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Select Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine debate -
Tuesday, 23 Nov 2021

Vote 30 - Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Supplementary)

The second item is a Supplementary Estimate for Public Services 2021, Vote 30 - Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which was referred to the select committee by the Dáil on 17 November.

I welcome the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, and his officials. He is accompanied by Dr. Kevin Smyth, assistant secretary general and chief financial officer; Ms Rebecca Chapman, principal officer, finance division; and Mr. Paul McNally also from the finance division. They are all very welcome to the meeting.

Members have been circulated, in advance, with briefing material from the Department on the Supplementary Estimate. I call on the Minister to make his opening statement.

I thank the Chairman and members for the opportunity to attend today and present this request for a Supplementary Estimate for 2021. This technical Supplementary Estimate is required to make use of savings on the Department’s Vote to provide for spend over several headings. To allow a technical Supplementary Estimate to take place, a token €1,000 will be added on to my Department’s Vote. No additional funding is being requested.

I propose moving €49.8 million in savings across other subheads. As these proposed transfers and expenditure involve changes to the original 2021 voted allocations, I believe that it is important to seek the members' input and approval.

The areas where savings have emerged reflect the dynamic and uncertain environment in which the sector and the Department have operated in this year. Despite the continuing challenges of the pandemic and Brexit, we have continued to carry out our business as usual. Since September 2021, more than €960 million has been paid to farmers in respect of this year's basic payment and areas facing natural constraints, ANC, schemes. The Department issues these advance payments at a rate of 70% and 85%, respectively, to farmers at the earliest date possible under EU regulations. The remaining balancing payments at a rate of 30% and 15%, respectively, are due to commence in early December. Payments under the sheep welfare scheme, the protein aid scheme and the straw incorporation measure are also due to commence in the coming weeks with the sheep welfare scheme due this week. Targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, payments are ongoing, with some €56 million paid to date this year.

I will outline where the savings, which we propose to use, have emerged, starting with the information management technology saving of €5 million. In December last year, the Department issued two new procurement competitions for the upgrade of the Department's core systems and the development of systems to cater for the new Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, post 2022.

The incumbent company for the existing contracts was not successful in either of the two new procurement processes and initiated High Court proceedings in the matter. This resulted in the Department not being able to source the additional resources identified for a significant lead-in period, circa five months in total, until the High Court proceedings were resolved as a result of the company withdrawing the proceedings. This delay resulted in the Department being unable to progress system development as planned, which also had the effect of resources from other contracts not being taken on in both the number and at the time originally envisaged.

Savings of €3 million in travel and incidental expenses have also been identified due to the reduction of the volume of travel undertaken by my Department during recent months understandably as a result of the pandemic.

Under the subhead B3 agri-environmental schemes, total current savings of €21.35 million are being redistributed. The savings set out below are offset by an increase in the subhead's capital allocation by €2.5 million. Some €1.55 million of these savings arise from the organic scheme and €22.3 million are from schemes due to be funded by the EU’s recovery instrument funding, EURI. Some €56 million of EURI designated funding was provided in 2021 to cover a suite of new agri-environmental schemes, including a new organics scheme, a straw incorporation measure, new European innovation partnerships, EIPs, and for an environmental tranche of TAMs. Funding for EURI schemes is provided by the Exchequer in the first instance, then reclaimed at a rate of 100% from the EU. Commencement of these schemes was delayed until an amendment to the rural development programme could be fully approved by the European Commission, which did not happen until mid-year. EURI funding is subject to what is known as the N+3 rule, which means it can be spent in the three years from the date of programming.

I assure the committee that the EURI funding will spent over the coming years and that the money available to farmers has not been lost. The Exchequer funding attributed to these EURI schemes as part of the Vote will thus be utilised under other subheads.

In the areas of natural constraint, subhead B4, there are savings of €1 million due to of the level of eligible claims received.

Under capital expenditure, my Department continues to operate the large on-farm investment scheme, the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS II. TAMS is made up of a suite of seven measures and was launched under the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 with a budget of €395 million over the full period of the rural development programme. Payments under the TAMS II scheme continue to issue on an ongoing basis. To date in 2021 we have issued payments of €56 million. However, there have been some impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on investment works, particularly building works, during the restrictions. As a result, I am utilising a saving of €3.3 million from the 2021 allocation to fund expenditure elsewhere.

My Department has actively encouraged all approved applicants under the scheme to submit payment claims including by contacting approved applicants individually by text message on a number of occasions and reminding approved participants to submit their payment claim as soon as they are in a position to do so. However, as TAMS II is a demand-led scheme, the timing of the completion of works and submission of payment claims within the timeframe set out in their approval letter are matters for the farmers themselves. In general, participants have 12 months from the date of approval to complete works and submit a payment claim with a shorter timeframe of six months for the equipment involved.

Also on the capital side, we are seeking to move €7 million in capital expenditure from the forestry allocation. This saving has arisen because new planting has been much less than anticipated at the beginning of the year. I am aware that the current licensing delays are a contributory factor to the reduced levels of planting. We are addressing the current delays in a robust way with additional resources, a dedicated project plan and a reformed appeals system. We are also looking at ways to re-engage farmers so that they see forestry not as a displacement activity but as complementary to their farming enterprise.

In the subhead B12, market volatility, a capital saving of €300,000 has been identified. Subhead C11, other services, has savings of €2 million coming from a number of areas including savings on legal expenses.

Projected savings of €4.9 million are available in the fisheries subhead. Fisheries expenditure will be monitored on an ongoing basis over the remaining six weeks of the year to ensure spend is maximised in 2021. The Sea Fisheries Protection Authority subhead has savings of €2 million as a result of Covid-19 pandemic impacts on recruitment and travel.

Regarding how the reallocated funding will be used, utilising savings from TAMS and forestry this year will ultimately free up funding for 2022 as we prepay some commitments relating to next year now. This will leave us better able to take on the many challenges that face the industry next year. Some €7.3 million of the capital savings described will allow my Department to provide access to finance. Finance is a crucial business need and, as well as liaising with the main banks on issues relating to the agrifood sector, we work closely across Government to provide important supports for businesses, including farmers, fishers and food businesses. Most recently this has been to ensure that they have access to finance during the pandemic and also to help deal with the challenges brought about by Brexit. These supports have been delivered with the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland.

My Department co-funds the future growth loan scheme with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. It supports strategic long-term capital investment by small and medium-sized enterprises, farmers and fishermen. It has been in high demand and 1,595 loans or 46% were drawn down by the agrifood sector, with a value of €235.8 million or 32% of the overall pot. The transfer of €7.3 million in my Department’s Supplementary Estimate will facilitate an advance payment for my Department’s contribution under the scheme for 2022. The Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme provides an important source of working capital finance. The 2021 allocation of €800,000 has been converted to capital funding to align how this scheme is accounted for by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

We recently launched the Brexit impact loan scheme, which is a medium-term, lower-cost scheme to fund working capital and investments for businesses, including primary producers and food businesses, impacted by Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. The scheme opened for applications on 14 October. The remaining capital funding of €2.5 million has been allocated to the soil sampling scheme to cover 2021. The soil sampling programme will provide information to farmers on their soil fertility and also soil pathogen assessment. The programme will measure baseline soil carbon levels which will guide future actions to support carbon farming. It will also provide the basis for the next generation of soil-specific nutrient management advice and underpin targeted fertiliser and organic manure applications, ensuring the right nutrient type, right application rate, right time and right place across all farming systems.

