Seanad Éireann - Volume 95 - 11 March, 1981
Bovine Diseases (Levies) Regulations, 1981: Motion.
Mr. E. Ryan Mr. E. Ryan
Mr. E. Ryan: I move:
That Seanad Éireann approves the following Regulations in draft:
Bovine Diseases (Levies) Regulations, 1981.
a copy of which was laid in draft before the Seanad on the 20th day of February, 1981.
Minister for Agriculture (Mr. MacSharry) Ray MacSharry
Minister for Agriculture (Mr. Mac-Sharry): The purpose of these regulations is to implement the Government decision to suspend the bovine disease levies as announced in the recent budget statement by the Minister for Finance. These levies were introduced in 1979 to  provide a farmer contribution towards the cost of eradicating bovine TB and brucellosis, the main benefits of which will accrue to the farming sector. As part of the measures which the Government have taken to help farmers to overcome the income difficulties currently being experienced the levies are being suspended with effect as from 1 February 1981. As a result farmers' income will be increased by over £10 million per year.
I would like to stress that suspension of the levies should not be constructed as any weakening of the national effort to eradicate bovine TB and brucellosis as quickly as possible. Provision has been made for State expenditure of close to £26 million on eradication in the current year. Now that the levies have been removed, I hope that all our farmers will help to make this substantial State expenditure well worth while by continuing to co-operate in full with all the eradication requirements. The better the co-operation the sooner the goal of complete eradication will be achieved, thus securing the future of our livestock industry on the export and home markets.
Mr. Butler Mr. Butler
Mr. Butler: We on this side of the House will not oppose this amendment, but we are disappointed that it is just a suspension of the levies. At all times we opposed this levy. When we discussed the levy some months ago in the Seanad we voted against it and we are now found to be correct. Levies are a financial weed sown to stunt the development of finance. They are introduced to prevent growth and in this instance they did destroy the enthusiasm farmers would have had for getting rid of bovine disease. This should not have cost the farmer anything because it would be a benefit to the nation to get rid of disease and the farmers should be encouraged in every way possible to get rid of it. Bovine disease has cost the State many millions of pounds and the sooner we get rid of it the better.
The Minister included this levy with others when we discussed it on the last occasion and we would like to see those other levies also taken into consideration  and removed. They are also stunting the development of agriculture in the other areas. Agriculture at this time needs every encouragement it can get to increase production and to allow farmers to get back the confidence that they had from 1973 to 1977. They were the boom years for agriculture and since 1977 the farmers have been having a very rough time, without encouragement from the Government. This has now been accepted by the farming organisations and they have come out very strongly against the attitude of the Government in that regard.
Farm incomes have fallen drastically over the last few years while the cost of inputs to agriculture have increased enormously. The pressures from the farming organisations with the pressures from this party have not prevailed and the only thing that will bring commonsense back to the country is that we have a general election very soon and let the farmers and the people make a decision on that. The decision will be very, very clear. I propose here and now that we have it.
An Cathaoirleach An Cathaoirleach
An Cathaoirleach: This is going a little outside the scope of the debate.
Mr. Butler Mr. Butler
Mr. Butler: I accept that, but at least it is part of the problem. This creates a national problem and when it does so, naturally we are entitled to speak on the national situation. I hope that other orders will follow quickly which will suspend the levies that have been introduced in other areas.
An Cathaoirleach An Cathaoirleach
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator will have to confine himself to the terms of this motion. We cannot widen it on a broad basis to take in the whole sphere of agriculture.
Mr. Butler Mr. Butler
Mr. Butler: Thank you very much. I have said most of what I wanted to say. The Bill is a step in the right direction and I hope that the suspension will continue. I oppose levies. Recently the Minister accepted an EEC levy on beef production and we on this side of the House also opposed that strongly. The next time  the Minister goes to Brussels he should oppose that levy on beef production.
