Other Questions. - Farm Retirement Scheme.

Denis Naughten

Question:

54 Mr. Naughten asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development the plans, if any, he has to reduce the five month delay in processing early retirement scheme applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4709/00]

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.

Does the Minister of State agree that the current processing system is an unmitigated disaster? Does he believe it is acceptable that these farmers must wait five months without any income other than that derived from their leases? Does he believe it is acceptable that the applications are not reviewed within the five month period in order to avoid people whose documentation may be found to be incomplete having to return to the start of the queue? These delays are causing serious financial difficulties for many farmers.

Delays in excess of five months have been experienced in the midlands. Does the Minister of State agree that the staffing levels to deal with this issue are inadequate? There is a perception among some applicants that officials are sending back minor queries in order to delay the process.

Will the Minister of State identify the three counties in which the scheme take-up level is greatest?

I accept that there was a huge increase in the number of applications received in December. Under the programme recently announced by the Government, we are seeking additional staffing for this area from the Depart ment of Finance. We need professional and technical staff in many areas. We accept that the delays being experienced in many areas are unacceptable. However, many of the applications, which pass through legal offices, are found to be incomplete or incorrect when they are received. If applications are complete and correct, the back money will be paid from the date for which the applications were made. If they are found to be incorrect, payment will only be received from the date on which the applications are properly completed.

That concludes Question Time. We now come to private notice questions to the Minister for Public Enterprise on the falsification of safety records at the Sellafield nuclear processing plant.