Some €11 million of the reallocated funding will go to a Brexit temporary fleet tie-up scheme. The scheme will help mitigate the impacts of quota cuts on the fishing fleet arising from the trade and co-operation agreement agreed between the European Union and the UK. The scheme delivers on a recommendation of the seafood sector task force and is targeted at white fish vessels in the polyvalent and beam trawl segments. The scheme will be managed by Bord Iascaigh Mhara and under it, vessels would tie up at the quayside and cease all fishing activity for that month. In return, the vessel owners would receive a payment compensating for the lost fishing income during that month. The vessel owners will in turn be required to distribute one third of that payment to crew.

The Marine Institute is seeking a once-off allocation in 2021 of €5 million to enable costs related to the data collection framework, DCF, which is funded on an annual basis by this Department under subhead D, to be met on a current-year-payment basis with effect from 1 Jan 2022.

Due to the timing of approval of the 2014 to 2020 DCF programme and funding, a position developed whereby the Marine Institute receives funding for a particular year’s European Maritime and Fisheries Fund-funded DCF expenditure one year after the spend is incurred. Therefore, funding is received one year in arrears. As it currently stands, the 2021 Estimate includes €5 million for the 2020 costs, and the 2021 costs would be paid in 2022. If the proposal is approved and the savings are available, the 2020 and 2021 costs could be paid in 2021, with the 2022 costs paid from the 2022 allocation.

The sheep welfare subhead B.8 will be increased by €1.5 million under today's submission. The reference period, which determines the maximum number of animals paid under scheme, was recently changed from 2014-15 to 2017. This change is also in line with existing commitments set out in the programme for Government, which includes the commitment to build on schemes such as the sheep welfare scheme in a way that enhances farm incomes and animal welfare objectives, recognising their significant contribution to net farm incomes. This commitment reflects that sheep farming contributes to both economic and environmental sustainability, in particular on more marginal land, with sheep grazing being an important land management tool in parts of the country where land usage options are relatively limited. Given that this change requires additional funding of €1.5 million for 2021 above the allocation agreed in this Department’s Vote for 2021, I am increasing the allocation from €17 million to €18.5 million.

The United Nations World Food Programme is the world’s largest humanitarian organisation, saving lives in emergencies and using food assistance to build a pathway to peace, stability and prosperity for people recovering from conflict, disasters and the impact of climate change. The World Food Programme assists 115 million people in 84 countries through food or cash distributions in emergencies and nutrition support programmes.

The World Food Programme was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020 for its efforts to fight hunger and its contribution to enabling conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas. It relies entirely on voluntary funding, with governments being its principal donors. Ireland has long been a supporter of the World Food Programme and my Department is the lead Department for the relationship with it. The aggregate value of Ireland's contribution to the World Food Programme in the 30 years from 1991 amounts to some €550 million. Ireland commits funding through three yearly strategic partnership agreements with the World Food Programme, which for the period 2019 to 2021 committed €70 million. My Department is currently finalising the strategic partnership agreement for the years 2022-2024 under which it is proposed to commit €75 million. This €25 million allocation represents an advance on that commitment and it will help save lives by supporting food security and nutrition, and rebuilding livelihoods in fragile settings. It reaffirms Ireland's role as one of World Food Programme's most engaged partners.

I believe this is a necessary and important Supplementary Estimate which I earnestly recommend to the committee for support. I am happy to respond to any questions members may have.

Are we dealing with the Supplementary Estimates programme by programme or across the board?

I do not mind. It is a matter for the committee.

What would suit the Minister?

Would the Minister prefer a programme-by-programme or an across the board approach?

Across the board is fine with me.

I have a number questions. I thank the Minister for being here and for his comprehensive opening statement. On animal welfare and the sheep welfare scheme, the original allocation was approximately €20 million per annum. The new Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, strategic plan provides a similar allocation. This allocation has never been fully spent. There has been an historical underspend in this scheme. I note this Supplementary Estimate essentially reflects the new reference year. Is the Minister pursuing particular measures to ensure this scheme is fully utilised and drawn down in the next CAP?

I have updated the reference year this time around to try to make it as reflective as possible of current circumstances on family farms and on sheep farms. I picked 2017 because that is the year we had the most sheep in the country. I wanted to maximise the payments to farmers and to ensure the sheep welfare scheme would be the strongest support it could be. The committee will be aware I have proposed an increase from €10 per ewe to €12 per ewe as part of the CAP strategic plan 2023-2027. Many people had hoped for more, and while I would like to do more, this is a significant improvement on the outgoing CAP under which no schemes or programmes were provided for, with most of them evolving later on in the CAP. I am now programming this in for the full five years. In setting it at €12 per ewe and the reference year at a particular year, yet to be decided in regard to the next CAP, I am trying to find the most optimal way to facilitate take-up and participation levels as well.

In regard to the World Food Programme, a Supplementary Estimate is introduced for this every year because, essentially, we are paying it in advance. We had a debate on this last year as well. Would it not make more sense to move this into the normal budgetary process?

It is a payment for next year. We often receive requests for this to be forward paid. The budget across my Department is significant and we try to manage it as tightly as possible, but as situations can evolve over the course of the year some departments will spend more and others will spend less. Where there is capacity at the end of a year to forward-pay, it makes sense to do so. This means we have met a commitment due and budgeted for in a previous budget and it gives capacity to as strong as possible support for the sector next year.

On the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, scheme, traditionally this has been oversubscribed. In most instances funds are drawn down within days. I learned from Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment officials at a recent meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts that there is undersubscription with regard to some of the loan schemes operated by that Department. Has the Minister engaged with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment with regard to the transfer of unused liquidity in the microfinance scheme to the agricultural sector? If not, will he do so? The record of SBCI is impressive in terms of repayment rates, which are among the highest within the agriculture sector. This illustrates a low-risk profile and a good investment on the part of the State. While the increased capital is welcome, it still falls short of the 2020 allocation. We could, perhaps, meet what is a clear demand here through the transfer of funding from other undersubscribed schemes. Have there been any efforts in that regard as of yet?

A review of the SBCI is due in the first half of next year. I will be looking at the options and opportunities as part of that review. This scheme has been a positive for the agrifood sector and a welcome enabler of low-cost loans and better competitive options for farmers. It is a scheme I am committed to continuing while also looking at what options would strongly support farm families in the process. The future growth loan scheme, which my Department operates in conjunction with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, has worked well, with 46% of it being drawn down by the sector. I hope the Brexit loan scheme, which we launched and opened for applications about a month ago, will be strongly supported too. In terms of the upcoming review with the SBCI of the streams, I will be looking to see how we can continue to use this as a support mechanism for the sector.

I would like clarification on some of the figures provided. Subhead B5 references savings of €3.3 million against a budget of €59 million. This may have been addressed by the Minister in his opening statement, but I missed it. What precisely does that relate to?

I will ask Ms Chapman to respond to the Deputy on this question.

Ms Rebecca Chapman

Subhead B5 relates to the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, measure. This is a demand-led scheme. The saving arises because applications have not been submitted on time.

On TAMS, I am dealing with a number of farmers who are currently in appeals. It is a very strange scheme in the sense that farmers will have outlaid a great deal of money in terms of building sheds or concrete pits and so on. For example, in a situation where a 100% penalty is applied, it would not be possible to return concrete. Some of the cases I am dealing with are in regard to technical anomalies. One case involves a husband and wife, returned emigrants and new farmers, whose receipts were in some cases paid to him, in others to her and to a company they both own. They now face the prospect of losing their farm if their appeal is not successful. Has the Minister had any interaction with his officials in regard to this area? We need to ensure there is no fraud - that is very important - but where it is clear that money allocated has been spent for the purpose for which it was granted but an anomaly, mistake or a little negligence is detected, I would hope there would be some flexibility. Does the Minister know the number of outstanding applications that are subject to appeal at the moment?

Is there anything the Minister can do in terms of working with his officials to address the anomalies I mentioned?

