on Reality. No section of the plan——

Acting Chairman (Mr. J. Doyle): The Deputy may make a passing reference to agricultural policy in general but he should stick to the Bill.

Mr. S. Byrne: Most people regard Building on Reality as a joke so I will not waste my time talking about it. Farm development was shattered by the Minister for Finance when he did away with the farm modernisation scheme and many farmers lost thousands of pounds as a result. Of course, that saved money for the Government although 50 per cent would have been coming from Brussels. It was a mean, cheap way to treat farmers. No other section of the community would tolerate such conduct from a Department or Minister. We waited and waited and we were then presented with [537] this scheme which will benefit very few farmers because of the very tight restrictions.

It has been said that these restrictions came from Brussels but, as far as I know, they are the brainchild of the Department of Agriculture who care very little about the development of agriculture. However, the Minister made sure that their pockets would be lined this year; they will have an increase in salary and in travelling expenses. He decided to cut the grants and to penalise the farmers. That is the policy of those in the Department who are not responsible to anybody. It is about time the Minister and the Minister of State rose up against that type of bureaucracy. They should try to project an image in Brussels so that the heads of State will believe that the Government have faith in the nation, its people and in agriculture.

Farmers will resist the imposition of these charges. Progress in agriculture will slow down even more, and this should not be the case as farmers always pay their way. When the country needed them during the war they fed the people under extremely difficult conditions. They produced wheat and so on and were not found wanting. At that time people were very grateful to the average farmer but now, when agriculture is on its knees, the Minister has introduced penal legislation. It shows a great lack of commitment on the part of the Government to agriculture. It will have repercussions as far as the advisory service is concerned because their jobs will also be in jeopardy. They will be very foolish to think otherwise because job losses are already taking place.

Many farmers need assistance from an impartial advisory service which they can trust and which they know is not associated with co-operatives or merchants who are trying to sell a particular product. I am not knocking co-operatives or merchants, but nothing could replace an independent advisory service like ACOT. The advisory service will not be called on when this Bill is passed and that will hinder the ability of the farmer to increase his income. Within 12 months [538] the Minister may have to introduce another rescue package.

This is all part of the merry-go-round we have been on for the past few years. The Government fail to do what they should and then the day after the fair, like the one in Barcelona, a Mickey Mouse scheme is introduced at great expense to our taxpayers. More money has gone on red tape than has been paid to farmers. That is what will happen in this case. the lack of advice will result in farmers' incomes decreasing and many of them will go to the wall. That will be followed by an outcry and the Minister will have to assist those farmers at a later stage.

I appeal to the Minister, and the two common-sense Members who are Ministers of State in his Department, to stop this nonsense, get on with the job and treat agriculture as our most important industry. Our farmers do not need penalties but encouragement and advice. They will respond to any help given to them. The cost of administration involved in collecting the revenue under this scheme will be very big. This is another sick joke devised by people in sheltered employment in the Department of Agriculture who care very little for agriculture and know very little about that industry. There will be a number of different forms involved and officials will be running here and there but farmers, eventually, will say: “I do not want any more of your forms; keep your advice and I will do my own humble best”. It will be a sad day for the country if we run into that dark alley.

The cost of collecting the farm tax last year was just under £2 million but in 1986 it is estimated that the cost will be more than £6 million, an increase of 208 per cent. There is little to collect, as the Department will find out soon enough. As the Farmers Journal stated last week, Department officials are waking up to the reality of life that the whole exercise is not worth while. At a time when £6 million is being provided to collect the farm tax, the Government have decided to reduce the amount allocated to fund the skeleton ACOT service we have. I understand that those who retire, pass to their [539] eternal reward, or leave, will not be replaced. The Minister of State, Deputy Connaughton, had the hard neck to suggest that everything would be all right for the next 12 months. He must think we live in a different world or he must be living in a different world.

The Department should use some of the money being squandered on the land tax to support the excellent services provided by ACOT. The advisory service has served farmers well down the years and those involved have worked hard in the interests of farmers and farming. A degree of trust and confidence has developed between the advisory service and farmers, but that will be shattered if the Bill before us is passed. It is possible that some of the best advisers will leave the service because they will face a cut in travelling expenses. In other words, they have will have to stay in an office all day. Nothing can replace on-the-spot discussions to deal with farming problems. A farmer will not be able to get advice on soil or buildings over the phone. In future CEOs will not have the money to pay travelling expenses to advisers because of the severe cut in the Estimate. The Minister said this is not so, but it is clear that there will be a cut if one reads the Estimate. Does the Minister think farmers are doing so well that there is no need for an advisory service, as he implied? He will get a rude awakening when he goes before the people, whether it is in the south or the west.

