Mr. O'Donovan is ill and unable to be with us today but Mr. Martin Crowley has travelled instead.
At the outset, the Department would like to put on record its sympathy for any farmer who is prevented from following his occupation through illness or disability. The case in question is particularly difficult in that it involves a man with a young family who contracted MS in his early thirties and had to give up farming.
To put things in context, it might be best if I first explained the purpose of the early retirement scheme. As many committee members will be aware, the first scheme was introduced in 1994 as one of four measures that formed part of the MacSharry reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in 1992. Its primary objective was to address the two main structural defects in Irish agriculture, namely, the age profile of farmers and economic viability of farm holdings. By allowing older farmers between the ages of 55 and 66 to retire from farming, it has enabled younger trained farmers to take over farming enterprises. Since its introduction nearly 10,500 farmers have availed of the 1994 scheme, while about 2,000 have entered the scheme introduced in November 2000.
Applications under the 1994 scheme closed in December 1999, while the 2000 scheme will extend until the end of 2006. Both schemes are governed by European regulations and are now funded equally by the European Union and the Irish Exchequer. European regulations lay down the requirements that must be met by applicants in order to be eligible under the scheme. In the current scheme, EC No. 1257/1999 limits eligibility to those aged 55 years or over who have not yet reached the normal retirement age of 66 and who have practised farming for the ten years preceding the transfer of their land. In this case the family ceased farming nearly 15 years ago, and as the farmer involved is not yet 55 he cannot satisfy either of these requirements and is not eligible under the scheme.
While the submission before the committee asks that the Department set aside these two fundamental requirements in his case, this is not within the power of the Department. To do so would run counter to the purpose for which the scheme was introduced and would not be in accordance with the relevant EU regulation. In effect, what the IFA's submission is suggesting would require a change in the regulation to extend the scope of the scheme from being purely a structural reform measure to one that also assists farmers who, because of illness or disability, are forced to retire from farming.
The current scheme allows the Department to exempt applicants from specified conditions that they cannot satisfy for reasons outside their control, including illness or disability. However, such exemptions are only given in cases where the applicant is eligible in all other respects for inclusion in the scheme but for some event that prevents him or her from satisfying specified conditions. Each case is dealt with on its own merits and would include, for example, farmers who had not farmed for the full ten-year period preceding retirement because of illness or disability. However, the Department could not under any circumstances exempt a farmer who had not farmed during any part of the ten years preceding the transfer or lease of his land to the eligible transferee.
As the scheme is co-financed by the European Union it is incumbent on the Department to ensure that this provision is exercised prudently and within reasonable limits. In practice, no farmer would be granted an exemption whose farming was interrupted for more than four of the ten years prior to the transfer or lease under the scheme. We have accommodated 28 farmers whose farming was interrupted for up to four of the ten years before retirement, but that is as far as we can prudently go. Essentially, the early retirement scheme is not a social scheme. Its purpose is to achieve an economic objective by encouraging farmers aged between 55 and 66 years who satisfy the eligibility requirements to retire early and hand over their land to a younger qualified farmer.
Finally, the submission mentions the fact that a son of the farmer in question is interested in taking over the farm but that, for this to be viable it would be necessary for his father to get the early retirement pension and for himself to be eligible for premia payments under the national reserve. The important point is that the son's eligibility to premia entitlements from the national reserve is not dependent on his father receiving the early retirement pension. As a young farmer entering farming for the first time, his eligibility will be examined in the same way as any other young farmer in that position, and the status of the father is irrelevant.
The submission may be referring to the possibility that the early retirement pension would replace the income the family is receiving from lessees for their land. In any event, it does not change the fact that he is not eligible for the pension. Neither does this prevent his son from commencing farming. To repeat my earlier sentiments, the Department is very conscious of the difficult circumstances the family has had to endure and has great sympathy for the family. Regrettably, however, it cannot offer any assistance in the context of the early retirement scheme.