I am not aware off hand where the appeals specific to TAMS would be but I very much hear the Deputy's point. It is something I have come across on too many occasions. In terms of existing TAMS schemes, whenever farmers enter contracts, the terms and conditions are set and must be adhered to. Where they are not adhered to, that can lead to real challenges and circumstances such as those outlined by the Deputy. Looking not just to TAMS but across the various schemes that will be there in the next CAP strategic plan, it is really important we ensure there is proportionality regarding checks and balances and that any penalties are proportionate to what went wrong. TAMS is a very specific example of it. The figures involved can be quite high. The stakes can be really high for the farm family. In many instances, it is its once-in-a-generation investment and if someone is left in a situation where he or she cannot avail of it, it can have nightmarish implications for a family. I am very conscious of that, particularly in terms of how we structure the schemes as part of the CAP strategic plan. The terms and conditions of existing schemes are there, are auditable and are part of the contract signed up to. In terms of the schemes we are putting in place, it is something we must be very conscious of.

It is vital for the existing scheme because we know that when there are negative experiences with one round, they can impact future applications coming through. I will not deal with the specifics of this case because it is subject to appeal in the coming weeks but I ask the Minister to urge all officials involved. Auditing is about ensuring there is no fraud. There has been an acknowledgement of that in some cases, this was not fraud but - I use the term very loosely - "negligence" or involved mistakes on the part of the applicants. In one case, we are talking about €45,000, a huge sum of money. Twice that amount was spent but that was what was due to be recouped. They are repaying loans. It is unique in the sense where one spends first and receives one's grant. If one meets that type of difficulty, one is up to one's neck in it. Therefore, I make that appeal to the Minister without delving into it.

Regarding forestry because it is probably the subject we discuss most here, I do not think any of us would have been surprised to see an underspend relating to afforestation because to be kind, the numbers are underwhelming in terms of the targets vis-à-vis the actual outputs. Without going into the intricacies of it, I met some constituents from west Cavan earlier who have an issue with what they see as the over-proliferation of Sitka spruce plantations in their areas. The Minister would have heard similar stories coming from parts of Kerry and Leitrim. This committee is very clear that we need to promote and expand the forestry sector. What is the probability and possibility of ensuring that we have a balanced forestry strategy that works for the economy, the timber industry and the environment but also works for local communities in that it is regionally balanced across the board? I think the next agri-environmental scheme will be pivotal when it comes to doing that and enticing farmers to re-engage with the forestry sector. Does the Minister intend bringing forward any other immediate proposals?

I agree with the Deputy about its importance. There is no doubt that the licensing backlog has been a very real drag regarding progress and meeting our targets. It is something the Department has made a massive effort to address. How it evolved has been well documented and discussed in this committee? Very significant resources are in place in the Department. Over the course of this year, we have been making increasing progress regarding licensing. Around 3,500 licences have been issued this year compared with just over 2,500 for all of last year. The dial is going in the right direction over the course of this year and is continuing to progress. Over the past 11 weeks, an average of 113 new licences have been issued. Afforestation has not been keeping pace with felling. We have allocated ten ecologists specifically to afforestation.

Regarding getting things right in the long term and making them as streamlined and effective as possible, the implementation of the MacKinnon report is well under way through Project Woodland. The board recently published its second interim report. Two important recommendations from it have been approved, the first being the regulatory review of the existing statutory framework for the licensing of forest activities. Work on that has begun. The board has also agreed prioritisation and effective and inclusive consultation on a shared vision and plan for a new forestry strategy. Work on this has commenced. This will be really important in terms of driving things forward. There is significant potential for improving forestry nationally and there is a very real imperative to deliver on it as well given what it can deliver from a climate change and carbon capture and sequestration point of view and the potential to drive up farm income.

I am conscious of other speakers so I will not dwell on it. One thing we all agree on is that the Minister as the senior Minister needs to have a strong handle on the forestry section within his Department because none of the targets are being met. The rhetorical answers we get are very strong but the reality for people involved in the sector and communities, particularly the farming organisations, is very different. The backlog is extending and there are still very real concerns about whether we will meet the target of 8,000 ha of afforestation any year over the lifetime of the next CAP unless we see some really substantive measures.

I have some points about some of the figures. Under B12, there are savings of €250,000 against a budget of €601,000. The Minister mentioned that it related to market volatility. Could he explain what that scheme relates to?

Which one is B12? Regarding forestry, this is something in respect of which I have been working with the Minister of State, Senator Hackett. It is something that has been a real priority for the Department. It is a real crisis. This time last year, in particular, we were in a very difficult position. The supply chain was starting to dry up and it was a very difficult situation. We know the background regarding how it emerged and how the backlog developed. The important thing is that we have been making progress and improving things. The way we will do that is by lifting and increasing the licensing output. We saw the side impact over the summer regarding the change in the consultation process where appropriate assessments are required and through a statutory instrument from another Department that changed the nature around that. We will keep the pressure on to keep those licences up. It is a real priority for everyone. The way we will address it is by at least matching what is coming in the door with what is going out the door and pushing on past that in terms of driving down and eradicating the backlog.

My next question concerns what the C11 underspend relates to.

Ms Chapman will take that question.

Ms Rebecca Chapman

B12 covers a number of varied areas. The savings come from across a couple of subheads. There is a market volatility programme for milk and milk products, and there is one relating to the marketing of honey, which is a Brexit impact loan scheme or potential Brexit impact loan scheme.

There is an allocation for farmyards and pilot relocation schemes. It covers a couple of small schemes that have underspent.

Is there a particular reason for the underspend? Is it unique?

Ms Rebecca Chapman

I believe it is primarily demand-led, with delays in take-up. We can get the Deputy a full note on it if he would like.

If Ms Chapman would, please.

Ms Rebecca Chapman

On subhead C11, did the Deputy have a specific question? It is mostly-----

No. I did not know to what it referred.

Ms Rebecca Chapman

Subhead C11 relates mostly to legal expenses or provision for legal matters that we have not needed to spend this year. We make adequate provision at the start of the year in anticipation of something arising.

Less money for lawyers is always good.

I will put two specific questions to the Minister. I understand that he plans to introduce a statutory instrument relating to the veterinary medicines regulation. I do not know where his deliberations on that are. The committee has met on the matter a number of times. The two main issues that have been raised with us are, first, the ability of farmers to receive a 12-month prescription under which they could go to their local trader or merchant if needs be and there would not be a sense of obligation and, second, the need for some types of medicine to be stockpiled on farms in areas where they might be needed quickly, for example, during calving season. Is it the Minister's intention to cater for these two issues in the statutory instrument and does he plan to publish a draft before he enacts it so that committees such as ours can interact with it?

We have had considerable engagement with stakeholders. I recognise the work and submissions of this committee, which has examined this matter in great detail, as have the Department and myself. Our objective is to put in place a regime that is robust from the point of view of addressing microbial resistance and ensuring we avoid a situation that has unfortunately arisen over the years, namely, a growing resistance to many medicines leading to their increased ineffectiveness in performing the functions for which they were designed. Not managing the medicines strongly also has implications from a human health point of view. This is about trying to have good practice in place to ensure there is strong professional advice and guidance on how antibiotics and antimicrobials are administered while also being practical and having safeguards from a farming point of view without creating additional costs. It is a matter of balancing these. We are close to an outcome that will work. We have engaged closely with all stakeholders and taken their points on board, including this committee's. The Chairman has advocated strongly on behalf of the committee about the need for a good and balanced approach. We will achieve that.

I have two further questions, which I will ask together. They are distinct, but they impact on my constituency in particular. Unfortunately, there has been an avian flu outbreak in my county. It has affected the turkey flock, which could not have happened at a worse time. Does the Minister envisage a compensation scheme or is he confident that there are measures in place to contain the flu's spread? What precise actions does he believe can be taken?

