Updated at 6.20pm, adds government's reaction

“Restrictive” new rules on the transfer of agricultural leases (qbiela) should be amended to better support farmers and ensure the sector’s sustainability, the Nationalist Party said on Tuesday.

Opposition MPs said they would move amendments to a legal notice introduced last December, and which they argue brought about unnecessary levels of bureaucracy and obstacles for farmers working government-owned land.

MP Marthese Portelli told a press conference on Tuesday that while both parties had agreed on the need to ease the transfer of agricultural leases between farmers, the government’s legal notice did not achieve that aim.

The PN is proposing the removal of a new restriction on transferring land which is within the development zone and on which there is already a building of more than 40 square metres.

It is also calling for the definition of a family member to be extended to include siblings and nephews or nieces, as well as for the definition of a “farmer” to include registration with the Agriculture Department.

Moreover, the MPs call for a provision allowing the government to grant agricultural land to anyone who has completed an academic course in agricultural studies to be extended from five to 10 years.

They also call for the introduction of a right of appeal for individuals judged by the authorities not to be bona fide farmers, and therefore barred from transfers.

MP Edwin Vassallo said the new regulations opened the door to land speculation by creating obstacles for genuine farmers interested in retaining the land for agricultural use.

The existing checks and balances, he said, were already sufficient to prevent abuse, and that the PN was proposing to control be put into the hands of the Agriculture Department, which best understood the sector.

He added that government land should no longer be placed on the market by tender, arguing that farmers could not manage the related expenses while developers could.

The motion was also signed by MPs Ryan Callus, Robert Cutajar, Toni Bezzina and Karol Aquilina.

Government's reaction

In a statement, the government said the Opposition was acknowledging that the challenge of agricultural land transfer has been an issue for several years and action was never taken.

It was this Government that listened to and understood farmers and was now fully addressing this issue.

This confirmed that the publication of the national agricultural strategy in 2018 was an important decision for the sustainability of the sector.

It looked forward to the Parliamentary debate to continue illustrating the benefits of the legal notice.

The government remained committed to continue to improve conditions for Maltese and Gozitan farmers.