Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Disadvantaged Areas Scheme Eligibility

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 25 September 2012

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Ceisteanna (52, 54, 61)

Michael Moynihan


52. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the timeline for the receipt of applications in respect of derogation in stocking density under the disadvantaged areas scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40425/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Timmy Dooley


54. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the date on which payments will be made under the disadvantaged areas scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40427/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Niall Collins


61. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the expected savings from changes to the stocking density ratio in the disadvantaged area scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40419/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (42 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Agriculture)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 52, 54 and 61 together.

The budgeted expenditure under the 2012 disadvantaged areas scheme, DAS, was reduced from €220 million to €190 million. To make the necessary savings it was proposed to make technical adjustments to the scheme criteria to ensure the aid payment is focused on farmers whose farming enterprises are situated exclusively in disadvantaged areas scheme areas and are making a significant contribution to achieving the objectives of the scheme. These are defined in the governing European Union legislation as follows - to ensure continued agricultural land use and thereby contribute to the maintenance of a viable rural community; to maintain the countryside; to maintain and promote sustainable farming systems which, in particular, take account of environmental protection measures.

It was decided that real efforts should be made to focus the scheme on those farmers who are most actively contributing to achieving the aims of the scheme, namely, ensuring continued agricultural land use thereby contributing to the maintenance of viable rural communities, maintaining the countryside and maintaining and promoting sustainable farming systems which take account of environmental protection measures. As the disadvantaged areas scheme is co-funded as part of the rural development plan, the approval of the European Commission was required. Following protracted discussions, the necessary approval was granted last August.

Payments will start issuing tomorrow, on schedule. These payments are worth in the region of €150 million to 70,000 farmers and payment runs will continue on an ongoing basis, with individual cases being paid as their eligibility is confirmed.

In terms of savings for 2012, it is too early to give precise figures. Given the approach taken in adjusting the terms and conditions of the 2012 scheme, with the changes designed to better focus the scheme on the more active farmers, namely, those who are contributing most to achieving the aims of the scheme, and the options of six possible forms of derogation, it remains to be seen what will be the precise outcome for the scheme in 2012 in terms of savings. The need for applicants to maintain a minimum of 0.15 livestock units per forage hectare for six consecutive months, while also achieving an annual stocking average of 0.15 livestock units per forage hectare, means that some applicants will not become eligible until later in the year. Furthermore, farmers who met the 0.3 livestock units per forage hectare in 2011 or will receive a derogation may have decided not to buy the required stock this year for whatever reason. However, while those farmers who have yet to satisfy the average stocking density of 0.15 livestock units per forage hectare for the year have the remaining months of the year to do so, such cases can only be cleared for payment once this requirement has been confirmed. Therefore, we must wait until closer to the end of this year to quantify savings.

Last year, we could have taken the option taken by the previous Government, namely, reduce the payment per hectare to all farmers or reduce the number of hectare for which farmers could apply for a payment. However, we decided not to take that approach and opted for a more intelligent approach. We have been successful in maintaining full payment in disadvantaged areas for farmers who farm all year round, even where they have low stocking rates. We introduced new criteria last year with a view to removing from the system farmers who while farming in, for example, County Kildare, were taking land in, for example, County Sligo to enable them to draw down payments. We reduced payments to farmers with land both inside and outside disadvantaged areas on a ratio that was in accordance with the amount of land they hand in disadvantaged areas. We also changed the stocking rate following consultations with farming organisations on what would be the appropriate stocking rate. We wished to keep the rate as low as possible while ensuring it was also reasonable. We also discussed for how many months in one year farmers would be required to have stock to qualify as being actively involved in farming rather than having flocks of sheep being passed from one farmer to another for the minimum period required to qualify for a disadvantaged area payment, namely, three months. That practice is a luxury we can no longer afford. We wish to focus the limited funding available to us on farmers who are actively farming. If some farmers were caught out unfairly by the change in criteria last year, they have access to a generous derogation system. I understand more than half of those who are seeking a derogation have been granted one. If a person is not satisfied with a decision not to grant him or her a derogation, he or she can avail of an independent appeals mechanism. If anything, we will not make the savings we were hoping to make in the disadvantaged areas scheme.

We will make savings, although we may not achieve the target of €30 million. If we do not achieve this target, we will have to examine the issue in the context of the budget.

As the Minister is aware, no one objects to the change in the criteria as they apply to farmers from outside disadvantaged areas who are in receipt of payments under the disadvantaged areas payment scheme and vice versa. Having submitted a freedom of information request to the Department, I understand the savings achieved in that element of the scheme are tiny.

They all add up.

The major saving will be achieved from the change in stocking rates. How many letters issued to farmers on stocking density and how many of them responded by applying for a derogation? When will a decision be made on the preliminary round of applications for derogations? Many farmers need the money provided under the scheme. As a result of the Minister's actions, they will have to wait an inordinate length of time for their cheques.

I have pointed out about three times that people will not have to wait an inordinate length of time for their cheques. Many of those who qualify for a derogation will receive cheques this week. It would be helpful if the Deputy were to at least accept the facts as I outline them.

On the derogation, almost 9,500-----

Is it the case that those who will receive a cheque this week were not informed of that in writing?

The Minister has the floor.

They have applied for a derogation and if they qualify, they will receive a payment.

They will receive the payment without being informed that their appeal was successful.

Yes, if that is the case. I will provide the figures. Almost 9,500 applications were received, of which decisions have been made on-----

On the basis of how many letters?

Some 9,500 farmers applied for a derogation.

How many letters were issued indicating to farmers that they did not meet the stocking density requirements?

I do not have a precise figure on that.

I believe it is 10,000.

Given that 9,500 people sought a derogation, that figure appears to be reasonably accurate. What is the Deputy's point?

