With the permission of the House I would like to share my time with my colleagues, Deputies Connor and McGinley.
Adjournment Debate. - Agricultural Grant Payments.
Is that satisfactory? Agreed.
This is mid-April 1994 and we are referring to grant payments for 1993, the livelihoods of thousands of farmers and their families and millions of pounds of outstanding payments. What action would the Minister of State or his senior colleague take if their TDs or Ministers' salary for January 1993 had not arrived on 13 April 1994 and the bank manager was knocking on the door?
Thousands of farmers whose forms were completed in January, March and May 1993 still have not received a penny. In the majority of cases — and I can testify to this on a personal basis — the forms were completed correctly. A woman telephoned me in tears last Monday. She told me they had borrowed £5,000 to feed their livestock, the bank had told them "thus far and no further", their car insurance had expired, four animals had died from lack of feeding and they have been waiting 12 months for their cheque. Another housewife telephoned me two weeks ago and told me her husband, a farmer, was on the brink of suicide because of their impossible position.
Yesterday the Minister confirmed that of the 123,315 cattle headage payments paid to date, 74,479 were part payments. What is the logic in making two or four payments, doubling or quadrupling the amount of Civil Service time and work when the entire payment could have been made on a specified date in 1993? The Minister told me yesterday that payment of the balance of cattle headage and beef cow premiums commenced on the 18 February 1994 and is continuing; the balance of payments is a 1993 scheme is commencing on 18 February 1994. The Minister went on to tell me that payments under the ewe premium scheme represent first and second instalments which were paid in July 1993 and the final instalments commenced on 30 March 1994. This is another 1993 scheme which took from July 1993 to March 1994 to pay the fourth instalment and payment of the final instalment began less then two weeks ago. Worst of all is the Minister's admission in relation to the special beef and suckler cow premium scheme. He stated:
Payment cannot be made to a particular applicant until all applications received from him or her in the course of 1993, including those submitted last November, have been processed. This is necessary to ensure compliance with EU regulations covering in particular the ceiling on eligible animals and stocking density.
The Minister presides over one of the best Departments in terms of staffing levels and his Department is highly computerised. The thresholds are known and everything is in place well in advance. Five or six years ago, a former Minister for Agriculture, Deputy Deasy, in one of the wettest winters ever paid double headage payments, and paid them on time. The following year not alone did he pay the headage payments on time but he allocated grain vouchers to alleviate hardship. The Minister should consider his position, within seven days he should have the payments made or look for his P60 because the situation is intolerable.
This winter has been deemed the wettest and coldest for years and has been very stressful for livestock herds. Lamb losses are double the annual average. The normal mortality rate for new born lambs is about 8 per cent but this year the figure was approximately 16 per cent. Approximately 990,000 cows were entered for the suckler cow scheme this year and most of them, which are due to calve shortly, are in poor condition because of the bad winter. One does not like to prophesise, but as thousands of sheep and lambs have died from malnutrition, the same may apply to cows and their calves because farmers do not have enough money to buy additional feed. Many farmers have received 60 per cent of the suckler cow grants, but 40 per cent, or £30 of the payment remains unpaid. The outstanding amount would probably be sufficient to enable a farmer purchase sufficient silage to provide for most of those animals for the remainder of the year. The Minister may say that there are many technical reasons why those payments cannot be made within one week, I do not believe that is the case. In November 1992 when a general election was sprung on the Members of this House with less than one week's notice the then Minister for Agriculture, organised the payment of 70 per cent of headage payments to all farmers due that payment. If those payments could be made then at such short notice surely they can be made now. I appeal to the Minister that these payments be made on the basis of compassion for the animals to help save their lives if for no other reason.
I wish to highlight the position in County Donegal.
I will facilitate the Deputy.
The current crisis in agriculture, particularly in sheep farming, is almost without precedent due to severe winter weather conditions ranging from gales and rain storms to sleet and snow which caused havoc for farmers throughout Donegal and the west resulting in lamb losses of up to 20 per cent, compared to an average of 5 per cent to 6 per cent in previous years. Spring work is four to six weeks behind schedule. Fields are untouched and hundreds of tonnes of potatoes cannot be picked from waterlogged locations. Banks and other lending institutions are demanding repayment of loans and overdrafts by way of court orders. Those demands are made at a time when farmers are owed millions of pounds in headage payments and other subsidies.
