Other Questions. - Leader Programmes.

Jim Higgins

Question:

53 Mr. Higgins (Mayo) asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development the plans, if any, he has to introduce a new national rural development programme when the Leader II programme ends on 30 June 2000; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4903/00]

I expect the European Commission to finalise the guidelines for the new rural development initiative, Leader+, very shortly following on the recent receipt of the observations of the European Parliament. Further consultation is taking place this week with member states and this should open the way to early approval of the guidelines.

Based on these guidelines, member states will then draw up operational programmes for Leader+ for forwarding to the Commission for approval with a view to commencement of the Leader+ programme as soon as possible. In addition, a Leader mainstream programme is being funded under the national development plan. As with other measures provided for in the national development plan, approval by the European Commission is necessary to enable commencement of arrangements for the establishment of Leader mainstream activity.

Pending EU clearance for Leader+ activity and Leader mainstream activity under the NDP, it is not possible to define the precise arrangements for delivery. It is clear, however, that the Commission's intention is that funding will be confined to a limited number of rural areas and that the essential aim of the Leader+ measure will be to encourage the emergence and testing of new approaches to integrated and sustainable development.

The report of the Task Force on the Integration of Local Government and Local Development Systems requires that attention be given to avoiding overlap between agencies including Leader groups and to explore mechanisms capable of combining rural development and rural partnership activities in rural disadvantaged areas specifically. I recognise the importance of continuity in the delivery of Leader+ and Leader-type rural development programmes. Every effort will be made to establish the earliest implementation of the two new Leader measures. In this context, it may be possible to progress the mainstream Leader measure which will apply nationwide at a more rapid rate than Leader+ will allow and I am examining this possibility. In the meantime, I have allocated funding to Comhar Leader inter alia to ensure that existing groups are fully fam iliar with the administrative requirements regarding mandatory financial reporting of the conclusion of Leader II projects.

(Mayo): I welcome the fact that the Minister of State has allocated money to bring existing Leader groups up to speed on what is happening. Does he accept that the Leader I and Leader II programmes have both done tremendous work in generating thousands of jobs, in identifying economic initiatives and going after them and in giving rural areas a certain degree of self-confidence that many of them lacked heretofore? Does he agree that it is crucial when Leader+ comes on stream, and I am anticipating that it will get the go ahead, that there is no lapse or time lag? Whatever kind of modified Leader programme comes on stream, it must do so immediately after the expiry of the existing Leader II programme. Above all, staff should not be laid off. There are considerable numbers of staff involved in these programmes.

I thank the Deputy and I agree with him about Leader, that the animation during the programme was very good in developing communities. However, there is one problem about guaranteed continuity. If we invite people to tender and then pay them before the tendering system is over, there is then an acceptance that they should get the tender. That is a legal difficulty. While the vast majority of Leader groups are good, it is well known that there have been problems with a few. It is our intention to make sure that as many people as possible can apply. The Government is putting £55 million into our own continuing Leader activities rather than the Leader+. The word "innovative" is being used about Leader+; I do not know how innovative it can be, but that will be discussed by the STAR committee in Europe and we hope to receive guidelines on it. There will be four types of proposal suggested for Leader+ that we will have to look at. We will have further consultations with the groups and Comhar Leader and send our findings back to Brussels. In the meantime we hope to get the ordinary Leader programme going.

Has the Department used the interregnum between Leader II and Leader III to conduct any audit of the performance of each of the Leader groups funded under Leader II? Arising from that, are there any proposals to amalgamate existing Leader operators or bolster their management skills so they can perform under Leader III? The Minister of State referred to some problem areas and perhaps he would elaborate on that.

As a representative from the Cavan-Monaghan constituency, which has one of the best Leader groups in the country, I am aware of a high level of dissatisfaction with the fact that staff will have to be laid off. Will the Minister of State ensure that does not happen?

All the staff were on contract from 1994 to 1999 and some will continue until December as they started later than others. I emphasise that the positions are contract, not permanent. I recognise the need to keep groups together and to retain some of the experts.

It is not looking good.

June is a long way off. The Deputy should not be so optimistic that something will go wrong.

We have waited 12 months for the Western Development Commission.

People waited three years for the Deputy to do something about that.

I call Question No. 54.

Will the Minister of State answer my question?

We must move on.

This is a farce. We can ask questions but we cannot receive answers.

Is the Deputy addressing me or the Ceann Comhairle?

I am making a statement.

It does not matter, the Minister of State will not give us the answers anyway. He is being protected by the Chair.

The Deputy should not make such an allegation. The Chair must apply the rules which the Members direct him to apply.

We ask the questions but cannot get answers.

That is not a matter for the Chair. I must apply the time limits laid down.