Mrs. Robinson Mrs. Robinson
Mrs. Robinson: We in the Labour group welcome this measure in that it will, in some small way, alleviate the plight of the farmers at the moment. However, I would like to comment on the method chosen by the Minister and to express some dissatisfaction at the lack of full information given to this House. The Minister said on introducing the order that he proposed, as had been indicated in the budget, to suspend the bovine diseases levy. Precisely what the order does is to fix the amount of levy payable under section 2 of the Bovine Diseases (Levies) Act, 1979, as regards milk at nil per gallon and animals slaughtered or exported live at nil per animal. As far as the order is concerned the amendment is to fix at nil the levy in respect of those two different products. If the levy was revoked, as suggested by the previous speaker, we would know where we were. There would not be a levy. At the moment the levy is fixed at nil, but we do not know when the Minister will change his mind and bring in another order to reimpose the levy or impose it at a different rate. I would ask the Minister when he is replying to this debate at least to indicate the minimum period at which the levy will be at nil and, therefore, effectively suspended. I think farmers must be in a position to know what is happening.
There has been reference to the possibility of an election, and elections bring promises and periods of grace. This House and the farmers are entitled to known for how long this levy on these two products is to be fixed at nil. Also there should be a minimum period during which, in accordance with a guarantee by the Minister, on the record in this House, that the Minister will not bring in an order reimposing the levy under the 1979 Act on these two items. I would be grateful for clarification on that.
Mr. McDonald Mr. McDonald
Mr. McDonald: I welcome this regulation as announced by the Minister for Agriculture which zero-rates the diseases levies as they affect farmers in this country.  It is no harm to say that I would have preferred if he had decided to revoke the system of levies. I can appreciate his difficulty in refusing to accept or agree to levies that are being imposed from the Commission while at the same time he is operating them on the home front.
The Department of Agriculture are a very formidable Department. With the resources they have with the dual statistics — they must surely have an economic division there still — certainly their forward planning and forecasting must have been extremely bad if it has taken them two years to monitor the fact that farm incomes have declined drastically since 1978. This is a disturbing aspect of the entire situation. The last time the Minister spoke in the House on the bovine TB disease issue he was very scathing in his attack on farmers who returned reactors, but the very week after that, in one of the Minister's own farms, run by the Department of Agriculture, there was an outbreak of disease and subsequent to that, there has been a second outbreak. While I join in the Minister's plea to farmers to increase their efforts to rid the country and the national herd of diseases, at the same time I accept that the vast majority of farmers take every precaution and it is seemingly unexplainable how these breakdowns in the test occur. The Minister has first-hand experience in the State farms where it is accepted that there is a very high standard of management and so on. If we come to look on the farmers as dragging their heels in this matter, we should remember that Senator Whitaker last year gave in total the amount of money attributed to receipts from farmers since these disease eradication schemes were introduced, and it made fairly generous reading. But the fact is that while all farmers are anxious to have the diseases eradicated and while they lose by them, it has cost them a considerable amount in both time and energy to carry out the tests and to keep their herds in order. I hope that by this time the Minister is fully aware of the decline in agricultural incomes and the fact that they are not picking up. Even the removal of these two levies will not contribute significantly to the overall situation  as far as farm incomes are concerned. At present we read in the daily papers that different sectors are being offered increases from 14-28 per cent per annum, and when a significant sector such as the farming community in the last two years have seen their incomes go 50 per cent the other way, it is very difficult for them to contain their anger. The one thing that perhaps is saving the Minister and his colleagues from the wrath of the farmers is that traditionally farmers like to keep their own business to themselves so it is unlikely that they will be on the street corners saying that they have lost £X or that they are in total indebtedness to so many pounds.
An Cathaoirleach An Cathaoirleach
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator should not go too far from the motion.
Mr. McDonald Mr. McDonald
Mr. McDonald: While I welcome the motion introduced by the Minister, I hope we can take it that he at last recognises that there is a problem in the agricultural sector and that he and his officials do not believe that by just merely lifting levies such as these in a temporary capacity they are solving the agriculture problem just by this motion here this afternoon.