My point is that the vast majority of the people in question were not in the categories ascribed to them.

A fundamental misunderstanding has arisen and it needs to be clarified because Deputy Ó Cuív is either deliberately trying not to understand the position or has not read the rules. Those who apply for a disadvantaged areas scheme payment do not automatically qualify for payment. Applications are usually rejected because the applicant did not meet the stocking rate requirements for last year. Farmers who apply for a derogation are effectively asking me to make an exception for them. The reasons vary and include that they are full-time farmers or had good reason to have a low stocking rate last year, for example, owing to a death in the family, the farm being handed over to a son or daughter or they have particularly poor or stony land which prevents them from meeting the stocking rate requirement. They are seeking a derogation because they did not qualify for a payment. We have made decisions on approximately 4,000 of the 9,500 applications received for a derogation, while a further 950 applicants have been requested to furnish additional documentation because the Department requires greater clarity. Work continues apace on processing the balance of the cases. All applicants are being advised, in writing, of the success or otherwise of their applications and unsuccessful applicants are being afforded the opportunity of appeal to the DAS derogation appeals committee.

This committee will be chaired by Padraig Gibbons who has kindly agreed to chair it and whom I am confident will have much credibility with farmers, particularly in the west. Deputy Ó Cuív cannot have every which way. He cannot say we have to make savings but then look for us to make a derogation for everyone. We need to make savings but we are also trying to be fair to farmers. What I have tried to avoid doing is what the Deputy did in a previous Government which was to take money off everybody in disadvantaged areas because it was the easiest option.

This Government takes the money off the poorest on the most marginal land. The Minister's policy is to hit the guys on the hill and marginal land. He does not care about them because they just have poor land and in his numbers they do not stack up in production.

Where is the Deputy's evidence for that?

From all the Minister's actions.

The Deputy cannot back that claim up with facts.

Of the 4,000 decisions made, how many were in favour and how many were against derogation?

If farmers appeal to the independent appeals committee, is it likely they will have to wait until 2013 for payment before the committee has finished its hearings?

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine wrote to 10,000 farmers asking them to state whether they were in the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, or the rural environmental protection scheme, REPs. The Department which actually runs these schemes could not match its own files as to which farmers were in AEOS and REPs.

What is the Deputy's point?

The Minister is holding up the hill farmers and those on marginal lands. He has created a huge bureaucracy which has little purpose and that will save him for very little moneys.

The Department then asked farmers if their lands were designated as a special area of conservation, SAC, special protection area, SPA, or a natural heritage area, NHA. However, the Department has maps of every inch of every farmers' land, as well as maps of every SAC, SPA and NHA. With all this technology, why could the Department not match this up? If it had, it could have given the derogations a long time ago. Will the Minister explain why the Department asked farmers for this information?

Of the 4,000 decisions made on derogation, how many were favourable to the farmer? When can we expect the independent appeals committee to complete all of its work? Why do we have the farcical situation of the State writing to farmers for information on schemes of which it was the originator and holds on its own files?

To be honest, the Deputy is trying to find fault where there is none.

There is a fault.

Regarding the timing of this, it is a bit ridiculous to ask when will the appeals be finished when they actually have not come in yet. We must wait and see how many appeals come in before we decide.

That is it – the farmers can wait.

One cannot decide how long it will take to hear appeals until one knows with how many appeals one has to deal. Will the Deputy ask a rational question?

Mair, a chapaill, agus gheobhaidh tú féar. Ar chuala tú é sin riamh?

I understand that more than half of the cases of derogations have been successful but I can get the exact figure for the Deputy later.

It is imminently sensible that if one is going to write to 10,000 farmers to outline the rules for qualification for the disadvantaged areas scheme, DAS, then one would use that opportunity also to check where they are farming, under what schemes, and so on.

Yet the Department knows that already.

I do not believe farmers have a significant problem with ticking a box as to whether they are farming in a commonage area if they are successfully getting a derogation. The Deputy is trying to create an issue where there is none.

I am not creating an issue because I am the one they come to when they have difficulties with the forms, particularly the older farmers. What they cannot understand is why the Department had to write to them when it already had the information. The Department knows from its area aid maps, which are satellite pictures and not maps in the conventional sense, exactly to the inch the eligible forage area of every farm in the country. All it had to do was superimpose those maps on the SAC, SPA, and NHA maps and then on the commonage framework maps. The Department also knows which farmers are in AEOS and REPS. Without even writing to the farmers, it could have gone through this information, granted the derogations and the farmers concerned could have got their cheques this week instead of having to wait due to the Minister's delays which hit the poorest, weakest and the vulnerable.

The whole point of doing this is so we are not hitting the poorest and the weakest. While the Deputy gets up on his soapbox, trying to create an impression that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is only interested in commercial farming, the facts do not bear it out. When one looks at the prioritisation measures under the AEOS, farmers in NHA areas, less-favoured areas, those coming out of REPS and using farm size as a basis have all been prioritised.

However, the Deputy would not even think to look at the detail. Instead, he is trying to paint a picture of a Minister who is only interested in commercial farming because he talks much about Food Harvest 2020, a significant policy. That is not the case. When one looks at how we put the budget together last year, one will see we have taken farmers out of the DAS who do not live in disadvantaged areas because they do not belong there.

It is a minimum saving. We agree on that.

The Deputy does not want to hear the facts.

We have focused our payments on small farmers in genuinely disadvantaged areas. It does not suit the Deputy's argument to look at the facts on what we have actually done and the choices we have had to make with the limited amount of money we have to spend. We have prioritised protecting the income of farmers in disadvantaged areas and, where appropriate, we have prioritised small farmers over larger farmers. We will continue to do this in disadvantaged areas.