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.