The situation is as Deputy Ring outlined, that the processing of area aid payments in that section has operated unsatisfactorily. It has been frustrating both for farmers and public representatives making cases on their behalf.
This year we have put a considerable amount of work, with additional staff, overnight work and work at weekends, into clearing up a backlog of unfinished cases. I am not making any excuses, but the digitisation and the technical problem which had to be dealt with in a relatively short time was very time consuming.
There are 19,700 cases awaiting clearance. I have given a commitment to the House and to farming representatives that they will be cleared for payment within the next three weeks or, at the absolute maximum, four weeks so that, unless there are intractable problems, we will have a completely clean sheet at the end of that time. I expect that 99.9 per cent of cases will be cleared so that there will be no backlog when the 1998 applications come in, the closing date for which is 15 May. To facilitate that and to be helpful to farmers, senior staff in the Department of Agriculture and Food have had discussions with area officers to the effect that it would be much more convenient for people to go to their local office.
There is a later question on this matter when I will go into greater detail. I am making no excuses about the matter. It has been difficult and frustrating. Like many other Deputies, I have had to deal with problems in this regard. Farmers, in some instances at least, seem to be harshly penalised whereas mistakes are made on both sides.
An appeals system was established by my predecessor and a number of cases have been resolved satisfactorily by the appeals unit. Applicants should, however, be as careful as possible in filling out application forms. Together with farming representatives, we examined how the forms could be further simplified to make matters easier for applicants. We enlisted correspondents in farming newspapers to highlight the six or seven most prevalent mistakes made in an effort to ensure the operation is run as smoothly as possible.
We are talking about substantial payments from the EU and there is no gain to the national Exchequer or the Department. The more quickly and efficiently claims are processed the better. About 47 per cent — in some cases much more — of farmers' incomes is made up of payments to which they are duly entitled and it is my objective to get the payments system running smoothly.