Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 9 Feb 2010

Vol. 701 No. 3

Rural Environment Protection Scheme.

The issue of chemical P or phosphates has arisen mainly where stock are out-wintered and in that situation the plan, as prepared on the eREP system, does not satisfy the checks and balances system used by the Department. Apparently, in the Department's checks, for instance, C should equal A minus B, but in eREPS, with all stock out-wintered, C should not equal A versus B. The relevant P deduction is done in another way. That is leading to much confusion.

In REPS 4, all plans were prepared on the e-REPS system, a computerised system run by Teagasc and the Agricultural Consultants Association. I am sure the Department had an input as the system had to meet the REPS specifications. If the system is wrong, why has the Minister not checked it out and demanded that it be rectified rather than rejecting individual plans? Why has he not called in the planners and explained the alleged deficiencies, if there are any? Why do these issues only arise when payments are due? Plans were all submitted prior to 15 May 2009.

The administration of REPS 4 is also a major issue. The requirement that all plans had to be submitted by 15 May was a nightmare for planners and farmers. That put unreal pressure on planners and Department staff with the result that bundles of plans were submitted together and the Department did not check these out for perhaps six months. Previous plans were submitted throughout the year and were checked within a week or so of being submitted and any issues were quickly sorted out.

Likewise with inspections, apparently the Department must carry out all inspections before dealing with any problems encountered with the result that following an inspection in June, the farmer may not be written to until December or January. It is understandable that REPS 4 must meet the requirements of the nitrates directive but why can the Minister not sit down with the planners and Teagasc and work out this issue? It is not rocket science.

The Department staff at local level are very helpful and do their best to sort out the issue but their hands are tied by the administrative requirements imposed on them by their superiors — I found this from my experience of dealing with them. Surely, it should be possible to find a better way to administer this system. Brussels is sometimes blamed but if Brussels imposes unworkable requirements, surely it should be possible to go back to it to rectify and simplify them.

To return to chemical P, in e-REPS when dealing with organic and chemical P, if the stock are out-wintered, the planner ticks a box and then the P fraction is deducted automatically from the amount of P the planner has recommended based on table 3, page 34, of the specs, with which the Minister is no doubt familiar. What adds to the confusion is that the planner's full recommendation appears at column 6 of table 1.10. The total in column 7 is not equal to column 4 times column 6 but has been reduced for this fraction and also for the concentrates fed.

To further add to the confusion in making this deduction, the fraction about which I speak is divided by the total forage area whereas the P in the concentrates feed seems to be divided only by the areas that are soil tested and for which a chemical P allowance is recommended. If the stock is not out-wintered, the planner does not tick the said box and then the 18/52 P is not deducted at table 1.10 but is deducted when the planner allocates the slurry. The slurry is adjusted to give the same fraction of total P produced — for example, it is 18 weeks in County Kerry — irrespective of how long the stock are housed for. It is highly technical but can be resolved if the Minister sits down with these people or if he comes to County Kerry to meet the planners.

Even when REPS plans have been completed, are perfect and have been cleared, there is no district superintendent in County Kerry, north or south, to sign off on the applications. I understand this is happening throughout the country and that there are vacancies across the agricultural and environmental sector which are not being filled. It is holding up the whole REPS programme.

In the case of County Kerry, apart from resolving the chemical P problem, I appeal to the Minister to appoint a district superintendent as soon as possible in order that these plans can be cleared because there is much dependency, as he will probably tell me, on REPS in County Kerry for farm income.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta Deenihan as an gceist thábhachtach seo a ardú, ceist a thuigeann sé go maith é féin mar iar-Aire Stáit sa Roinn Talmhaíochta.

Is maith is cuimhin liom.

Gan amhras tá roinnt athruithe ó shin i leith.

I wish to clarify the situation in regard to REPS 4 plans on which queries have arisen that have to do with nutrient management planning and, in particular, with levels of chemical phosphorus. The plans in question were produced using the e-REPS system. This is an electronic system which was developed and funded by my Department to facilitate planners in producing agri-environmental plans to the specification of REPS.

Some 2,000 cases with apparent issues in this regard were identified during the stringent administrative checks which were carried out by the Department as required under EU regulations. All of these farmers are being written to and will be given the opportunity to either confirm the accuracy of their nutrient management plan or to submit an adjusted plan.

I am well aware of the importance of REPS payments to farmers and farm family incomes, especially at this difficult time, as emphasised by Deputy Deenihan. However, the Department must operate in the context of strict EU regulations and these issues must be resolved before payment can be made. Amended plans will be processed for payment without delay. I assure the House that the Department will process these responses as a matter of priority in order that payment can issue to the farmers concerned.

In the past week, Department officials have re-examined a number of the files where issues had arisen. This exercise confirmed that in all cases but one, the apparent error was not caused by any deficiency in the e-REPS programme. The exception in the sample drawn was the result of a clerical error by an official and this has been corrected. Based on the examination carried out, the Department is satisfied that the problem has not arisen as a result of a systems failure in e-REPS and that if the instructions for using e-REPS had been followed strictly, the problems would not have arisen.

The e-REPS system is a complex one, as Deputy Deenihan stated, especially in so far as nutrient planning is concerned, and to assist planners and ensure that problems do not arise again, work is under way on the system to provide additional navigational aids to planners. This work will be completed shortly.

Payments for the 2009 REPS 4 commenced on 18 December 2009 and continue to issue on a weekly basis. To date, 9,823 REPS 4 participants have been paid in full. A further 6,799 have received the first phase of 75% of their payments and are due to receive the balancing payment of 25% shortly. Payments will go out this week to a further 800 applicants. I am committed to completing all payments as soon as possible, including those which are the subject of query in regard to chemical phosphorus levels.

The current delays in a number of cases should not in any way detract from the merits of REPS. The scheme has been one of the most successful operated by the Department since its launch in 1994. It has delivered multiple benefits to the environment in terms of water quality, biodiversity, conservation and landscape enhancement. It has also brought welcome income benefits to farmers with more than €343 million paid out to REPS participants last year and a total of more than €2 billion paid since 1994. In fact, payments in 2009 reached their highest level ever. The original allocation for last year was just €330 million but additional funds were provided in December last and approved by Dáil Éireann by way of a Supplementary Estimate. Payments due to REPS farmers this year will continue at this high level. Notwithstanding the Government's decision to close REPS to new entrants in July last year, which was unavoidable given the state of the public finances, those farmers who are already in REPS will see out their five year contracts. This means that there will still be farmers in REPS right up to the end of 2014. By the time the scheme finally comes to an end, payments to farmers will have exceeded €3 billion.

It is worth noting that on 20 January the Rural Development Management Committee of the European Commission agreed to an amendment to Ireland's rural development programme. Part of this amendment included proposals for a new agri-environment scheme. This scheme will be partly funded by the EU but will also get very substantial support from the Irish Exchequer. The new scheme will focus on the priority areas of biodiversity, water management and climate change. It will consist of a menu of actions from which farmers can select those that complement the environmental profiles of their farms. The shape of the new scheme reflects the increasing emphasis at European Union level on having schemes that deliver clearly identifiable and measurable benefits to the environment. Details of the new scheme are being finalised within the Department and the intention is to launch it once the formal approval of the European Commission has been received.

Tomorrow I have arranged to meet some of the senior officials who are dealing with REPS who are coming from Wexford. We will address the issues and questions raised by the Deputy in greater detail at that time.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.40 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 10 February 2010.