Mr. Cooney Mr. Cooney
Mr. Cooney: I would like to make a few points arising out of what the Minister said and what has been said in the contributions so far. Senator Robinson speculated as to the length of time the suspension will endure and wondered why it is being introduced now. As to how long it will last, that depends on why it is introduced. Electoral considerations are never far from the minds of the party opposite in anything they do, and possibly impending events will have encouraged the introduction of these regulations, though I might give them credit and say they were persuaded by the hardships being endured by the farming industry at the moment and that the dramatic and drastic down-turn in farm incomes has provoked the suspension of these regulations. If we accorded that motivation to the other side, then the length of time that the suspension is going to last will be  negligible because, unfortunately, I cannot see any great glimmer of light on the horizon for the farming industry. The contribution made towards the farming industry by these regulations in saving the farmers the cost of the levy is welcomed, but unfortunately in the context of the overall problem of farmers' incomes it is small.
There has been considerable disappointment — if there is a stronger word it could be used — at the result of the Minister's negotiations within the EEC, and unless a substantial improvement can be got by the Minister from that source I cannot see any way in which the industry can have its income increased. Small palliatives such as this are not going to be of any real assistance. The suggestion that the Exchequer might cough up what it has got from the EEC seems to be totally unrealistic when the amount budgeted for the Minister's Department is down not just in real terms but in actual money terms from last year. The outlook for farming for the foreseeable future is extremely grim and the levies will have to remain suspended for some time.
I share the Minister's hope that the State contribution made here by suspending these levies will be reciprocated by an increased effort on the part of farmers to eradicate disease. The loss to individual farmers and to the State in having to slaughter diseased animals is considerable, apart from the big question mark that is puts over the future of our meat exports. If EEC regulations are to be implemented against us fully we could find ourselves in a extremely serious position.
One method which was introduced a couple of years ago to speed up and tighten the eradication of disease was the 30 day test — I can call it the infamous 30 day test — and that was sold to farmers on the veterinary grounds — against considerable opposition by them on technical grounds — that it would have a significant and speedy effect in reducing the incidence of disease in our herds. The Minister can correct me on this but I recall reading recently that following a couple of years of the operation of the 30 day test the incidence of animal disease has  dropped only marginally. I submit to the Minister at this stage that the hardships that have been imposed by virtue of the 30 day test have not been rewarded by a substantial decrease in disease incidence and that it is now time to look again at the 30 day test to see if it is as medically indicated and as medically effective as we were told. It seems to me that the proof of that pudding has not been found in the eating. I suggest to the Minister that this is an area in which he may have to have second thoughts.
Mr. O'Toole Mr. O'Toole
Mr. O'Toole: It is a bit early in the day to start talking about the resumption of a regulation that we have not yet put into force. When the levy was introduced there were two schools of thought as to whether the farming community should pay a share of the cost of disease eradication from their herds or whether it should be eradicated through 100 per cent capital injection from the Government. Our experience in bovine TB eradication over the last 20 years or more was that we had not a very successful result; while moneys were continually poured into eradication we did not get the best results. However, this £10 million injection at this time is going to be a useful asset to the farming community. I would like an assurance from the Minister that the progress that has been made over the last two years at any rate will not be retarded and that this country will have a disease-free herd inside the next two or three years. It is a sizeable challenge. While I felt that the 30 day test was severe and harsh at the time it was introduced, I believe that the amendment to that by the Minister of a re-test in 45 days alleviated the hardship to some degree. If it is doing the job it was intended to do then I would retain it but I would like an assurance from the Minister that there will be no cutback as a result of the removal of the levies in the progress we are making in eradication. We are an island country and we do not want pollution or any cattle coming in that will bring in diseases. A disease-free herd will be a useful asset to this nation in the future, and the quicker we reach that goal the better. It will pay 100 per cent or a  hundred fold to the farming community of this country. I welcome the removal of the levy, and it is a bit soon to start talking about periods or length of time because we are just about to remove it. I would say we could leave such discussion to another day.
Mr. Markey Mr. Markey
Mr. Markey: The fact that it is a suspension only that we are discussing implies there is still a school of thought within the Government which believes that there is some equitable and economic justification for levies such as this. That should be noted by all farmers.