My second question is on the use of horticultural peat, particularly in the mushroom sector. We understand that a report has been with the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for more than a month now. We have seen some leaks of what might be contained within that report, but it has not been published yet. Has the report been shared with the Minister? Speaking on RTÉ last weekend, the Minister of State more or less indicated that he did not plan to implement the report's apparent objectives, which would be concerning. Is there a route by which this issue can be resolved in the short term? It has been reported that the recommendation is to introduce emergency legislation allowing for the emergency cultivation of peat next year. Is that an achievable objective and will the Minister engage with the Minister of State and other Departments relevant to the matter on resolving the issue?

Regarding the avian flu, it is a distressing situation for the affected farmers, particularly given the time of year. There is a farm in County Monaghan that has had a case in a commercial flock. Where there is highly pathogenic avian influenza, a compensation package is in place that requires a full cull of the flock concerned. Steps have also been taken to put in place restriction and monitoring zones around the farm in question. Nationally, I introduced a regulatory instrument requiring the housing of all commercial flocks for the coming weeks. It is the riskiest time of year in terms of highly pathogenic avian influenza. We have had a number of individual instances in the wild bird community across the community, so the risk is high. We had an incident in a flock in the middle of the country around this time last year as well. This situation is something that all flock owners are taking seriously. The Department is also taking it seriously in respect of the precautionary measures that are being put in place and the monitoring mechanisms being employed by it, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the likes of BirdWatch Ireland.

I have had significant ongoing engagement with the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, on the peat matter. I will not pre-empt what is in the report, which it will outline for itself. We have come at it from the point of view of trying to find a solution to this issue. It does not make sense for us to import peat into Ireland. The situation has arisen because the issue was not addressed in a timely fashion, in that many of our commercial extraction bogs were operating without the necessary licences and permissions and the necessary infrastructure was not in place to facilitate that happening. I believe the report will be important in that regard and I will continue to liaise with the Minister of State on trying to get a solution.

Sin mise. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire.

I thank the Minister for appearing before the committee. I have two questions that will pick up where Deputy Carthy finished. One is on peat. I take a different slant to Deputy Carthy as regards what I heard on Radio 1 over the weekend. My understanding is that this is now a Government decision, in that the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, will bring the report to the Government and it will then be for the Cabinet to decide what to do, be that to introduce emergency legislation or whatever. When does the Minister envisage the report being before the Government and has he seen it?

It has been reported today that there might be a scarcity of turkeys for Christmas. I am not asking a joke question in any way. Does he believe that this will be an issue because of the avian flu? How long ago was he made aware of the case in Monaghan and is he aware of any other location where there is a similar situation?

On when the report will be published and come to the Cabinet, it is being prioritised by the Minister of State and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. It will be up to him and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to bring it to the Cabinet, but I expect it will be managed and expedited promptly. I have not seen the report, but I have had numerous engagements with the Minister of State on it.

Regarding the avian influenza, the timelines are eluding me at the moment, for example, of when the suspected case was identified in Monaghan, but it was certainly brought to my attention in the latter part of last week. Testing was carried out and a positive result came back. Immediate steps were taken to put in place protections and precautions around that flock.

It is certainly the case that there is ongoing vigilance across the country because there is real risk with a number of incidents of wild birds identified as being infected. It is also something we have seen in many countries right across Europe now where the same position applies. Vigilance is the order of the day over the next number of weeks along with exceptional precaution and attention to detail at farm level so as to ensure biosecurity measures are in place.

Has the Minister recently been made aware there may be a scarcity of turkeys for the Christmas market?

No, I have not. So far one turkey farm has been affected and a cull has been required on that farm as per the guidance for the approach in addressing a risk of infection like this. I certainly have not been alerted to the fact there would be any challenge from a supply perspective.

Okay. Our committee did some work over the summer on Horse Racing Ireland, the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board and the horse and greyhound fund. Has the Minister read the report the committee published on that?

The horse and greyhound fund is on the agenda for tomorrow's committee meeting.

Okay, I will come back to that tomorrow.

We will stick to this agenda for this evening.

I asked a question on the farm retirement scheme during the Estimates process last year. I spoke to a number of people in different farm organisations over the past number of months. Has the Minister or his Department considered any farm retirement scheme? In the same vein, we hope the Department will be putting in place environmental schemes over the next short while. Will the Minister bring us up to date on their current status? When does he expect publication of the details of any environmental schemes?

The first question was on farm retirement, which was given consideration as part of the development of the CAP strategic plan to take us up to the end of 2027. It existed before, in the CAP before last, as a targeted measure to try to bring about generational renewal and specifically as a support for young farmers. The assessment was that as expenditure targeted at a support for young farmers, it was not necessarily the most effective way of doing that. While it acts as an encouragement to land turnover, at the same time it was targeting farmers who were between the ages of 55 and 65 for early retirement. We have many more farmers at pension age already than we would have in the category between 55 and 65 years. The assessment has been made, taking into account the schemes put in place and the direct support of young farmers, that it is better and more effective to steer the funding directly to young farmers, as opposed to the funding of an early retirement scheme. It has not been part of the draft proposals I have put out for consultation.

As the Deputy knows, I have travelled the country over the past couple of months and participated in public meetings in each county. The issue came up on occasion but it was not raised very strongly in that public consultation. The rationale for not including such a provision is that we want to try to use the funds available to support most strongly young farmers.

My mind seems to be going. What was the Deputy's second point?

It concerned environmental schemes.

I seem to be trusting my memory too much so my pen is out. The next environmental scheme will kick off in January 2023 and run to the end of 2027. We are still in the consultation period in that respect. The national plan outlines the bones of the environmental scheme and it will be submitted to the European Commission by the end of this year. The infrastructure for running that scheme will be put in place over the course of next year, with the plan to have it started from January 2023. In the meantime, we have the green, low-carbon, agri-environment scheme, GLAS, continuing this year. In the budget just passed for next year, we have funding to run GLAS and the results-based environment agri pilot programme, REAP, again next year for all existing participants.

Okay. On the single farm payment, I have been contacted in recent weeks by farmers included in some remote sensing satellite inspections. I know this can cause a delay in payments for many farmers. I know they may have achieved good prices for their commodities in recent months but they totally depend on the single farm payment as well, which is due. Does the Minister envisage any delay in payments to farmers who have been selected for satellite inspections? Will he and his Department do everything possible to get these over the line before Christmas?

Yes, we will do everything we can. It is a challenge every year for those who might be randomly selected for spot checks and satellite inspections, which may have an impact on payments. We will expedite the process every way we can to try to ensure farmers can get paid promptly following the completion of inspections.

In the same vein, when farmers ring the Department seeking some information on their single farm payment, they are often met with a stone wall and Department officials are unable to give them any form of information. Is there any way the Minister could provide assistance to farmers so when they contact the Department, the officials can give them an estimate of the time of payment based on the stage of their assessment?

When farmers ring the Department, they should be able to get as much clarity as possible. Sometimes it may not be possible to bring clarity until an inspection is completed. I take on board the Deputy's point, which is important. It is significant for the affected farmers, particularly running up to Christmas and all the pressure around that. I will speak to the team further about the procedures in place to ensure as much information as possible is made available to farmers.

I do not need to tell the Minister about forestry. He knows that a large number of people are totally frustrated by this. I know the Minister has had an additional appointment to the forestry division in the Department. Does he have further legislative plans for the forestry sector? Money has been left over in the forestry area over a period, which does not reflect well on the Department because it is a key area with respect to climate change and everything like that. We are totally behind on the targets. Has the Minister any further legislative plans for the sector?

