The processing time for applications for the scheme of early retirement from farming is determined by a number of factors but primarily by limits on the available human resources and by other pressing demands on the relevant staff. While the processing time varies from one area to another, there are delays of up to five months in some regions. The closing date for applications under the existing early retirement scheme was 31 December 1999 and in the final weeks of last year the number of new applications was considerably above the average. As a result, there are 556 applications currently on hand.
The processing of applications is carried out mainly by rural development and environment inspectors and 41 inspectors are currently involved in processing applications. In addition to this work, these inspectors conduct compliance inspections on existing participants in the scheme which are required by the European Commission and are a critical part of the Department's control procedures. The inspectors are also involved in the processing of a proportion of applications for REPS and for the young farmer installation aid scheme, together with the Leader programme.
I am conscious of the need to reduce the processing time for ERS applications and that a new early retirement scheme forms part of the draft rural development plan for the period 2000-06 which has been submitted to the European Commission and that this new scheme is likely to attract the same level of participation as the existing one. Therefore, I am pursuing the matter of additional resources as a priority in the context of the report of the systems review of my Department and the recently concluded Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. My Department is also actively reviewing its procedures and the available IT resources.