The foot and mouth disease scare has great cost implications for many sectors of the economy, but, if there was an outbreak of the disease here, the costs would be a thousand times greater than they are at present. In that regard, we hope the incident in County Louth tonight will prove negative.
The co-operation of the public is heart-warming, but given that structures are in place to keep out foot and mouth disease, it is time to consider if the great financial hardship currently imposed on farmers can be alleviated without lessening the effort or the effect of the preventative measures. I am sure the Minister has received calls from worried farmers who are owed various grants from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. As the normal practice of on-farm inspections has ceased, many of the cheques have also stopped. A farmer who is waiting for the special beef premium, which was due a month ago, cannot get it because there was supposed to be an on-farm inspection. He was told yesterday that he could not get the premium until the inspection was made. Another farmer is awaiting a REPS payment, but he was also told it cannot be paid without a farm inspection.
I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development concerning bringing forward the 2001-02 ewe premium scheme instalments. The retention date expires on 7 April and it should be possible to bring it forward by a considerable number of weeks this year because of the current position. The months of April, May and June will be vital this year in terms of cash flow on many farms, particularly sheep farms. The sheep trade is great at present, but only for farmers who have suitable animals to sell. As the Minister is aware, the vast majority of low land and hill sheep farmers do not have lambs to sell at this time of year. They will not have animals to sell until June or July.
Another issue is the so-called small technical problem where various grants are being held up pending farm visits and clarification. There are many such cases and much more desk work should be done with the many telephones that are available. I am aware of cases where two or three telephone calls from the Department would rectify the problems and ensure cheques can be issued. I assume this is what the Minister also wants, but unless he and the Department set up that arrangement now, it will not happen for another two or three weeks because it will take that long to clear the backlog.
There should not be a problem paying instalments because 99% of farmers will be due other payments during the year and excess amounts could be clawed back. The Department has a section which is good at clawing back money. Plenty of money is deducted from premia when it suits so there is no problem with the system which is working extremely well.
Most farmers have stock on their farms that they would not normally have at this time of year. In the Minister's part of the world, dairy farmers have no room for calves. Farms are bursting at the seams. Dry stock farmers in other parts of the country, including my area, traditionally have store cattle ready to sell now. This is their livelihood and how they do business. However, they cannot go outside the door at present. In the midlands, farmers usually go to the west to buy cattle at this time of the year. Unless they have an off-farm income, these farmers have no income at present. Everybody hopes the country escapes foot and mouth disease and that the regulations in place will ensure the disease is kept out. However, given that the disease is rampant in Britain, we will have a problem throughout this year.
It is against this background that I ask the Minister to establish a group in the Department and ensure, where possible, that money can be paid. This process should start tomorrow. I ask the Minister to put the wheels in motion tomorrow because if it is not done then, I know from experience that it will not happen for several months.