Adjournment Debate. - Foot and Mouth Disease.

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.

I express my appreciation to Deputy Connaughton for raising this important matter at a time when the people, the agriculture industry, large sectors of the tourism industry and the economy in general are experiencing great apprehension and worry. I appreciate the Deputy's comments in relation to the solidarity of the country's citizens and particularly the staff of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, the Garda, the Army and all the State agencies who rowed in, in a most self-less way, in relation to this matter.

The Deputy raised the worrying scare in County Louth. A farm in County Louth has been restricted and we are following the same procedures as in any other case which was of concern over the past four weeks. The process is to restrict and slaughter the flock and to take appropriate samples and have them sent for analysis to the international reference laboratory in Pirbright. We all hope the results will be negative. The results were due this evening but they will not be available until tomorrow because of the backlog of samples.

This case is within the exclusion zone which arose from the outbreak at Meigh. As a precaution the controls have been further intensified, especially at the likely perimeter of any protection zone, where Garda reinforcements have today been assigned. The outcome of the laboratory analysis will determine any further action and we must await this.

In view of the intensity of the effort devoted to keeping out foot and mouth disease this is an anxious time for the country at large, including the agri-business and agri-tourism sectors, the general economy and those directly involved in the front line of the battle against this disease. As I have been saying from day one, we must remain on high alert and do all in our power to prevent an outbreak of this devastating disease.

Turning to the matters raised by Deputy Connaughton, under the various 2000 headage and premium schemes, £654 million has already been paid. This compares with £621 million paid during the same period last year. Since 1 January, almost 352,000 cheques, valued at more than £163 million, have issued to farmers under various headage and premia schemes. Some £40 million of these payments have been made since the beginning of March. I am making arrangements to make EURO compensation payments under the livestock schemes before the end of March, entailing some 270,000 cheques valued at £14 million.

Deputy Connaughton and other Deputies inquired to what extent payments could continue to be made in view of the fact that farmers have restricted the movement of animals and in some cases cannot sell them to other farmers, especially calves from the southern part of the country and store cattle. Payments under the 2000 suckler cow premium commenced on 31 January and 94% of applicants were paid within the first two days. With regard to special beef premium, balancing payments commenced on 7 February. Overall, 97% of applicants have been paid almost £184 million.

The final instalment under the ewe premium scheme was paid on 16 February, the earliest possible date following publication of the regulation. In fact, 97% of applicants under this scheme were paid the first instalment in one day and more than £77.4 million has been paid to sheep producers under that scheme.

Unfortunately the 2000 slaughter premium scheme and the national envelope balancing payments cannot commence until the quota usage for the year is determined. The vast bulk of payments that can be made are being made. I am aware of the difficulties arising because staff cannot visit the farms. We will see to what extent we can be helpful here.

The high level of direct payments made under the various schemes are of considerable benefit to farmers, especially at this difficult time. Significant amounts of money have been paid since the foot and mouth situation developed. I have instructed the relevant sections of my Department and the IT staff to ensure this continues. Arrangements are in train to continue with payments where possible in the coming weeks.