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Agri-Environment Scheme.

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 11 March 2010

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Ceisteanna (1)

Michael Creed

Ceist:

1 Deputy Michael Creed asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the reason he has not included a significant premium payment in the new agri-environment scheme for farmers located in a special area of conservation, a special protection area, a natural heritage area or a commonage area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12145/10]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (20 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

The rates of payment under the rural environment protection scheme included a premium over and above the basic REPS payment in respect of Natura, natural heritage areas and commonage land. The basic payment reflected the whole-farm approach of the scheme under which the same rate per hectare was paid to each participant regardless of the specific actions he or she had undertaken.

To secure the agreement of the European Commission to the new agri-environment scheme, it was necessary to design the scheme as a menu of specific, closely-targeted actions which would contribute in a measurable and verifiable way towards the target objectives of biodiversity, water quality and climate change as identified in the CAP health check. It was not possible to negotiate a whole-farm approach for the proposed new scheme. There is a requirement under the new scheme to have sustainable management plans drawn up for Natura and commonage land in recognition of the particular environmental conditions of each such area and any restrictions on farming activity. The rate of payment for this measure under the new scheme is, in fact, very similar to the premium over the basic payment that applied to Natura and commonage land in REPS.

The situation in regard to the scheme is that the amendment to the rural development programme 2007–13, which includes the new agri-environment scheme, received a favourable vote at a meeting of the EU Rural Development Management Committee in January. I expect to receive the formal approval of the European Commission very shortly. I am planning to launch the new scheme as soon as the Commission approval has been received. The Minister for Finance has committed to provide funding for the acceptance initially of up to 10,000 participants into the new scheme at a maximum payment of €5,000 per participant. The level of payment available to each farmer who joins the new agri-environment scheme will depend on his or her particular circumstances and the actions he or she can or chooses to undertake. I am satisfied, however, that a payment of up to €5,000 can be achieved by a wide range of participants.

The decision to close REPS was taken in the context of the very difficult situation in the public finances and the rapidly escalating cost of the scheme. I firmly believe that the funding being provided for the new scheme represents a massive commitment by Government in very difficult times to a meaningful new scheme which will benefit farm incomes while delivering worthwhile environmental benefits.

I thank the Minister for his reply. What the Minister has outlined confirms farmers' worst fears, namely, that this is, in effect, REPS light or Mickey Mouse REPS. Does the Minister accept that someone farming in one of these restricted areas, whether on commonage, in an SAC or in an NHA, carries additional responsibilities and, therefore, additional costs due to the restrictions on the manner in which the land can be farmed? Given the average farm size in Ireland, in order to attain the maximum payment of €5,000, such a farmer would have to have a holding of 66 hectares and many farmers cannot attain this under the current scheme. Will the Minister revisit this issue and consider doubling the payment to €150 per hectare, which would raise the threshold to €8,000 per annum?

Is the ceiling of 10,000 participants absolute? If average payments are less than €5,000, which they obviously will be as it is the maximum, the Minister could finance far more than 10,000 applications.

It is not REPS light; it is a new scheme. As Deputy Creed will know from discussions he has had with me and the Oireachtas committee, the European Commission would not allow us to bring in a whole-farm-based scheme. In 2006, the European Court of Auditors was severely critical of agri-environment schemes in general, not just our scheme, and it stated that it was often not possible to measure what participants were doing for the money. The European Commission has been heavily influenced by the court's comments and is now insisting on schemes like the agri-environment option schemes which we are introducing in the coming weeks.

We sought to introduce a scheme which had a whole-farm approach and a basic payment but that was not agreed to by the European Commission. We then put forward to the Commission a number of measures. While it would not agree to some of them, we still have a menu of measures which farmers can opt to use.

Deputy Creed is incorrect in regard to the hectarage a farmer would need to derive the maximum benefit from the scheme. There are a number of measures for which remuneration is obtained by participating and naming the specific measures the farmer will pursue.

Question Time is becoming repetitive in that the Minister repeatedly makes the assertion that he puts a case to the Commission but loses. Farmers need income in their pockets. There is a whole section of our economy that is on its knees, namely, the farming community. Whether it is with regard to sheep tagging or REPS, we hear the same reply all of the time — the Minister put a case, the Commission said "No" and the Minister accepted that as the final word and came home. We need to win some battles in Europe. That is why the Minister is there. Unfortunately, in all of the major tests, he is losing.

With regard to the 17 May deadline, farmers will see their existing REPS payment, whether for REPS 2, REPS 3 or REPS 4, expire after that deadline. Under the scheme as envisaged, they will not be able to get into the new agri-environment scheme until the following year. Will there be a rolling date for applications so persons whose schemes expire will not be locked out for however many months and can apply for the remainder of 2010 and until May next year?

Deputy Creed is aware the Commission brought in some years ago a calendar date for farmers to participate in REPS. In the past, those participating in REPS 2 and REPS 3, by and large, made their applications in November and December and the anniversary date occurred, by and large, at that time of the year; 17 May has now become the closing date because it coincides with the single farm payment application.

I refute the allegation made by Deputy Creed in regard to our losing battles in Europe. There are many issues we brought to the European Commission. We were the first to outline the need to activate measures in regard to the necessary support for the dairy industry, which was going through a very difficult 2009.

The whole-farm approach is not available to any country in regard to these measures.

It was available under REPS 4.

REPS 4 was introduced——

The Minister closed REPS 4.

I closed REPS 4 but I paid out the largest amount of money ever under that scheme. The reality is that 63,000 people are participating in REPS at the present time.

There are not now 63,000 people in REPS.

This time last year, there were 46,000 in it.

The Minister should not mislead the House.

Allow the Minister to reply.

The Deputy should let me answer. I have not misled the House at any time. The Deputy is the one who continually misleads the House with his suggestions and inaccuracies.

The Minister has——

Deputy Creed should not shout down the Minister. Everyone will get a chance to speak.

The reality is that 17,000 new applications were received before 15 May last year and a further 1,600 before 8 July. All of those are being honoured. The highest level of funding for REPS was provided and paid out in 2009. That will be repeated in 2010.

The Minister had a whole-farm scheme and he threw it away.

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