Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Ceisteanna (45)

Martin Kenny

Ceist:

45. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the underspend in the beef data genomics scheme; his plans for the funds; the number of farmers who have withdrawn from the scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28197/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Agriculture)

Many farmers went into the beef data genomics programme, or BDGP, and will remember that when it came out first, there was a statement in red ink on the form that if they breached the scheme, all funding would be clawed back. It worried a lot of farmers at the time. Recent reports suggest that up to 22 farmers a week are dropping out of the scheme and in the first four months of 2019, 322 farmers dropped out of it. That tells us there is a problem here. At this stage, there is an underspend running to almost €10 million per annum in the scheme. Can the Minister clarify the number of farmers who have dropped out of the scheme, what his plans are for the funds that will be underspent in the scheme and whether he can make a statement on the matter to bring clarity to the situation?

I thank the Deputy. BDGP I and BDGP II commenced in 2015 and 2017, respectively, and both will run for six years. They represent a significant commitment for participating farmers over the duration of the programmes. The number of active participants in BDGP I and II fluctuates on an ongoing basis as a result of participants withdrawing or being disqualified for non–compliance from the programmes and due to participants being re-admitted following successful appeals. In 2015, 29,903 participants applied to participate in BDGP I. However, 6,858 of those have either withdrawn or have been disqualified with 23,045 eligible participants remaining in BDGP I . In 2017, 1,896 participants applied to participate in BDGP II. However, 397 withdrew subsequently or were disqualified with 1,499 eligible participants remaining in BDGP II. Therefore, the total number of active eligible participants in the two programmes currently stands at 24,544.

All funds allocated remain committed to the BDGP for the duration of the current rural development programme. Generally, withdrawal cases will require any moneys paid over the course of the programme to be repaid in accordance with the regulations. However, where withdrawals are due to reasons such as ill health and force majeure, provisions of the EU regulations and the terms and conditions of the programmes may be applied with no recoupment of moneys paid. Payments totalling €42.8 million have been made to date to 23,483 participants, which represents approximately 96% of those still active in the BDGP programmes.

I note to the Deputy that the correlation between the number of applicants and the payments made is not linear. The experience is showing that while a number of applicants have left the scheme, they tend to be, albeit not exclusively, those participants with lower levels of financial commitment from the scheme. While there is a reduction and there will ultimately be some headroom in respect of the targeted expenditure, it will not be that significant.

The Minister is clearly acknowledging that there will be an underspend in this programme. Much of that is due to its onerous nature. That is what farmers are telling us on the ground. Does the underspend open the possibility of new applicants being able to enter the scheme? There are some farmers who want to get back into the scheme or who did not apply in the first place and want to apply now. It is also clear from what the Minister said that there will be a clawback from a number of the farmers who have dropped out. Even on the numbers the Minister quotes, the underspend will be even larger than currently appears when the clawed-back funds are returned. We need to see whether it is possible for more farmers to get into the scheme and to have its onerous nature addressed. Some of the rules and issues around star ratings mean a lot of farmers have found it very difficult to meet the criteria of the scheme to date. A review of that must take place. Where that number of applicants drop out of a scheme, there is clearly a problem and a need to reassess.

This is a very important scheme, albeit it may not be perfect. Unfortunately, only approximately one in three suckler farmers are in the scheme. Nevertheless, the data from the programme are showing real progress. In participating herds, calving interval days have been reduced by 20 days. That is a significant efficiency. The number of calves per cow in programme herds has increased also, which is another significant efficiency. The number of births per known sire is up 8% and with AI breeding it is up 2%. We have made some concessions recently on terms and conditions for stock bulls so we are tweaking the programme where possible. It is driving efficiency and it is regrettable that more farmers do not participate. We will have to look at how to devise a scheme in the next round of CAP which takes into account the weaknesses in the current programme. I am not saying it is perfect but it is delivering efficiency. It is often said that the quality of stock going through the factories is dropping. That may well be so. There is an increase in the volume of non-suckler beef and beef from herds which are not participating in BDGP. However, BDGP herds show that significant economic and environmental efficiencies are being delivered.

To come to the core of the Deputy's question, there may be an underspend. We have launched new initiatives in the solar panel area, for example. It is a new area of support. We do not yet have the overall figure, but we do not expect it to be significant.

The Minister is saying there will be an underspend, but he will not reopen the scheme to allow new applicants to avail of the underspend. He seems to be telling us that he will move the funds to other schemes. It would be disappointing if that were to be the case. As we have said, many farmers who are not in the scheme could benefit from it if they had an opportunity to participate in it. I would like to refer to other schemes that might come into play. All of this is relevant to the debate we will have later today. Farming in Ireland is more onerous than farming in other jurisdictions with which we are trying to do deals. The pressure on farmers to comply with rules and regulations under the various schemes in place is brought into sharp focus in that context. Will farmers have to carry out similarly onerous tasks under the €100 million scheme about which Deputy McConalogue asked? All the schemes are doing is giving farmers a little extra money to keep them afloat. The beef sector in Ireland is in dire straits. Many beef farmers will depend on this and other schemes. If they have no possibility of making a profit from their farming activities without such schemes, we are in a very difficult place

We need to be careful because we want to encourage farmers to avail of schemes such as this. The Deputy seems to be intent on talking down the achievements of the scheme, although I am not saying it is perfect, but we can learn from its imperfections when putting together its next iteration. The savings will be modest. The number of participants in the scheme has decreased from just over 29,000 to just under 25,000, but the expenditure on the scheme has not decreased pro rata. The larger farmers have tended to remain in the scheme. There may well be some savings. We recently launched new initiatives under the rural development programme, particularly in the area of solar panels, but the expenditure will not represent a significant saving. I will try to get more data for the saving for the Deputy, but it is not significant. We need to be careful not to talk down the benefits of a scheme such as this. It has been argued that it should be opened up to more applicants, but we cannot have it both ways. The scheme is delivering. As I said, it is not perfect, but we can use it as a template to make more progress.