Tuesday, 15 November 2005
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. Browne: REPS 3 was launched in June 2004 and by July 2005 we had exceeded the previous record level of participants in the scheme. There are more than 48,000 farmers in REPS and the numbers are rising steadily. We hope there will be approximately 50,000 farmers in the scheme by the end of the year and I expect further significant growth in 2006. Last year we spent approximately €208 million on REPS and this year we have spent over €240 million. We are likely to spend close to €270 million by the end of the year.
In addition to monetary benefits for farmers, REPS has brought many benefits to the environment, especially in REPS 3 where there is a greater emphasis on biodiversity. Cleaner farmyards, new hedgerows, newly planted trees and nature corridors are visible signs of what REPS has delivered. Other benefits, like cleaner water and better pollution control, are not so visible but are just as important.
The challenge we now face is to build on past successes and bring forward proposals for REPS 4 that will continue to deliver in environmental and economic terms for the years ahead. We need a scheme that will continue to deliver value for money, both for the farmer and for the Irish and EU taxpayer.
REPS 3 was introduced following a consultation process that was open to all stakeholders. The process was generally held to be very successful and the European Commission was particularly complimentary about it. I hope we can achieve the same good results with the consultative process for REPS 4.
There is limited time to carry out this process, however. The Commission has indicated that member states should submit their draft rural development plans by the middle of next year if the approval process is to be finished in time to introduce new schemes in January 2007. To meet this timeframe, the Minister asked stakeholders to let her have their written submissions by 9 December and she intends to convene an open forum early in the new year. It is important that we stick closely to our schedule if we are to have a new scheme available to farmers once the current one has come to an end.
Dr. Devins: I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, for the comprehensive reply. I agree that REPS 3 has brought great benefits to Irish farming and to the wider community. The increase in farmer numbers is proof of that.
I have two supplementary questions for the Minister of State. First, is REPS 3 still available? My second question relates to the proposed introduction of REPS 4. I welcome the consultation process and point out that the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, and the two Ministers of State have always been open to dialogue with all stakeholders in agriculture. How long does the Minister of State expect the consultation process will take before the introduction of REPS 4?
Mr. Browne: As of now, REPS 3 remains open. Farmers can still join that scheme and be assured of a full five-year contract under the existing rules and at the existing payment rates. While REPS 3 will certainly close in December 2006, it might close sooner or the rules might change. REPS 1 was due to end in December 1999 but six months prior to that date, the Commission decided that anybody joining it from then on had to undertake to switch over to REPS 2 on their first anniversary. This time the Commission has not disclosed its intentions but it would not be altogether surprising if something similar happened. Therefore, we advise farmers who intend to join REPS to get in as quickly as possible.
On the consultative process for REPS 4, the Commission has advised all member states that if they want to implement the new rural development plans for the start of 2007, they need to have their plans with Brussels by the middle of next year. Obviously the Commission is facing a very big task as not only will 25 countries send in plans but some countries with a federal or regional structure may submit several. For that reason, any delay in putting Ireland’s plan together must be avoided.
Furthermore, we must do everything possible to ensure that the plan we put forward will be acceptable. If we are forced to change our proposals, there is every risk that the process shall not be finalised by the end of 2006. The closing date for submissions is 9 December and we encourage interested parties to make their submissions as quickly as possible.
Mr. Crawford: I appreciate that the REP scheme is beneficial. It certainly has helped where the position of farm incomes has been serious. How are the regulations implemented because some farmers are visited by inspectors and are excluded from the scheme for minor issues that have no real bearing on the farming structure?
Recently I came across a case which was serious from the point of view of the family concerned. The man’s health has broken down, he failed to meet the REPS regulations and he is getting no payment whatsoever. All payments are stopped because the REPS payments must be recovered before anything else is done.
Mr. Browne: I am informed that the level of penalties in REPS is low, under 3%. From my representations to the REPS section, I find that the officials are usually helpful and supportive and usually iron out any difficulties. If the Deputy has specific instances in mind, perhaps he will pass them on to us and we will see what we can do to help him.
Mr. Sargent: On REPS 3, or indeed its successor, has there been communication between the Minister of State’s counterpart in Northern Ireland as to interpretation, which, when he refers to the Commission, does not give the entire detail? Although it gives general guidelines and general requirements, does the Minister of State agree that there is a certain amount of discretion at national level and would it be an idea to ensure there is harmonisation between the northern and southern implementation of REPS 3 so that farmers, North and South, will be able to look at a common standard and receive common results?
Mr. Browne: To date each country has put in its own plan. Our plan in respect of REPS 3 has been complimented as one of the best submitted and I am sure we will try to achieve the same standard in the case of REPS 4. I will investigate the possibility of having discussions with representatives from Northern Ireland — I am easy on that.
Mr. J. Brady: Would the Minister of State consider favourably the removal of hedgerows by farmers or their sons under the rural environment protection scheme to allow them to construct houses on their land? The planners in my county do not want any hedgerow removed and they are turning down the planning applications of young couples as a consequence. It is very unfair, particularly where the landowners are prepared to replant a hedgerow to facilitate the process.
Mr. Browne: ——it will give one permission to do as outlined. As Deputy Howlin will know, there is a policy in Wexford such that if a hedgerow is removed, it must be replaced farther in from its original location. A replacement condition applies to planning in my county — I do not know the position in other counties. An agreement is usually reached with the REPS planners on hedgerows.
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