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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 30 Jan 1992

Vol. 415 No. 2

Adjournment Debate. - EC Special Beef Premium Scheme.

I am pleased to have this opportunity of making a few brief points to the Minister for Agriculture and Food in the hope that he may respond positively to the very serious problem throughout the length and breadth of rural Ireland. Members of the farming community find it almost impossible to gain their lawful entitlement under the EC special beef premium scheme. Having served for some years in the Office of the Department of Agriculture and Food, the Minister will be aware that this is a very bleak time of year for the farming community and there is not as much work available as might be at other times of the year. The cheques coming into farming households are few and far between. The one cheque, in the form of subsidy, that was guaranteed at this time of year was the special beef premium. This year, unfortunately, due to an over-emphasis on the bureaucratic nature of the administration, thousands of farmers have been disqualified almost arbitrarily at the stroke of a pen. The Minister must act on this without delay.

The application form the Minister agreed with his former colleague, Commissioner MacSharry, is causing considerable hardship. It is at the root of the problem. One would need to be an expert in administration, dare I say that one would need a degree in business studies, to complete the application form. The Minister knows the farming community are least likely to produce people with a business or administrative background than any sector of the community and filling in this form is causing very real hardship for thousands of farmers.

Prior to Christmas the Minister had to deal with considerable problems in the headage payment scheme and promised to set up a task force to deal with the problem. May I suggest to the Minister for State that the setting up of a task force to deal with this matter is an exercise in prolonging the bureaucratic nature of the administration. Why do we need a task force when the answer to the problem is quite simple? The Department do not wish to pay the 35p in every pound that is going into the farmers' pockets. Every conceivable administrative delay has been sought by the Department to ensure the scheme of payments is drawn out for the longest time possible.

I hope the Minister will give some glimmer of light to the many thousands of farmers who have received the notice of refusal of payments. The most frequent error made completing the form is in listing the sex of the animal. I understand there are many genuine cases of confusion when the number on the form does not correspond with the number of the animal's tag. In view of the crisis in farm incomes — I am sure the Minister is familiar with this — I hope he will solve this problem.

I also hope the Minister will consider having an early meeting with the EC Commissioner to simplify the procedures which will then ensure that this lawful benefit is available to farmers without undue form filling and administration.

I admit there may be a small number of fraudulent claims, but one cannot categorise each and every member of the farming community as a person who would deliberately make a false declaration. I hope the Minister will act with due haste.

At the outset, I can assure the House that there is no special or particular cause for concern under any of the livestock grant schemes other than the special beef premium scheme. In 1990, many farmers applying under this scheme made mistakes in their applications. Many applied on male cattle that were ineligible because they had already received special beef premiums, some applied on female cattle that were clearly ineligible, and quite a number of farmers failed to keep the cattle for the minimum two months retention period laid down by the relevant EC Regulations. Taking all these errors and failures together, we were facing a problem of some magnitude but because 1990 was a transitional year from a 100 per cent to a 30 per cent on-farm inspection level, we obtained from the Commission agreement to a flexible approach to those problems and we successfully resolved most of them.

In conceding this flexibility however, the EC Commission made it quite clear that we had to apply the relevant EC Regulations to the 1991 and all future special beef premium schemes to the letter. Accordingly, when we issued our 1991 special beef premium applications we issued with them also a "Warnings" notice in fairly large red print and in simple and straightforward language telling all applicants what animals they could apply on and — even more importantly — what animals they could not apply on how long they had to keep those animals on their holdings, how they were to list the tag numbers of their animals clearly and legibly and so on. Had all farmers read and observed this advice, there would have been no refusals under the 1991 special beef premium scheme. It is quite obvious, however, that many farmers either did not read the "Warnings" notice or, having read them, did not understand them or follow the advice given in them. So we are now faced with a number of problem cases under the 1991 scheme which we shall have to resolve within the constraint of the relevant EC Regulations.

It would be grossly irresponsible to make payments to applicants not entitled to them, the result would be disallowance of that expenditure later by EC auditors and the loss of millions of pounds to the national Exchequer and to the taxpayers of the country. What we can do, however, is consider how cases can be treated in the context of these regulations so as to ensure that every applicant entitled to payment under those regulations will receive it.

The task force recently set up in my Department are exploring how this difficult and delicate task can be completed quickly and effectively and I am confident that they will come up with an acceptable solution in the next week. Let me be quite blunt about saying now that that solution will not ensure payment to all applicants with problems under the 1991 scheme. If it is to safeguard public moneys adequately, it must rule out payment in cases where applicants have made fraudulent declarations either deliberately or through serious negligence and must reduce payments on eligible cattle to the prescribed 80 per cent level in cases where numbers have fallen between application and inspection dates for unacceptable but non-fraudulent reasons. Nevertheless, I believe that the task force can and will come up very shortly with a responsible and reasoned solution to the problems of the 1991 applicants under the special beef premium scheme.