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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 23 Apr 1998

Vol. 490 No. 1

Ceisteanna — Questions. Priority Questions. - Area Aid Applications.

Michael Ring


3 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food the percentage and number of 1998 area aid applications which, to his knowledge, contain errors; the way in which he will rectify the situation; the number of farmers still waiting for payments for 1997 headage and premia schemes due to the delay in validating applications by the land parcel identification system; and the plans, if any, he has to increase the number of staff in the area aid unit until the serious problem with applications is resolved. [9529/98]

The closing date for applications under the 1998 area aid scheme is 15 May next. While some completed applications have already been received, the vast bulk are unlikely to be submitted until in or around the closing date. I cannot, therefore, estimate the number of this year's applications which will contain errors. Moreover, I have made arrangements to put an improved processing procedure in place for the examination of applications as they are received. Any obvious errors in the application will be identified and an acknowledgement letter will issue to all applicants giving details of those errors. This will enable the applicants concerned to rectify the situation quickly, thereby avoiding a delay in payments under the various area aid related schemes.

I have also made arrangements for the area aid unit to prioritise the processing of the remaining 19,700 outstanding 1997 application forms. Those involving outstanding payments will be dealt with first. These mainly represent the balance of the special beef premium payments. I am making arrangements, which will be announced within the next few days, for the area aid unit to ensure that all the outstanding cases are examined within the next three to four weeks to facilitate clearing of all cases for payment within that time. Where a specific difficulty cannot be resolved within the unit, the applicant will be contacted directly.

Area aid is probably the greatest disaster to hit the agriculture sector for many years, and I am glad the Minister is trying to do something about it.

In reply to the last question I tabled on the matter, the Minister stated that there were 15,000 cases outstanding. I am amazed today to find there are still 19,700 cases outstanding in area aid.

I have two questions for the Minister. First, there is an area aid telephone line for the general public. One can ring it, but will never hear from the area aid unit again. What will the Minister do about that? The same is true of telephone lines to Deputies.

Second, what will the Minister do about the mistakes of the area aid unit? I know of a particular case where two plots of land owned by two brothers were registered in each other's names. They thought it had been rectified, but it was sent out from the area aid unit again this year in the same way.

What will the Minister do about these people's payments? Will he pay them interest because if the farmer makes a mistake he is penalised? What will the Minister do for the farmers who have waited over 12 months for their money?

The situation is as Deputy Ring outlined, that the processing of area aid payments in that section has operated unsatisfactorily. It has been frustrating both for farmers and public representatives making cases on their behalf.

This year we have put a considerable amount of work, with additional staff, overnight work and work at weekends, into clearing up a backlog of unfinished cases. I am not making any excuses, but the digitisation and the technical problem which had to be dealt with in a relatively short time was very time consuming.

There are 19,700 cases awaiting clearance. I have given a commitment to the House and to farming representatives that they will be cleared for payment within the next three weeks or, at the absolute maximum, four weeks so that, unless there are intractable problems, we will have a completely clean sheet at the end of that time. I expect that 99.9 per cent of cases will be cleared so that there will be no backlog when the 1998 applications come in, the closing date for which is 15 May. To facilitate that and to be helpful to farmers, senior staff in the Department of Agriculture and Food have had discussions with area officers to the effect that it would be much more convenient for people to go to their local office.

There is a later question on this matter when I will go into greater detail. I am making no excuses about the matter. It has been difficult and frustrating. Like many other Deputies, I have had to deal with problems in this regard. Farmers, in some instances at least, seem to be harshly penalised whereas mistakes are made on both sides.

An appeals system was established by my predecessor and a number of cases have been resolved satisfactorily by the appeals unit. Applicants should, however, be as careful as possible in filling out application forms. Together with farming representatives, we examined how the forms could be further simplified to make matters easier for applicants. We enlisted correspondents in farming newspapers to highlight the six or seven most prevalent mistakes made in an effort to ensure the operation is run as smoothly as possible.

We are talking about substantial payments from the EU and there is no gain to the national Exchequer or the Department. The more quickly and efficiently claims are processed the better. About 47 per cent — in some cases much more — of farmers' incomes is made up of payments to which they are duly entitled and it is my objective to get the payments system running smoothly.

There is a scheme whereby a penalty is imposed on health boards and Government agencies if small businesses with which they are dealing are not paid promptly. Will the Minister consider such a system in this area? It is unfair that farmers are penalised when they make a mistake. I welcome the change in regard to inspectors. I dealt with a problem relating to area aid and it took 11 months for an inspector to call. As Deputy Connaughton said, it would be easier for farmers to go to Castlebar or Ballina rather than wait for an inspector. Will there be staff to man the helpline? The system that operated for years was scandalous in that people who did not receive payments had to contact their local councillor or TD who had to deal with the problem. I am glad the Minister will rectify that position. If there is a problem people should be notified immediately so that it can be corrected.

I put down a question in regard to the appeals unit. It takes about five to six months for an appeal to be heard. Are the three Ministers doing anything in the Department? The whole system has collapsed since they came to office.

The three wise men.

The Department will have to be organised properly. There is no point in Ministers going to race meetings and telling farmers in Mayo about the REP scheme. The Department should be organised so that payments are made promptly to farmers. Otherwise the Minister should resign.

Last month the Deputy complained because there were too many inspections on Clare Island.

The position of payments this year is similar to that at this time last year, but that is not to say it should not be much better. There are commitments under the charter relating to the balancing payments under the special beef premium. It states that most payments will be completed by the end of March and the remainder by 30 June in line with EU requirements. I can give an absolute guarantee that all payments will be made long before that time. While the position is unsatisfactory, compared with other EU countries, standards laid down in the charter and EU requirements, deadlines are more than adequately met.