The scheme was brought about by a city based Civil Service mentality, by people who do not know anything about farming and care less about families who are trying to live off the land, the cream of the country, the people who have kept the country alive and whose ancestors fought for our freedom. They kept the nation together during the war years under extreme difficulty. Farmers are being sold down the drain by miserable schemes put together by civil servants in Agriculture House. It is a disgrace that our Minister is not strong enough to stand up to them and say he does not want any [540] more of this. Our image is being damaged in Brussels.

Acting Chairman (Mr. J. Doyle): The Deputy should return to the terms of the Bill.

Mr. S. Byrne: What I am saying is tied up with the provisions in the Bill. I did not drift at all. The implications are there and if the Minister has not seen them I should like to wake him up to them at this stage. The officials in Brussels must think we do not want any help for our farmers. The Minister's farming advisory scheme is a joke. He threw away the lime and AI subsidies, schemes that were fought for by Fianna Fáil. The Minister dumped them in a bookkeeping exercise. However, when we go to Brussels we cannot do our sums. Is it any wonder that we are getting a poor deal in Brussels? We are a laughing stock there with our overloaded Civil Service.

Our taxpayers are being bled for all this, but for what return? What return are we getting for all the bureaucracy we have? It has been very poor. What farmer could not do his sums right if he had to meet his bank manager in the morning? What should be done about our civil servants who went to Brussels to negotiate the super-levy? They should have been kicked out the door and dismissed because they did a great disservice to the country, workers and farmers. It is those civil servants who are suggesting that we should not have an advisory service.

The Government do not have any commitment to farming. They are anti-farmer, in particular the Fine Gael element. It may be that the Labour Party are, that the tail is wagging the dog. We do not know what is going on after what we heard yesterday from Deputy Cluskey. We do not know if it is the Left or the Right, the civil servants, who are running the country. It is important to stress that the ACOT budget for 1986 was reduced from £18,335,000 to £17,296,000 a reduction of 6 per cent. The Minister has tried to convince us that he has not penalised the farmers and that he has the interests of the farmers at [541] heart. That reduction is serious for ACOT because when one takes inflation into account it represents a drop of 12 per cent in real terms. How can any Minister suggest that the Government have faith and confidence in agriculture or ask us to penalise farmers while the allocation for the advisory service is being reduced by 12 per cent?

When one looks at the cost of administration in the Department one sees that in 1985 it was £62,855,000 and that the Estimate for 1986 is £66,837,000 an increase of 6.33 per cent. The people who are giving the very poor advice are lining their pockets: all chiefs and no Indians; to hell with the farmer. The attitude appears to be that there should be many well paid advisers in the Department, but that the farmers should be crucified. Farmers who have had to suffer a reduction in their income in the past five years are being nailed to the cross and sold down the drain by the Government who have the impertinence to bring in this Bill. It is a national scandal, a sabotage of the workers and farmers. It appears that the civil servants can increase the Estimate for their Department by 6 per cent and reduce the budget for ACOT by 6 per cent. Their increase costs £4 million while the ACOT reduction amounts to £1 million. What type of cheese-paring is that? What do we need them for if they are not going to advise the people properly? We must be overpaying them.

As chairman of the local committee of agriculture in south Tipperary, and a farmer, it is sad for me to see the Government penalising farmers. Salaries and travelling expenses in the Department are estimated to rise by £3½ million this year, but there will be a reduction in staff members and travelling expenses as far as ACOT are concerned.

One might ask, where are we going? I know where we are going. The Minister appears to have been too weak at the Cabinet table and, as a result, agriculture is suffering. It has been sold down the drain. Of course the civil servants did not forget their own interests but they booted the people they were supposed to be helping and reduced their allocation. Then [542] they thought up this further provision to penalise them.

We should remember that freedom was bought dearly for this nation, not to be sold out by faceless bureaucrats; it was also paid for dearly by our taxpayers. The people will not tolerate this much longer. Both parties in Government will pay for it when they face the people and the sooner the better. They will be judged on their irresponsibility in Government, on their lack of commitment to the nation as a whole, not alone to agriculture. People are crucified by taxation, and getting a very poor return. Our average worker is the most heavily taxed worker in Europe. What return do they get? They get longer dole queues and more bankrupt farmers.

The total budget for agriculture for 1986 is £229,145,000 with the general administrative costs estimated at £66,837,000, demonstrating that 30 per cent is utilised on administration. It does not give me, as a rural Deputy, any great pleasure to come in here and make these statements. But it is about time somebody shouted halt before this little nation is completely bankrupt and people lose faith in it. There has been that reduction in the area of agriculture while money is being poured into white elephants, bodies like CIE and so on, without any serious attempt to curtail waste in those areas.

The Government have not listened to the IFA and the ICMSA with regard to this Bill. Both those bodies are totally opposed to the suggested fees for advice contained in its provisions. I fully support those bodies in their objection. The advisory service built up over the years will now be dismantled, destroyed within a very short period as a result. I note that there will be courses in this, that and the other. I ask: what are farmers to do? The only way they can increase production is by diversification. They must devise different ways of augmenting their incomes and how can they do so without the benefit of a proper advisory service? It is a most dangerous time to interfere with those advisory services built up over the years. Farmers are at the cross-roads.

