Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
Deputy Tom Barry: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Finance Bill 2014.
This is a very important budget and I would like to discuss the measures it introduced relating to agriculture. It is an extraordinary budget for the agriculture industry that is based on taxation review. While the review may have passed by some people, it was long-awaited and it is very in-depth and captured the essence of what we need to do in agriculture. This should be compared with the view of previous Governments which described agriculture as a sunset industry. We all know to where that led. I heard one Deputy saying earlier that it was unfair to give agriculture such prominence and that Fine Gael was an agricultural party. I have news for him. Somebody has to protect agriculture and there are people across this House who will protect it because it is vital to protect this indigenous industry. I suggest that before shouting for Dáil reform, these commentators should inform themselves before they criticise.
There are a few elements of this Finance Bill that need to be tweaked, the first of which is the definition of an active farmer. We need to be flexible in this regard because the definition of an active farmer can be broad. Essentially, it must reflect practicalities. If a person is making all the decisions on a farm and all the moneys are moving from his or her account to pay suppliers, such persons need to be defined as active farmers even if they are unable to do all the tasks themselves or may need to employ contractors. One cannot just say that a person must spend 50% of his or her time farming because some people are very good organisers. I am an active farmer and I would be very disappointed if somebody suggested that I was not. It reminds me of the clause that used to be in the old retirement scheme which stated that once an elderly farmer retired, he or she could no longer farm, which was nonsense. It is just a matter of tweaking the definition.
The other issue I wish to raise relates to income averaging. I am delighted that the Minister increased the period from three to five years for income averaging. This makes sense at a time of market fluctuations. The price of grain has collapsed this year while the price of beef is down but we know these prices will change again. We need flexibility in our taxation regime and this is exactly what this change does.
The Minister introduced a revolutionary measure in the budget. He has allowed the allowance for off-farm income to be included in income averaging. This is important because it shows that our policy with regards to agriculture is to encourage diversification. I cannot over emphasise the importance of this; it is exactly what we need to do. Businesses will crop up because of the shared resources of people in agriculture. In the legal framework proposal for CAP before it started, there was a suggestion of a grant for people who would diversify on farms. We may not attract large businesses into rural areas but we will increase the number of small businesses and encourage them to employ more people.
[Deputy Tom Barry: ] Off-farm income allows for a balance in that it makes a bigger contribution in poor years for farming. I know what I am speaking about because I created a business in this exact manner, and it is something I feel very strongly about. We need joined up thinking, however, because some county councils are not reflecting this approach in their policies. We may need to change the county development plans, especially given that county councils are more business-oriented, with CEOs and local enterprise offices. They need to start encouraging businesses. Currently, when a county council official arrives on a farm, there is an air of suspicion. That has to stop. We cannot allow a situation to arise in which planners order that a farm that received planning permission for agricultural activities 20 years ago be subjected to a review because the activities have changed. We cannot stifle diversification. There is a logjam at local level which has to be removed. While I welcome the policy on diversification, we need to ensure local authorities take it into account. The diversification strategy is a clever way of encouraging people to stay in the workforce, especially where spouses may have the skills required to start a business. A previous speaker suggested that this budget was not good for job creation. I will not take lessons from somebody who has never created a job. This is a good budget for job creation and it is a good time to grow a business. That kind of nonsense is irritating, especially when it is not founded on facts.
Section 18 of the Bill deals with land lease income exemptions. This is a provision I will seek to amend slightly on Committee Stage because it could be important. At present we do not have a retirement scheme for agriculture, but this provision could substitute for a retirement scheme if it were amended slightly to allow income exemptions to be provided to related parties or companies. If somebody is going to let land for a term of 15 years or longer, which is necessary in order to make it accessible to younger farmers, the section as it stands only allows an exemption if the land is leased to an unrelated party. Most of the land in this country is passed on to sons, daughters or nephews for the good reason that the owner of the land will have to live with them for the rest of his or her life and must therefore be able to trust them. Many of the issues in land succession and long-term renting arose because people were blackguarded. That tends not to happen when the land is leased to one’s own. This would also allow elderly farmers to remain on the farm and be available to advise and help out. Many elderly farmers do not want to retire completely because farming is what they have done all their lives. Perhaps we could amend the parts of section 18(b)(i) and (ii) which state “is not connected to the qualifying lessor or with any of the qualifying lessors” to include the phrase “unless the lease has bone fide commercial terms and conditions.” By renting the land under commercial terms and conditions, the arrangements will be up-front. The related party’s money is as good as anybody else’s money. We want long-term land availability to succeed so that young farmers can remain in the sector. I was fortunate to take over our farm when I was 25 years old because it allowed me to expand our activities significantly. Thankfully, we now employ a significant number of people because we had time to grow. If a farmer takes over in his or her mid-40s, his or her potential is strangled. I urge the Minister to consider this amendment favourably.
This budget has been a revelation with regard to agriculture in that it fundamentally changed Government policy for the sector. A few more tweaks will make it an outstanding budget for agriculture and for job creation. If we encourage small businesses in rural areas to employ one or two more people and get the local authorities to work with businesses and farms, as opposed to some sections working against them, we will create a fantastic environment for job creation. I am incredibly excited about the potential in this regard. Irrespective of whether they are working in the Civil Service in Dublin or are farming, people understand the importance of indigenous job creation. Our agricultural industry has not let us down to date and it will not let us down in the future.
If the issues I have raised could be addressed, I would be very grateful to the Minister. We have an opportunity to change the mindset of previous Governments which called farming a sunset industry. Their idea of crop rotation was beet, wheat and bungalows. We know what happened to the bungalows and the beet. They left us with nothing and we are rebuilding our agricultural economy from scratch. We have done a mighty fine job of it in a short time.
Copyright (c) Tom Barry TD. All rights reserved.