Other Questions. - REP Scheme.

Michael Ring

Ceist:

19 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development if he will confirm a definite date for the next REP scheme appreciation course to enable new REP planning agencies to be set up. [16357/01]

I hope the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will start the clock when I start my reply. My Department has arranged a training course for REPS planning agencies for the week beginning 2 July. Qualified applicants were advised of the dates and asked to confirm their attendance. My Department hoped to hold courses earlier this year for suitably qualified individuals who wished to establish themselves as REPS planning agencies under the new scheme. Provisional arrangements were made, but my Department had to cancel them in line with precautions against the possible spread of foot and mouth disease. A visit to a suitable farm for demonstration purposes is a central part of the course for all participants, and obviously this could not take place during the emergency. Previously I gave an undertaking that my Department would reschedule the courses as soon as it was practical and safe to do so, and I am glad that the successful containment of the disease has now made it possible.

I am delighted that a date is set for this course. Will the Minister say why the provision of the course was deferred on at least two previous occasions before the outbreak of foot and mouth disease? Is he not aware that the course should have taken place last year, long before the outbreak of the disease?

As the Deputy should know, the new REP scheme did not come into effect until 27 November 2000. Until then we did not know what was in the scheme and could not train people for a course that was not agreed. After that date, it was agreed to introduce the course but foot and mouth disease intervened. The course will take place on 2 July.

Is the Minister aware that what he said is specious nonsense? Applicants for such a course were told at least twice last year that a date was fixed but then it was postponed. Will he acknowledge that his Department held it up and not blame other people?

The reality is as I have explained it. There was no point in setting up this course until the REPS specifications were agreed, as they were on 27 November 2000.

That is absolute nonsense.

I do not think it is nonsense. The Deputy is entitled to his opinion.

Is the Minister attempting to save money?

How many REPS planning agencies does the Department deal with? Has it admonished any agencies, or anyone else, on the submission of plans? Is the Minister sending out red circle letters to ensure that dates concerning REPS and other applications are met?

I am glad that 2 July has been decided upon. What does the Minister mean by "suitably qualified individuals"? Must an individual be qualified to answer about conversion to organic farming? Is an applicant disqualified from advising on works before a REP application is sent in, which has resulted in the destruction of habitats?

We are wandering away from the question.

It is pertinent.

It may be pertinent but it is not within the question's terms.

Would the Minister agree that this is an exercise in money saving by his Department? The planners are not there and there are huge backlogs of REPS applications with no one to process them.

I cannot reply to all those questions in the given time. The comments on time saving are nonsense. There are provisions in the national development plan for a huge increase in the number of REPS applications. The foot and mouth disease held matters up this year. We are speeding up the process. I want as many as possible in the REP scheme. One hundred people applied for planning courses and 50 will be accommodated on this course. If all 100 take up the offer, another course will be speedily organised. Suitable applicants are people with a degree in agricultural science or environmental science. The training at the course includes all the measures under the REP scheme.

When I became Minister, I was concerned about people missing dates. Everyone is prone to the odd oversight but there is the added complication that not only is the applicant involved but also the planner and it is easy for people to get confused between one and the other. Arrangements are being made to warn applicants when they are over time that they are already on penalty time and if they do not get their application in within the specified time they are in danger of losing the total grant. We have to put mechanisms in place to reduce as far as possible the chance that someone would miss out on a REPS payment because a bit of paper did not arrive in time. I have had personal experience of this happening.