There is a full ongoing review of the forestry sector and Project Woodland is in place to implement the findings of the Mackinnon report. There may be recommendations arising from that and currently a number of working groups are in place assessing the best way forward. The overall review will also affect how we go forward. We will be informed by that work and we are really determined to ensure the process put in place can be as streamlined and effective as possible. We want, as quickly as possible, to get away from the challenges and difficulties we have had over the past couple of years. We are going in the right direction in that respect.

The Mackinnon report seems to have been a silver bullet for Scotland and it is well above its targets. I thought the report would be the silver bullet here. Where are we in implementing recommendations from the Mackinnon report in the Department?

As the Deputy knows, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, is leading the forestry element and driving this very strongly. We have established Project Woodland to implement the findings of the Mackinnon report. In that there are three work streams with project teams to drive the implementation of the report. I do not have the up-to-date note on the implementation across each of the measures but the people in those work streams meet regularly and drive on that work. One of the key elements established is the independent review of the position in other European member states and how their systems work.

Obviously, they have to comply with the same international and European law and conditionality as we do. We have to see if there are ways in which we can adjust our system to make it more efficient and, at the same time, make sure it is compliant with various obligations. That review is up and running and will inform how we go forward.

The Minister confirmed to Deputy Carthy that he will give the sector his full support. It is very important because farmers are totally frustrated. Many farmers who were planning on planting forestry have changed their mind because they see what is happening within the Department. They are very frustrated. It is going to take a huge amount of work in the coming months to turn this whole thing around and to encourage farmers to plant forestry again.

With regard to the farmer organisations, like every other Deputy in the House, certainly rural Deputies, I have met with the IFA, the ICMSA, the ICSA and the different farming organisations in various counties in recent weeks. They have huge concerns over climate change. On the specific issue of the climate change targets the Minister is going to be setting, the farm organisations want to work with him and his Department to achieve them. Has the Minister sat down with the presidents of, say, the IFA or Macra na Feirme and their officials to try to flesh out what can be done on the climate change targets? I believe it is only by working with and talking to these farm organisations, with everybody singing off the same hymn sheet, that we can get everybody working in unity together. I encourage the Minister to sit down with the farm organisations to see where we are all coming from and ensure we are all singing off the same hymn sheet. There are huge concerns out there. If the Minister is meeting the leaders of these farm organisations, he is keeping their members happy and content that, at least, he is sitting down with them and that he wants to work with them as they want to work with him.

I totally agree. I spent four and a half hours last Wednesday with all of the national presidents of the farm organisations and some of their key officers, along with all of the members of my own team. I did a full four and a half hour session on CAP and climate change, dealing with these issues and where we are at the moment. I also made it very clear in terms of how we step forward that, obviously, the first starting point was getting the sectoral targets right and getting them set for Irish agriculture in a way that was appropriate to what the sector can deliver. I believe the range we have is ambitious but deliverable. It will enable Irish agriculture to continue to produce the food - the milk and meat proteins - that we produce but to do so in a way that reduces the overall footprint and, in the process, adds value to that product and profitability at farm level for those producing that product. Central to delivering those outcomes and those reductions in emissions is working with farmers to implement the various measures they can deliver and, in particular, working with farm leaders. All of us must show the leadership that is required to deliver all of that.

I fully believe that will make Irish agriculture stronger and that it will get stronger over the next decade. Any sector of the economy, or any national economy that is efficient from an emissions point of view and environmentally sustainable, can expect to do well in the next decade, and that is where Irish agriculture is at. By international comparisons, we are a very sustainable food producing nation, and that is something we will continue to develop and double down on over the next decade and, in doing so, we will become stronger as an agricultural producing nation and as an income generating sector, particularly for farm families.

Central to that is working with farm organisations. As I said, I spent a full afternoon with all of the national leaders last Wednesday. I have had ongoing engagement throughout the CAP process with all of the national leaderships of all the farm organisations. Obviously, that is something that has always happened within the CAP process and it happened again this time around. Of course, I have supplemented that by having public meetings in each and every county in the country and speaking directly to every farmer who wanted to speak to me as part of the process to further develop that. That has been in addition to the very significant ongoing engagement with the national farming organisations. Now that the county-by-county meetings have concluded, we will continue that engagement with all of the farm organisations at national level to conclude the process of finalising the CAP strategic plan, which, legally, has to be completed by the end of December and submitted to the Commission.

On a final note, I stress the importance of that consultation with the farm organisations. There is huge worry and concern out there among the farming community about their future. I stress the importance of keeping up that consultation between their national presidents and the Minister’s officials.

I thank the Minister and his officials for coming in. The Minister referred to some €7 million for forestry. Last week, at this committee, Teagasc officials gave a fairly sobering assessment that in the first five years after trees are planted, there is damn all in terms of sequestration. We are in bother between now and 2030 because, basically, from 2016, although it is not the Minister’s responsibility as he was not in office, we failed to plant even 50% of what we were projecting for several years and just 75% for the other few years. The Teagasc officials made a damning statement that would frighten the daylights out of anybody when they said we would need to hold up the cutting of trees towards the end of this decade because we will be cutting a lot more than we are planting.

What responsibility do the people in the Department take for what has gone on? Is there any such thing as accountability? The job the Minister and his officials have at hand, with the climate Bill and all of that, is basically to offset one thing against the other and to make sure we are in tune. Is it not frightening that while it is not the farmers’ fault and it is probably not any Minister's fault, this has been let linger on? I know what the Minister said and everyone supported last year’s Bill in regard to cutting trees and the licences for felling. However, the dashboard shows we are still stragglers when it comes to giving out afforestation licences. I was looking at the figures just yesterday and while they suggest we will have 4,000 licences this year, and that will be the headline, the fact is Coillte is getting a good shot at them at the moment, although I am not saying it does not need them, and it will have its environmental impact statements, EIS, done and all of that craic, and will be zooming them through fairly quick. However, we need licences outside of that and we are struggling.

Does that concern the Minister? There was a new appointment lately but can the Minister leave the same people playing the same tune over a six-year period? This is going to cost the farmers and our country down the line, if we are to believe what we heard from Teagasc.

There is no doubt there is a real challenge given that, in the first number of years after trees are planted, the carbon sequestration is low because they are so small.

Yes. It does take time but it then gathers pace as the years go on. That is why, in the climate action plan, we have looked, for example, at the balancing out of the sequestration potential between this decade and the next decade, so credit for plantations that happen this decade can be based on what it will average out at over the 2020s and 2030s. That is important because it further incentivises that drive to afforest from the point of view of delivering our targets.

The Deputy is right that, even this year, the afforestation is not replacing the felling, which is not a sustainable situation. The Deputy knows the backdrop in regard to the change. Licensing had been operating in a timely fashion and then, as a result of legal decisions and court decisions, that significantly and radically changed and led to the very significant backlog, and also the very significant increase in staffing and resources that we put in place to try to address that.

The time involved in any one application is a multiple of what it was previously, which has meant farmers have not been getting the service they deserve or should be getting in respect of licensing. We have tried hard to address this. It is now going in the right direction and improving. Progress is not as quick as we would have liked but we are getting there bit by bit and continuing to drive it. The Deputy is right that afforestation has lagged behind. We assigned ten ecologists to try to drive afforestation on. It is a weak spot that we want to see addressed.

On GLAS, the beef genomics scheme, TAMS and the BEAM scheme, what moneys are left over in total? Where will those moneys go? If there are fewer farmers in GLAS, the beef genomics scheme, the afforestation scheme, TAMS and the BEAM scheme, where will all the moneys go?

Ms Rebecca Chapman

The vast majority of the 2021 payments issue in the last quarter of the year so we will not know the accurate figures until the end of the year. Obviously, they will be published in the appropriation account. It is a matter that we monitor very closely. Every effort is being made to maximise payments under all the schemes.