The Government give as their reason for the suspension of this levy that it is to help farmers to overcome the income difficulties they are experiencing at present. That admission indicates without any doubt whatsoever that if their income position was stable at the moment, such a levy would be in operation. If there is that school of thought within the Government as regards these bovine levies, it is sad because it is far removed from the experience of farmers as regards what such levies do to confidence within the agricultural industry.
The quality and health of our livestock is a matter of national concern. There should be a national contribution to the eradication of diseases from our livestock industry. It is inequitable that this levy should be imposed on farmers. It is further inequitable because it would fall on the small farmer as much as on the large farmer. If the levy is a disincentive to the small farmer, it is also a disincentive to the larger farmer. I would welcome the complete abolition of this levy. It is only a confusion of words for speakers on the opposite side of this House to use the word “removed” instead of “suspended”. The wording of the Minister's speech is that the levy has been suspended, not removed. If it has been suspended because farmers' income is at a low level at present, that implies its possible reintroduction at a future date. That would be a mistake for the Government or for any Government. I would certainly welcome the complete abolition or scrapping of this levy, which was a mistake  in the first instance. It should be forgotten about as quickly as possible.
Mr. O'Brien Mr. O'Brien
Mr. O'Brien: If it was proposed to abolish this levy entirely I would welcome it wholeheartedly. Because it is only a matter of suspending it, my welcome is less enthusiastic. At the time this levy and a number of others were introduced here, we opposed them on the grounds that they were introduced at a time when farmers' income was obviously on the downturn. That case was made very strongly here. The Government persisted in going ahead with the imposition of a number of levies. This contributed to a significant degree to the loss of confidence in agriculture, with disastrous results to the agricultural community and to the nation as a whole.
The introduction of levies of this nature should be very carefully thought out and the consequences that these levies might have on the industry particularly at a time of downturn in income, should have been carefully weighed up. Then they would not have had the contributory effect of the loss of optimism and confidence on the land. That is the result that the imposition of these levies had. It was a most inappropriate time to introduce them. It should have been obvious to expect difficulties in agriculture. These were compounded by imposing levies which left the agricultural community most unhappy, dissatisfied and suffering from a growing loss of confidence. It was an unfortunate move.
Levies introduced in the 1979 budget were so ill-considered that within the space of a few days the Minister had to announce their withdrawal to some degree and in another week he announced the withdrawal of some more. That led to a lack of confidence in the Government's plan for agriculture. The farming community were in a position clearly to demonstrate how inequitable and unjust these series of agricultural levies were, how damaging they would be to agriculture, how impossible to collect in some cases and how unfair and unjust they were to sections of the community. The farming organisations were able to prove this which, in turn, led to  withdrawal. Other organisations in the country believed that they should put on pressure and the Government would yield. That happened. Measures of this nature should be carefully considered and all the side effects and likely developments that would arise as a result of their introduction should be carefully weighed up. There would not be this stop-go business of levy on, levy off with the consequent uncertainly and lack of confidence that that policy generates. Even today, while I welcome this measure to a degree, uncertainty will continue to prevail because the order does not say that this levy will be abolished.
I join with Senator Cooney in what he said with regard to the 30-day test. The operation of the 30-day test and the short time that it allows the farming community to dispose of their cattle when they get the result of the test causes a certain amount of opposition to the whole idea. There is another system in operation in Britain which extends the time. If that could be introduced here, the farmer would be given a longer period to make sales and so on. It would generate more goodwill on the part of the farming community towards the test, because they look on it now as a persecution.
It would be very helpful if compensation was paid more quickly to people who lose their dairy herd and if the payments were more up to the market value of the animals lost. I am less than enthusiastic about this because the thought might still be there that this would be reimposed at whatever time the Minister or the Government decide to embark on a levy campaign again.
Mícheál Cranitch Mícheál Cranitch
Mícheál Cranitch: When the Minister for Finance announced in his recent budget speech the suspension of the bovine diseases levies all my farmer friends were very pleased indeed. It came as a great surprise today to hear the removal of these levies being grudgingly welcomed by my good friends on the other side of the House. These levies were introduced in 1979 to allow the farming community to make a definite contribution towards the eradication of bovine TB and brucellosis. One thinks  immediately of the seanfhocal, fear na bó féin faoí na heireaball. The people who gained most by the eradication of these dreadful diseases were the farmers themselves. They accepted that position and were glad to contribute something definite towards the eradication of those diseases.