Deputies are reduced to tabling Dáil Questions only to be told that outstanding balances will be paid in the near future or as soon as possible. I ask the Minister of State to deploy the resources in his Department to expedite outstanding payments within the next seven days. That should not be an impossible task. He should also arrange a special rescue package in the form of increased payments or foodstuff vouchers to assist farmers who are on the edge of destruction. Such a measure was taken in the 1980s by the then Minister for Agriculture, Deputy Deasy. Emergency action is now required to avoid more serious problems.
I accept that livestock farmers and indeed farmers in general have been faced with difficulty arising from the most severe weather conditions over recent months. However, the evidence of the past few days suggests that the worst is over.
I acknowledge the growing importance of direct payments to the formation of farmers' incomes in the light of the CAP reform changes, the need to ensure that payments reach farmers as quickly as possible and that premium schemes are operated with the minimum of red tape.
Under the various headage and premium schemes over 500,000 payments amounting to £377 million were made in direct payments to farmers in 1993. Some £237 million related to 1993 schemes. Further payments of close to £100 million have issued since the beginning of this year. Those payments are continuing and I expect payments of the order of £40 million to be made over the next few weeks.
The high level of payments made to farmers to date under 1993 schemes has been achieved against a background of EU regulations which precluded any payments under the special beef and suckler cow premium schemes before 1 November last and even then limited payments to 60 per cent advances. Payment of the balances under both of these schemes is covered by EU requirements relating to integrated administration and control. This obliges member states to process all applications received from a particular applicant during the course of 1993 before paying out the 40 per cent balances. The processing of November 1993 applications is, therefore, a factor in the payment of these balances. Payments under the November 1993 special beef premium scheme commenced recently and I expect that payment of 40 per cent balances for all 1993 applications will commence within the next week. Payment of extensification premium is also linked to the integrated control requirement and I expect payments to commence by the end of the month.
The premium payments situation in Ireland compares more than favourably with that in other member states. No advance payments of special beef and suckler cow premia were made in several member states in 1993. Our timeframe for paying the 40 per cent balances is in line with that in other member states and fits in with the requirements of the EU regulations which provide for payment, other than in exceptional cases, of special beef and suckler cow premia not later than 30 June of the year following the year of application.
I recognise the complexity of the schemes both from the points of view of farmers and of the administration. It is my Department's experience that incorrect and incomplete application forms are leading to delays in payments under a number of schemes. For example, in the case of the June 1993 special beef premium scheme, up to 40,000 applicants, almost 50 per cent of the totals had to be written to concerning problems with their applications. Given the overall value of payments under the CAP reform arrangements, however, it is not unreasonable that the EU Commission lays down very strict guidelines on proper completion of application forms.
I want to ensure that administrative arrangements are kept as simple as possible and my Department is continually monitoring all aspects of the various schemes with this in mind. The Department has, in conjunction with Teagasc, held a series of countrywide information seminars for farmers to assist them in complying with the various requirements. Additional resources were put in place in my Department in 1993 and a new unit for dealing with the special beef premium scheme was set up in Portlaoise with over 100 staff. Looking to the future, an additional allocation of some £4.8 million has been made available to my Department this year to provide extra staffing and computer resources to expedite the processing of payments under the various direct payment schemes in 1994.
Given the very substantial increase in the volume of applications in 1993 and the new integrated control system introduced under the EU regulations, the record level of payment achieved speaks for itself. The additional resources which have been obtained from the Government will result in an even higher level of payment being achieved in 1994 and should enable the payment of all eligible premium claims within three months of application in 1995, where this is allowed under EU rules.
Our objective is to achieve a streamlined system for the delivery of all direct payment schemes, one which is as simple as possible, while remaining consistent with the EU regulations, and at the same time enables payments to be made at the earliest date. Considerable progess has already been achieved and I expect that the additional resources being put in place will allow our objective to be fully realised. Close to £340 million has already been paid out to farmers under 1993 schemes. These payments are continuing and considerable further payments will issue over the next few weeks.
The Minister has failed the farmers at this time of crisis following adverse winter weather conditions.
If the Deputy persists I will not call her.