Does the money go back to the Exchequer or is it held in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine?

Ms Rebecca Chapman

Anything that is unspent on the current side at the end of the year is returned to the Exchequer. However, where schemes are EU funded, we have multi-annual commitments. These schemes roll over as multi-annual commitments.

I saw in a report by Agriland or another such organisation that Macra na Feirme had indicated a scheme for young farmers had been agreed at EU level. I did not see details of it; I have looked. Is there a scheme coming out that will make it easier for young farmers to gain access to money to buy land or for another purpose? Macra na Feirme wrote something about it.

On the previous point, to which Ms Chapman was responding, under-expenditure in certain schemes makes the task of producing Revised Estimates important. We try to profile as much as we can within the year to reallocate and manage the process.

We are examining various options that can support farmers with finance and reduced interest rates. Ms Chapman might have something on specific on that.

I will ask another question while Ms Chapman is looking for the information. With regard to moneys left over, why do we not consider ideas such as starting a solar grant scheme for farmers under TAMS? I fully understand the hold-up owing to Covid and the lack of builders in places. Is the Department actively considering systems to reduce methane emissions from tanks, for example?

Does the Deputy mean in terms of solar energy?

Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice: Solar and other systems. The Taoiseach was in Ballinasloe looking at a new idea by Easyfix to reduce methane emissions from slurry tanks. Is the Department considering innovative ideas so that if it has money left over, there could be a quick win and quick hit?

I was at Easyfix also. It is a really innovative company that is bringing technology and research to bear on housing materials and investigating how they can be most effectively used. As the Deputy knows, in the recent budget I increased the solar energy allocation under TAMS for next year to 60%. An important component will be the feed-in tariff. We expect to have it in place early next year. That will see a significant drive regarding solar energy.

With regard to moving forward with our climate action plan and targets, we are considering all the different options that will contribute.

I have two shorter questions. On the veterinary medicine regulation, we hear that vets are telling farmers at meetings around the country that if they are getting dosing materials for the cattle, it will involve a dung sample. Members of this committee understood that, at a herd test, a farmer would acquire the doses for fluke and do out a plan with the vet. That does not seem to add up based on what we are now hearing on the ground. If a problem arises whereby a vet has to come out to look at a lock of cattle every time a prescription must be written, no farmer will be able to afford it. Before anything is done, the system should be made workable for farmers. The Minister should not allow a situation where they are caught with one person.

In the dairy sector in January, February and March, when many cows will be calving, the cows will need injections for scour and all the various problems that arise. You cannot be going down the size of the biro for one calf and then going down the next day and the next day. It needs to be put into perspective that farmers do not just give injections for the craic and that they need to be covered in this regard. I ask the Minister to address this before anything is signed off.

The Minister will know better than I do, from his own area, what is happening in the organic farming sector. I was talking to farmers from a few hills in Galway and Mayo in the past few days. In my opinion their lamb is organic, but the problem is that they cannot get organic certification because their sheep are in a commonage where someone else might have sheep and because some farmers have had to destock because of designation related to the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Their farming is like a brother or sister to organic farming because it is so close to it. Could any sense be applied to increase our organic figures? It would help the farmers a lot with their situation.

I thank the Minister for his time. I support him on the CAP he has had a part in.

I thank Deputy Fitzmaurice. I appreciate his comments on CAP.

On making sure we get veterinary prescribing right, there is a difficult challenge but it is one that we have to get right. We must ensure there is common sense. We cannot continue to have circumstances in which everybody is the leading expert on medicines and anthelmintics in his or her own world because the matter is not as straightforward as that. We need to ensure the most appropriate research, science and advice are part of the equation. We have had genuine and unsustainable challenges owing to growing resistance. We will all be left in a very bad place in a number of years if we are not responsible in the attitude we take to this. It is about trying to put in place a system that is robust in avoiding resistance and that works practically for farmers in respect of cost and on-farm implementation. That is the balance we are trying to get right. There have been many meetings and much engagement on it. We hope to bring the matter to a conclusion soon in preparation for the changeover next year.

On organics, we have significant ambition under the next CAP. There is a big step up. We will be considering the schemes that are in place to ensure they support that.

I take the point on hill lamb, in particular. We will reflect in advance of the next Cabinet meeting on those schemes coming into play.

On the eco-scheme, we need more choices. I would be the first to say that. I know the Minister is looking at that and I would welcome it being made workable for all farmers. It is needed.

I accept that and agree. We hope to bring proposals forward on that.

I welcome the Minister and his officials. I have only one thing to come back on, which we discussed over and over during the summer, because other speakers have covered the other issues. The issue I come back to is forestry. In May, we were told forestry and bio-energy had a total of €103.2 million. Now there is €7 million savings there. Is that not saying the licence system has failed to such an extent that there is €7 million left over after this year? To put it in context, we were told in the Dáil that by the end of 2019 more than 1,000 ha of ash dieback had been cleared and was being replanted with alternative species at a cost of €7 million. We are now told that an identical €7 million, the cost of the reconstitution and underplanting scheme, RUS, has been saved. That will drive farmers who have been planting and so on absolutely crazy. Farmers involved in the sector are struggling to cope with a busted licence system. There is no point in calling it anything else because it is just not working.

At the same time, we are seeking to improve our carbon storage abilities and increase the spread of woodland. Should we not make every effort so that the Department spends that money in that sector every year? Does the Minister expect to come back to the committee this time next year with the same story? We had a good organisation in at the last meeting looking for funding and a letter went out. Does the Minister remember the husband and wife? They are looking for money. The Minister might pass on some of that €7 million to them.

It was Embrace FARM.

Yes. There is a letter gone. To think there is €7 million savings and we discussed it over and over at the committee during the summer. The licence system is a busted flush. It is frustrating for us in the committee so I can only imagine what it is like for farmers. As Deputy Fitzmaurice and others said, we are trying to encourage others to plant. The way it is going, there is not a hope in hell we will entice them in.

There is no doubt that the licensing challenge in the Department has been a drag on progress in relation to afforestation and felling over the last year or two. We have been making progress and it is an improving situation, thankfully. We are in a different situation compared to this time last year, when we faced an increasingly challenging and disimproving situation in terms of supply. While there is much work to be done, it is improving, progressing and going in the right direction.

Some of the steps we have taken have made a significant improvement. At the back end of last year, we introduced the changes to the forestry appeal legislation. At that stage, there was a backlog of about 1,000 cases on the forestry appeals committee's books. We split that committee into four and resourced it more significantly. As of today, it is hearing appeals of 25 cases, rather than 1,000. That has been a significant improvement. On the licensing system, progress continues to be made but there is undoubtedly a backlog which has led to delays and which we are addressing.

On the budget, I believe we will make the targets over the time ahead. We have to drive on with that and key to that is the licensing system. I outlined the work that is under way on reviewing what additional steps could be taken to improve it further. The implementation of the Mackinnon report will also be important. There are many different streams, including ash dieback, maintenance payments and roads building, that come under the overall forestry budget. There is underspend this year because our licensing has not been what it should be but we have to reverse and address that as we get into next year and take it forward from there.

I thank the Minister for being before us with his officials. I was looking at different savings through the organic scheme, TAMS, forestry and fisheries. The Minister explained where the savings have been made. We are talking about sheep welfare and going from €10 to €12 per ewe. That will not happen this year for farmers who are getting payments. The €1.5 million saving from the organic scheme was mentioned. I have a conflict of interest as my son is an organic farmer. However, I have not seen an increase of any sort in the last 15 or 20 years in relation to the organic scheme, other than the increase of the registration fee for the farmer every year. There is very little to be got out of that and it is difficult to look at €1.5 million being saved and not being pumped back in to participants to encourage them to carry out their organic works even stronger than they are.

