Other Questions. - Farm Assist Scheme.

Seymour Crawford

Question:

106 Mr. Crawford asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the number of families receiving farm assist on the most recent date for which figures are available; the number of those who would have been changed from any other form of social welfare allowance such as widow's or widower's pension; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20251/00]

Michael Ring

Question:

127 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs the number of people in receipt of payment under the farm assist scheme on a monthly basis in 1999 and to date in 2000. [20299/00]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 106 and 127 together.

I propose to circulate the monthly farm assist statistics requested in tabular form in the Official Report. The farm assist scheme, which introduced the special arrangements for farmers on low incomes, was provided for in the Social Welfare Act, 1999, and came into operation with effect from 7 April 1999.

On 22 September 2000, there were 7,650 farm assist claims in payment, with a further 79 claims under investigation. A further 242 claimants are still in receipt of smallholders unemployment assistance. It should be borne in mind that the numbers receiving smallholders assistance had for various reasons declined from 9,900 in 1995 to 6,600 in 1998, that is, by more than 1,000 per year. It seems likely that this decline would have continued so that the 7,900 people now receiving payments reflects a significant reversal of the trend in numbers who benefited from support.

To date 626 claimants have transferred from other schemes, comprising 582 from pre-retirement allowance, five from widow's and widower's – non-contributory – pensions and 39 from disability allowance cases. I believe that the scheme has brought about a worthwhile improvement for low income farmers and particularly for those with children. The Social Welfare Act, 2000, made a number of important changes to the means test for the farm assist scheme. The child-related disregards have been increased from £100 to £200 for the first two children and from £200 to £300 for each subsequent qualified child.

Furthermore, instead of 80%, only 70% of self-employment income, including off-farm self-employment, is now being taken into account in the assessment of means. There are also changes in the way capital is assessed, with the first £10,000 held by a claimant disregarded and the balance treated more favourably than heretofore. The effect of these changes is that the majority of farm assist claimants will receive an increase in their payment from 27 September.

The scheme clearly makes a valuable contribution to supporting those who are at the lower end of the farm income spectrum.

Table 1

Farm Assist Recipients – monthly breakdown

Week Ending

No. of Recipients

31/05/99

2,639

26/06/99

3,568

31/07/99

5,165

28/08/99

5,937

25/09/99

6,519

30/10/99

6,841

27/11/99

6,961

31/12/99

7,117

28/01/00

7,361

25/02/00

7,536

31/03/00

7,568

22/04/00

7,540

26/05/00

7,570

30/06/00

7,568

28/07/00

7,607

25/08/00

7,651

This scheme has been a farce from the start. It was heralded as a scheme which would bring many thousands more out of poverty and give them some support. A sum of about £25,000 was allowed as an increase for the remaining part of the year the scheme was introduced. The means test has not been adjusted to take account of the downturn in farm income generally and the costs they incur. When will the Minister consider changing the means test to take the same account as the Minister for Finance takes when farmers apply for clearance for taxation purposes? Why is there a difference between the means test for farm assist and that for tax purposes?

I do not agree with the Deputy that this scheme is a farce. The figures speak for themselves. Some 7,900 farmers do not believe it is a farce because they are all in receipt of it. As I said earlier, before I introduced the scheme the numbers in receipt of smallholders' dole were decreasing by 1,000 a year from 1995. We have reversed that trend because the numbers are now increasing.

I read some comments about farmers not participating because of pride but it was not me who heralded this scheme as the be-all and end-all. I made it quite clear to the farmers' bodies when they met me that they were dealing with social welfare, which ultimately is a safety net payment for people on very low incomes.

The Minister went on the news and said it was great.

The Combat Poverty Agency, Teagasc and the ESRI undertook a study of low income farm households which was launched at the National Ploughing Championships. It states that overall farm poverty has been falling in the late 1990s, reflecting recent improvements in off-farm employment opportunities and the long-term decline in the number of farm households.

With no help from the Minister.

At the end of the day the report made significant proposals regarding farm supports, not necessarily regarding farm assist.

What was the reason for the decrease in the number of farmers applying for farm assist? The reason the Minister gives is that many farmers have left agriculture because they cannot make a living at it. How many people applied for farm assist last year? Of those who applied, how many gained and how many lost? I would like that figure first.

I am not sure if these figures are correct. The number of new applications received to date is 3,361, comprising 2,601 in 1999 and a further 760 up to 22 September. As I said before, approximately 7,900 people are in receipt of farm assist.

I cannot give the Deputy a figure for the number who have received an increase, If he tables a parliamentary question, he can get that information. However I can give him the following information. Up to 22 September, the number of former smallholders who transferred to farm assist is 4,891. The average payment is £88.24, which represents an average increase of £13.64 per week.

That was not the question. How many lost?

I do not have that figure.

We want the bad news.

It was made clear to the farmers' associations that as a result of the farm assist scheme people would have to fill up forms again. It had been the policy with smallholders' dole not to review farmers too often and their conditions could have improved or disimproved in the intervening years when farm assist was introduced. It was made clear that in the review it was possible they might lose out, given that people's circumstances had changed since they had last been assessed.

That is not the way it was sold.

It was made quite clear.

That is not the way it was sold. It is like the 40 hours, the new scheme the Minister introduced. That is causing problems.

The situation is clear. The Minister heralded this as a great benefit to the 40,000 farmers who marched on this city. Many other farmers thought they might get it but once the first numbers applied and found they could not, others simply did not bother to apply.

Is the Minister prepared to look at how the means test is carried out? He stated that a review had not been carried out for a long number of years. Why have some people, who were assessed for farm assist last year, already been reassessed although they were told the reason some of their moneys could not be accepted as debts was that there were debts for a long number of years. Can the Minister tell us when the assessment for farm assist will be brought into line with other farm assessment, where proper allowances will be made for costs?

The Minister stated that there are 7,900 involved and he has also admitted that 626 are involved. Therefore, there are only a couple of hundred extra on farm assist. How many left small farms over the years, and even farm assist since, to take up FÁS schemes? That is the only reason the numbers are falling.

I did not herald this scheme as the answer to the 40,000.

He did, he told us—

Deputy Crawford, allow the Minister speak without interruption.

The scheme was introduced after the 40,000 walked the streets of Dublin. It was the representatives of the farming organisations who said the scheme, as brought forward and negotiated by them with me and the Government, was the answer to the farmers. I was surprised when I made a number of press releases encouraging farmers in need to apply because we were told that about 15,000 farmers would apply. However, 15,000 did not apply, 7,900 farmers applied for it.

That is the reality. I can do no more. We have issued a myriad of press releases about it. The farming organisations have publicised this scheme copiously. There have been press releases issued all over the place.

I do not agree with the Deputy's figure of 626 transfers. I do not know to what he was referring there but, as I stated earlier, 626 claimants have transferred from other schemes.

This is an important issue. Without meaning to personalise the issue, I wonder about the Minister's knowledge of agriculture. Is he aware—

That does not arise.

The Deputy should not ask an embarrassing question.

It is fairly serious because his officials are not aware of the problems which exist and they do not understand that the farming community does not consist of people who want to go on their knees begging for a living – they never did so – but that is what his officials are making them do. Yesterday a lady broke down and cried at my clinic.

A question please, Deputy Boylan.

I am asking the Minister if he is personally aware of the tremendous difficulties farmers with less than 50 acres are experiencing on smallholders unemployment assistance in maintaining their young families?

I know enough about agriculture to say, as I said to the farming organisations, that the structural difficulties in farming, particularly the flight from the land to paid employment, is not something which will be cured by a social welfare scheme. I made that quite clear and they knew that too.