[543] This constitutes a retrograde step on the part of the Minister and his departmental officials.

We note also the moneys being spent in other areas. It would appear that the Government are taking retrograde steps with regard to the solution of all our problems. While I believe in the maintenance of law and order, it would be much more beneficial to invest moneys in the creation of jobs than increasing those deployed on the maintenance of law and order. It should be remembered also that when people are unemployed and overtaxed there will be many problems. We are faced with a reduction of £1 million in the allocation to ACOT while salaries, wages and allowances in the prison services for 1985 amounted to £31,929,000.

Acting Chairman (Mr. J. Doyle): I remind the Deputy that that is not what we are talking about here.

Mr. S. Byrne: I am simply drawing a valid comparison. I might add that the same salaries and allowances in 1986 will cost £37,589,000.

Acting Chairman: I ask the Deputy to return the Bill before us.

Mr. S. Byrne: I was just drawing a valid comparison. That represents an increase of 18 per cent. Indeed I note that the salaries and wages for all other Departments are increased by 9 per cent while those of ACOT are reduced. This means that the farmers are being penalised for the advice they receive which is pushing matters too far. Indeed, some of these levies have been implemented already. I believe there is a skeleton staff only at ACOT headquarters in Dublin, that the five workers who left have not been replaced. I note that there was a reduction in the managerial staff at headquarters recommended by the committee set up by the former President of the IFA, Mr. Donal Cashman. There is also the suggestion to dispense with CEOs and that a review should be carried out of the county committees of agriculture.

[544] In other words, the whole future of agriculture will be decided by faceless people in the Department who know very little, and that has been proven over the years. If those CEOs and county committees are abolished it will be a bad day for democracy here because it could lead to a threat also to our vocational education committees and health boards. We could end up with a dictatorship by civil servants, with no man in rural Ireland having a say in anything.

Acting Chairman: Deputy, I might point out that the Minister is responsible for the actions of civil servants. If there are any complaints to be made in that area they should be addressed to the Minister.

Mr. S. Byrne: I am within my rights in speaking about civil servants. I did not name anybody but they are servants of the public as I am.

There has been a cut of 10 per cent in travelling expenses for personnel in the advisory services and also those employed in the educational sphere in agriculture, which will further curtail the advice available to farmers. We heard the Minister talk about young people. Some of our agricultural colleges could close down this year through lack of funds. ACOT have said themselves that the funding to their four colleges has been cut by 10 per cent, with less money going to provide colleges. Also the farm apprenticeship board is sabotaged because of lack of funds. That is a sad day for farming. ACOT are reducing the number of scholarships being offered from 700 to 550.

At the same time the Minister can come into this House saying he has faith in agriculture. He must think we are all fools. If that reduction in the number of scholarships offered does not demonstrate a lack of faith on the part of this Government, I do not know what does. It is also proposed that in the southern counties approximately 12 advisers will be transferred to educational work to sustain the certificate in farming programme. In other words, the southern [545] counties will be denuded of advisory services. That is disgraceful.

Even at this late stage I appeal to the Minister to withdraw this Bill in the interest of farmers and workers; it is not necessary or desirable. It should be remembered that farmers' incomes have been dropping over the past five years and that they have been on their knees for the past three years because of the penal approach of this Government to agriculture and their lack of commitment to the farmers in Brussels and at home. I regret that the Minister ever introduced this Bill.

Mr. Crowley: It is difficult to follow that act. I have never heard such an outburst of depression, especially on the part of Deputy S. Byrne, who was a member of this House when inflation stood at 22½ per cent, interest rates at a similar level, when there was not a beep out of him. Evidently everything in the garden was rosy at that time. Yet he speaks about the slide that has taken place in agriculture over the past three years. He could have gone back somewhat further to the years 1978, 1979 and 1980. Just to refresh his memory, I might revert to the year 1980 when there was an increase in farm prices in Brussels of 4 per cent. The Deputy should reflect on that and on the fact that at that time we had an inflation rate of 22½ per cent. Therefore, it will be seen that the Deputy's memory is very choosy or selective. He has a tendency to advert to the odd thing that might suit his purpose——

Mr. S. Byrne: We did not have 250,000 people unemployed then.

Mr. Crowley: The Deputy's recollection appears to be very hazy with regard to his own party's record in Government. Let us be honest, particularly about agriculture at this time. He spoke about the farm grant scheme being a total waste of time, that all our civil servants should be put down, put away or something——

Mr. S. Byrne: They should bring in a liquidator; they have plenty of them.

[546] Mr. Crowley: He contends that our banks should be closed down. I am not so sure there is anything remaining after Deputy S. Byrne's outburst here today.

Debate adjourned.