The Minister said €3.3 million expenditure was saved from TAMS. There are many people appealing their TAMS and it will be frustrating or upsetting for them to hear there is a saving of €3.3 million when they have a genuine spend and have not been able to get their hands on their money. The €7 million savings in forestry is mainly due to there being no new planting. I accept that the licensing delays were a factor, as the Minister said, but it is astonishing to think that €7 million has been saved because we have not been able to sow forestry. Every opportunity needs to be worked on to resolve that. It is a crisis of huge proportions which will come back to bite us down the road. We are not meeting any targets. We are way off every target set in relation to forestry this year. Somebody needs to put their hand in the air and take full responsibility. The buck stops somewhere. It is not with the landowners or the people who want to fell forestry. It is held up all the way back to the person who wants to sow forestry. There is no confidence among the public in relation to forestry sowing.

In fisheries, €4.9 million was saved, while SFPA stated it had savings of €2 million. It is a tough time for fishermen. Bar the decommissioning and talk of €1 million on the fleet tie-up scheme, there is no compensation out there. I have said for the last two or three years that a fund needs to be put in place for the many inshore fishermen who lost their material or equipment a couple of years ago due to bad storms. There was not a brown cent for these guys and ladies who are trying to fish the seas in difficult times. If we have €4.9 million plus €2 million in SFPA savings, that is a lot of money that could have been tied into a scheme. Maybe a new scheme needs to be started like the rural social scheme which would be much easier for fishermen to get into. Many of them are losing their jobs and scratching their heads at the moment. They need answers and see none coming, only decommissioning, which means even more of them will be outside the system and out of work.

I see the Marine Institute is seeking a once-off allocation of €5 million for data collection.

That is a lot of money for data collection. What kind of data collection is the institute intending to carry out that requires €5 million? Is it looking at data collection in relation to quota that we are not getting out there? Is it going to undertake some kind of research in that area? What is the story? It seems to me that €5 million is a lot of money. Perhaps the institute genuinely needs the money, but I am interested in hearing where it intends to use that money.

I will take the Deputy's final point first. On the €5 million allocated to the Marine Institute for data collection, we are reallocating some of the unspent funds from other sections to rectify what could be called an anomaly, or the situation whereby it was previously paid a year retrospectively. We are using that €5 million to bring it into line to ensure that it is paid in the year when it falls due. I addressed that point earlier.

On supports for the fisheries sector, as the Deputy is aware, the fleet tie-up scheme is in place until the end of this year. Some of the savings that I have identified are going specifically towards supporting fishermen in that sector, and in the whitefish sector, in particular. It has been a really important scheme for supporting fishermen over the course of this autumn. The introduction of the scheme was one of the first recommendations of the task force which I have brought forward and implemented. It has been widely welcomed by those who have availed of it and take-up has been very strong. It has been an important support. As the Deputy is aware, the seafood sector task force was made up of fishers' representatives. I brought the representatives together, as those who are in the sector and who make their livelihoods from the sector, to advise on the challenging outcome of Brexit and to advise the Government as to how we can best support and invest in their livelihoods, and how we can best battle on their behalf at European level in the years ahead. There will be significant funding under the Brexit adjustment reserve to support the sector through that, and importantly so.

Otherwise, on the smaller savings that we are making, when a Department has an annual budget of €1.9 billion and in addition, €1.2 billion in direct payments which it administers, some changes always will be made in respect of what is profiled at the start of the year as the year progresses and life happens. It happens in every walk of life and every profession. In a Department with almost €2 billion of spending, you will see things that do not quite work out as profiled. That is why it is important to redirect and manage the Vote, and to involve the committee members in accounting for why that is happening. On the reprofiling of funds, some of it is going directly to fishers through the tie-up scheme.

I thank the Minister. I have to leave to speak in the Dáil.

Does Deputy Martin Browne wish to make another point?

Just a quick one. In his opening statement, the Minister mentioned looking at ways to re-engage farmers so that they see forestry not as a displacement but as being complementary to their farming enterprise. Could the Minister give us an idea of what he has in mind there?

On the TAMS payment. I note the Minister is seeking to use the €3.3 million in savings from the 2021 allocation to fund expenditure elsewhere. Does the Minister have any initiatives in mind, in particular, for that €3.3 million? I am not sure whether the Minister outlined that earlier. If he did, I apologise.

Obviously, we are looking at the potential for agroforestry to produce more native woodland and to incorporate it more into certain parts of the farm, so that it is not perceived that farmers have to plant on the whole farm or on big plots of land, but that they can take a hectare here or an acre there and incorporate it into the identity and make-up of the farm. We want it to be seen as a farming activity as well as, for example, farming the land through grassland. It can be incorporated into the overall holding. That is what we see happening internationally, in many cases. There is great potential for that here. We will look at how we set up the environmental schemes, for example, the eco-scheme under Pillar 1. The introduction of measures such as those encouraging farmers to plant three trees per hectare on an annual basis can help to address that.

I believe Ms Chapman will respond to the Deputy's question on the €3.3 million.

Ms Rebecca Chapman

In relation to the €3.3 million, we are addressing two issues with that. First, there is a soil sampling scheme profile for 2021, which was originally allocated current expenditure. There is a much larger allocation for it for 2022. On reflection, as we developed the scheme, we decided that it was more appropriate for that scheme to be funded from capital funding rather than from current expenditure. We are using the savings from TAMS to convert that scheme to capital expenditure in 2021. It will be funded through a capital allocation from 2022 going forward. We are creating a very important soil database with that funding. It is a capital asset.

Similarly, the 2021 allocation for the Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme, which is co-run with our colleagues in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, is €800,000. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment had classified the scheme as a capital-funded scheme; we had classified it as a current expenditure-funded scheme. That was an anomaly, so we are converting the 2021 allocation to capital funding to match the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment's accounting. It is a technical issue and we are utilising TAMS savings for that purpose. The scheme will be classed as a capital-funded scheme going forward.

I have a few questions that I would like to put to the Minister. The first concerns ash dieback. I, like many others, have campaigned vigorously on the issue of ash dieback. I believe that what has been done for the plantations to date is inadequate. The farmers' plantations suffered a disease that was completely outside of their control. I will not go into the biosecurity issues or the question of who is at fault or whatever bit it is not helping our battle to get the afforestation figures up. In my part of the country and that of Deputy Browne, there are many plantations with ash dieback. It has left a sour taste in people's mouths. The ash crop was going to be a very valuable cash crop, usually sown on relatively good land. Now, the crop is worthless and in some cases, 30 years of growth has gone down the Swanee. I have made the point to the Minister previously that if these plantation owners decide to replant, they should have access to premiums going forward. It would be a huge gesture on the part of the Department. It would give confidence back to the forestry industry that they are not the poor relation. If an outbreak of TB or brucellosis occurred on a farm, the farmer would get compensation. Ash dieback is a disease which, in many cases, has devastated farmers' pension plans. I believe we have not done enough for them. I would like the Minister to give thought to what I have said as regards premiums. We all want to see afforestation figures going up. If we could do something on ash dieback, it would start to give a feel-good factor back to the forestry industry.

The next point I wish to make concerns the agri-environmental schemes going forward. I have spoken on the issue in the Dáil and we spoke on it the other evening when we presented to the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, the report that the committee put together last spring. It is essential that agri-environmental schemes are married with afforestation. Looking at the fact that farmers in GLAS were prohibited from going into afforestation in the last five years of GLAS makes a mockery of where we are trying to get in respect of climate change and reducing our emissions. The farmers who would want to join an agri-environmental scheme would be the ones that we would be targeting for afforestation as well. Those two schemes have to be married together in this round of CAP if we are to make any serious impression on our afforestation targets.

