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Agri-Environment Options Scheme Applications

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 25 September 2012

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Questions (47)

Éamon Ó Cuív


47. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine when he intends re-opening the agri environment options scheme to new applicants; the conditions that will apply to the scheme; the maximum payment that will be provided for in the scheme; if there will be any changes to the measures under the scheme compared to the last AEO scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40490/12]

View answer

Oral answers (14 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

I thank the Deputy for raising this question. I am very conscious that I have been talking about putting an AEOS III in place for some time. Therefore, I am pleased, in the week that is in it and given the focus on farming this week, to be able to announce an AEOS III today. It will be modelled on last year's AEOS II. I understand and appreciate the value of environmental schemes to farmers, not just as an income support but, more importantly, as a way of ensuring we remain committed to sustainable farming and the sustainable production of food. That is the reason I have been working for the past four months to find a way to put a scheme in place, while at the same time remaining under the ceiling of expenditure allocated to my Department for next year.

We have been working with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in recent weeks to try to finalise an AEOS III model. I am allocating €20 million for AEOS III next year. I expect to be able to accommodate approximately 6,000 applicants. A maximum payment of €4,000 will be available to farmers. Essentially, they will sign up to get a recognition payment for specific actions they will take with regard to sustainability. They will be asked to support the maintenance of traditional hay meadows, wild bird cover, hedgerows, stone walls and species-rich grassland, for example. I think farmers understand such measures because of the first two agri-environment options schemes. In my view, they will sign up for such measures again in return for a funding model that is essentially based on last year's AEOS II. I wanted to stick with last year's model so farmers who studied that model will understand what we are doing on this occasion and be able to make applications. I will explain how we will deal with applications from excess numbers of farmers if questions are asked on that topic. If we have to prioritise who should be in and who should be out, we will try to do that in a very fair way.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The scheme will be largely similar to previous years. I intend to introduce a small number of minor changes which are designed to target increased benefits to participating farmers and to the environment. As in earlier years, farmers with commonage land, designated special areas of conservation or special protection areas will be required to follow a sustainable management plan prepared by a planner. Those applicants will be given priority in determining access to the scheme. Applicants other than those requiring a sustainable management plan will not be required to engage a planner to complete their application forms. In addition to the priority given to designated land, applicants will be assessed on the basis of selection criteria reflecting previous participation in REPS, farm size and location in disadvantaged areas. Full details of the scheme will be announced by my Department in the next day or so.

I want to reiterate my commitment to agri-environment schemes that put environmentally friendly farming to the fore and recognise the vital role farmers play in delivering public goods for the benefit of all of society. This commitment is matched by the enthusiasm of Irish farmers who have shown a keen willingness to engage with environmental issues since the introduction of the first agri-environment scheme and have done so in huge numbers. There are approximately 30,000 participants in REPS. The agri-environment options scheme, which is the successor to REPS, is a more targeted agri-environment scheme. It is part-funded from modulation funds under the CAP health check. The scheme specifically targets the three challenges - halting biodiversity loss, contributing to the improvement of water quality and combating climate change - that have been assigned the highest priority at European level as they are in need of urgent action. There are currently approximately 14,500 participants in AEOS I and II.

I welcome the Minister's belated announcement in relation to AEOS III. It is an important scheme for many farmers. Can the Minister outline the estimated expenditure on REPS in 2012 and in 2013? Will there be constraints in the new agri-environment options scheme? Will it be open to all farmers or will it be confined to farmers in designated areas? Can the Minister confirm whether the maximum grant will be €5,000? Will any changes be made to measures like that relating to stone walls? I think he indicated that such changes will not be made.

I will give an exact figure for the estimated expenditure on REPS in response to a later question. I do not want to give a figure off the top of my head. We are ahead of schedule in terms of getting payments out across all schemes this year. I am conscious that farmers have had a difficult summer. We want to get the money that is due to them out as quickly as possible. That is why €150 million is going out to farmers in disadvantaged areas this week. That is why we have applied to the Commission for a 50% advance payment to be made under the single payment scheme. That is why we will make as many REPS payments as we can this year. We will certainly be well ahead of last year in terms of payments. I can give the Deputy the exact figures at a later stage. He also asked about designated areas. On budget day last year, I gave a commitment to introduce at a minimum an agri-environment options scheme that would solely target Natura areas or special areas of conservation. We have worked hard to broaden the scheme to allow farmers who are not in those designated areas to apply for AEOS payments. As the new scheme is very similar to last year's scheme, farmers outside the designated areas will be able to make applications. I can confirm that the measure relating to stone walls will be retained.

What will the maximum payment be? Will it be €5,000?

I have already said it will be €4,000.

The Minister did not say that. He said it will be similar to last year's maximum payment.

The Minister said it will be €4,000.

I have no doubt that when we stack up the REPS payments for this year and next year, a significant drop in the payment will be noted. Even allowing for the €20 million that is being made available under AEOS, we are seeing a further reduction in addition to the substantial cut the Minister has already implemented under AEOS and REPS.

In government we provided €329 million and €337 million in 2010 and 2011, respectively, between the REPS and the AEOS. The Minister has cut the figure to €243 million, yet he cannot tell me what further cuts will be made to the two schemes next year, although he promised to get that information for me.

With respect, the Deputy did not table that question.

I would have thought the Minister would have that figure on the tip of his tongue today because it is central to the negotiations taking place. Given that only €86 million out of €243 million has been paid out to date this year, the Minister has only paid out approximately one third of the amount allocated. Allowing for the fact that there was a €61 million underspend under the REPS and the AEOS last year, can the Minister assure me that the full amount of €243 million will be paid out this year?

If the Deputy knew how the schemes were structured, he would know that REPS payments are always made in the last three months of year.

I am well aware of that. The problem is that the Minister did not do this last year, when he left €61 million behind him.

Order, please. The Minister has the floor.

It is also normal in multi-year schemes such as the REPS that payments are carried over from year to year. We will be trying to ensure we make significantly more REPS payments this year, including in overall value terms, than we did last year. If the Deputy is going to start quoting figures to me, I would make the point that the budget I was handed when we took over in government needed to be significantly adjusted before last year's budget because of the ceilings to which Fianna Fáil had signed up both when the Deputy was a Minister and a Fianna Fáil Member. If we had to operate under these ceilings, there would be no REPS and no AEOS.