Times are not so good at present for the farming community. Incomes have gone down. The suspension of these levies is one of the many indications of the concern the Government have for the farming community. It is just one of the indications but it is a good one. The relief of £10 million to the farmers is worthwhile. At the same time, the Government are devoting £26 million provided by general taxation for the eradication of these diseases in the current year. It is up to everybody interested in animals, in farming and in our exports to see that every effort is made to eradicate these diseases as soon as possible. Instead of a grudging welcome from the other side of the House one would have thought there would have been a very warm welcome. I welcome the suspension for the time being of these levies in the present circumstances.
Minister for Agriculture (Mr. MacSharry) Ray MacSharry
Minister for Agriculture (Mr. MacSharry): I would like to thank all the Senators who contributed. The same theme was mentioned in many of the speeches in relation to suspension rather than complete abolition. I want to make it quite clear — the Minister for Finance on the day of the budget did as well — that the levies are being suspended for this year. The Government will review the situation at the end of the year and decide, in the light of prevailing conditions, whether or not levies should be reimposed. There are no levies this year. The farming community concerned are very pleased. It is something they have been talking about for some time, particularly in relation to incomes over the last two years.
The reason for the suspension of these levies is because of the difficulties surrounding farmers' incomes. It is important also to point out that before any levies could be reintroduced it would  require a motion to be passed both in the Dáil and in the Seanad. It is one of the many measures taken by the Government to assist the farming community.
I do not accept what Senator McDonald said, that the decline in farming incomes continues. The situation in recent months gives cause for some optimism; every farmer will accept that. The situation in regard to the weather over the last number of months has made an enormous impact on agriculture. We are now experiencing record prices for livestock, cattle, calves and beef. Notwithstanding the fact that we have had a serious drop in the dairy herd, there has been an increase so far this year in milk production of 1.2 per cent. One can look with some optimism to the months ahead. We hope we have turned the corner in getting away from the difficulties of the last two years in the agricultural sector.
Senator McDonald also referred to the scathing attack made by me on farmers in this House on another occasion. That is not true. What I said was that we were appealing to the very minute percentage of people, whether they were farmers or dealers, who were still causing trouble in relation to the efforts we were making to eradicate these two dreadful diseases. We will continue to appeal to them.
The 30-day test was mentioned by Senator Cooney and others. It is important to point out that there has been progress in that regard. Senator Cooney made the point that there had not been much progress with the 30-day operation and it should be looked at again. We are disappointed with the level of progress in relation to TB but very happy with the progress that was made during that period in regard to brucellosis. It is important to point out that the 30-day test during its operation turned up 3,000 TB reactors and 6,000 brucellosis reactors. If it were not for the 30-day test cattle would have been moving around the country spreading disease further. We are making progress. I want to assure Senator O'Toole that we will keep up our efforts and plead with the farming community and all concerned to keep up their efforts in relation to the eradication of both these diseases. It is in their interest,  the farmers' interest and the interests of the economy to do so.
It is only right to point out again in relation to some of these measures, which I do accept cause hardship and difficulty to many people in the business, that we are working from existing derogations under existing EEC regulations. When we discuss again in the months ahead the three year accelerated programme that was agreed between ourselves and the EEC we can show that progress has been made. I will try to have some of the objectionable measures eliminated.
Senator Cooney also referred to the negotiations in the EEC and expressed his disappointment in regard to the conclusions of those negotiations. I would like to take the opportunity to say that in relation to the special measures announced yesterday in the price proposals for 1981 that negotiations are only beginning. The first meeting in relation to those measures will take place next Monday.
That covers the points that were made by Senators. I thank them for their welcome and, as I said, the matter will be reviewed in the light of the prevailing circumstances at the end of the year.
Question put and agreed to.
Seanad Éireann 95 Bovine Diseases (Levies) Regulations, 1981: Motion.