If needs be, I urge the Minister to meet the forestry groups. They have developed proposals on this issue which they have sent to the committee. We can pass them on to the Minister. As I have said, it was the point we made very strongly when we presented the report in the Dáil last Thursday evening to the Minister of State, Senator Hackett. It is essential that we get it right this time round. The number of farmers who opted for afforestation in the last five years of GLAS went down by around 80% to 90%.

Therefore, it is clear that the schemes as they were designed the last time around prohibited farmers from going into afforestation.

Deputy Martin Browne spoke about money being left over in TAMS. The rate of grant and most definitely the ceiling are out of touch with reality, given the increase in building costs. A sum of €80,000 would do very little work as we try to meet our emissions targets, try to improve water quality and all those issues. With the price that chemical fertiliser will be next spring, the utilisation of slurry will be paramount for farmers. All these things will require significant investment on farms. Given how costs have increased, €80,000 is out of touch with reality. I urge the Minister to increase the ceiling of €80,000 to make investment on farms more attractive for farmers. In 2007 there was a far more attractive investment scheme for slurry storage. I am not suggesting we go back to the scheme we had in 2007, but definitely the current scheme needs to be reviewed and revised upwards.

I do not believe any other members picked up on a point relating to ANC. I saw that €1 million was not taken up because of stocking rate. Is that €1 million in total in ANC or is it €1 million extra in the year of the Estimate we are discussing? Is it possible to get a breakdown by county of what farmers do not meet stocking rate requirement on ANC? I do not expect the Minister to have this this evening.

While "penalised" might be the wrong word, I have been inundated by farmers who have had to return the money they received under the beef exceptional aid measure, BEAM, scheme for 2019. What will happen to the money that will be returned? Could we give a fresh reference year for farmers to try to meet the stocking rate requirement? Many farmers did not understand the intricacies of the scheme they went into. It was an extremely complicated scheme. Many people I am dealing with now felt if they reduced their stocking rate by 5% for a given period of the year, they would qualify. Very few recognised that it was a calendar-year reduction. It is galling for farmers who lost significant money in feeding cattle in that year. The scheme was introduced at €100 per head and now they are required to refund it. I have raised this with the Minister before and I know it is not a simple request. The scheme was 50% EU funded. Could anything be done to give these farmers another opportunity to meet the stocking rate reduction requirements?

The Department needs to have a fresh examination of designated land. Land that has been designated has had its capital value decimated. There are some schemes for hen harrier land etc. However, none of these schemes has restored the capital value of this designated land. If we are serious about meeting our afforestation targets, we need to look at the blanket ban on designated land. I understand this was a national decision. I have seen evidence showing that different stages of afforestation can enhance habitats rather than diminish them. There is evidence to show that different stages of afforestation can actually help the species we are trying to protect with these blanket bans.

If we could plant a percentage of that designated land over, for example, a three-year window and then do more in the next three-year window, it would go a long way towards meeting our afforestation targets and would also restore the capital value of that land. I am aware of designated land recently sold in my county for €1,200 per hectare. If it were eligible for planting it would make quadruple that amount. The land has lost its capital value completely. We are shooting ourselves in the foot in meeting our afforestation targets with a blanket ban on that land.

As usual, I have a few simple questions for the Minister for some of which he may not have the answers available immediately.

I will first deal with the ash dieback. I take the valid point the Chairman is making and it is a matter that the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and I have discussed and we are reflecting on it. It has been devastating for the farmers affected. As the Chairman will know, a scheme was introduced in March 2013. To date, the uptake has been low. Earlier this year, €7 million was paid out under the scheme in respect of approximately 1,000 ha. In April 2018 the Department suspended that reconstitution scheme and announced a review of it. A new scheme was opened on 22 June 2020. We have had limited uptake on that so far with 268 applications received and 19 approvals issued to date. The Chairman makes his points well and we are reflecting on the matter.

The Chairman's point about the agri-environmental schemes and afforestation is fair. It is important for us to look at that in the context of putting together these new schemes for 2023 to 2027. It is important both for afforestation and for organic farming that we do not have inbuilt unintentional disincentives making it harder to achieve our objectives. The thinking must be cross-sectional and the objectives must support each other. That is something we are aware of and I take the Chairman's point. We will be keeping it closely in mind.

I have proposed that the ceiling for the new TAMS be increased to €90,000. I have launched an updated cost review. I take the Chairman's point. Many people feel that ceiling should be larger. As it currently stands, I have plans to increase that to €90,000 and the costings will be updated when that is completed.

The €1 million for ANC is to ensure we provide enough funding in the funding envelope to be able to cover ANC. Every year up to 5,000 potential applicants do not meet the stocking requirements. We allocate enough for what we believe will meet all applications. However, that €1 million saving reflects the fact that not as many people met the stocking requirement as we had provided for. We were cautious in seeking to slightly overprovide to ensure we would definitely have enough funding to do it.

Dr. Kevin Smyth

Many of these farmers might not reach the retention and stocking rates until the end of December. They will be paid in January so that they do not lose out.

I ask Dr. Smyth to repeat that.

Dr. Kevin Smyth

It might be the last month of the year before they have the necessary stocking rates and retention periods to qualify for ANC. All that happens is they get paid in January rather than December. Therefore, they do not lose out.

Does that mean they can do it in any month of the calendar year?

Dr. Kevin Smyth

Yes, as long as they meet the consecutive months and they have the correct stocking rate, but many of them only reach that by the end of December.

It has to be seven consecutive months.

Dr. Kevin Smyth

Correct. We allow them the full length of the year and we pay them in January.

To touch on the beef exceptional aid measure scheme question, I will give the figures. Overall, 33,000 farmers applied in the first instance. Of these, 18,700 have exited the scheme clear, having met the 5% reduction. Out of the 33,000 farmers, 18,700 are out the gap and are paid. They will keep that payment. Approximately 10,700 participants deferred and are still in deferment period. The new reference period I set runs from January this year to December this year. I set it in acknowledgement of the fact that many were off course, to try to give people the opportunity to reset. I think it was in February that I put it in place. It gives people a second chance to get straightened up and try to meet the 5% threshold if they were in trouble. A total of 10,700 farmers availed of this extra year-long participation time. There were 3,600 who did not opt for the extra year and had not met the 5% by the end of the original 12 months. The total to be recouped from them is just over €5 million.

We have 10,700 still in the scheme. The analysis until September shows that out of the 10,700 in the new reference year, 2,100 of them are on track to meet the 5%. A further 300 are between 4% and 5%. They will have a partial recoupment. This leaves 8,300 who are not on track to meet the 5% reduction. Of the 8,300 who are not on track, 7,100 of them have increased their nitrates over the course of the reference year. A total of 10,700 took the new reference year and, out of these, 2,100 will be okay, another 300 or so are above the 4% and, of the 8,300 who are under 4%, the vast majority have increased nitrates during the reference period. It is not marginal. It is likely that many of them made a decision they will not meet it and have taken a different pathway.

Looking at these figures as they stand, the total of 7,100 farmers would mean a potential recoupment of €15 million when administrative checks are repeated in February. Most are on track. Money has been recouped from 3,600 because they did not avail of the new reference year. Of those who took the new reference year, more than 2,000 are on track. Up to 2,500 are likely to be okay. Nitrates have increased for more than 7,000 of them. A new reference year would be unlikely to change their direction of travel.

It could not make the situation any worse. Some might opt for it.

It is a fair point. With regard to designated land, I take the point the Chair has made. He knows where it is at. We will consider the point further as part of the review. There are no plans to change it.

I thank the Minister and his staff.