Wednesday, 22 November 2006
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Crawford: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter. I also thank the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, for coming before the House to reply to it.
I raise this important issue on foot of a number of cases that have come to my notice in recent months. The first of these involved a father who was retiring and handing over the farm to his son. They went to their solicitor and signed the transfer documents relating to the land and then went to the district veterinary office and had the herd number transferred. Everything was fine until it was time to claim the single farm payment. They were advised at that point that because the father had applied for area aid and the single farm payment, he could not obtain the money because he no longer had a herd number. The son could not be paid because the land had not been in his name for the necessary ten months. It is obvious that these people will be paid this money when sufficient time passes and when they have completed the necessary forms. However, they were not made aware of the problem by their solicitor or by the Department when the herd number was transferred. This led to a serious delay in the issuing of the single farm payment at a time when the young man was building his own home. The second case with which I am familiar involved a young graduate who had already built his new home and also a new cattle unit and who is still owed two years’ worth of payments.
Is this the way to encourage young people to become involved in farming? I urge that all personnel, such as solicitors and officials of the Department, be fully briefed in order that area aid and single farm payments can be dealt with in an organised and structured way. The single farm payment and area aid often comprise the major part of farm incomes and are vital when young farmers are building new homes and, in some cases, starting families.
The problem relating to late payments was a feature of what happened in respect of herds infected with BSE. In such cases, the Department withdrew herd numbers and provided new ones but failed to transfer the payments. This led to long delays for farm families that had already suffered major trauma.
When the single farm payment was announced, it was welcomed by farm organisation personnel as an end to form-filling etc., and by the then Minister, Deputy Walsh, as giving farmers total freedom to farm and to return to production. However, on foot of the nitrates directive and traceability requirements, paperwork remains the order of the day for farmers, regardless of their age or level of education. That is why it is so important that those who serve farmers should have the best advice available to them and ensure that their clients are treated well.
I became aware earlier this evening of one of the worst cases to date when I was contacted by an aged farmer who read to me over the phone a letter he received from the Department. The letter demanded that he provide an official of the Department of Agriculture and Food with proof of his place of residence for the past 20 years, even though he has only been involved in the various schemes since he returned home from working abroad 14 or 15 years ago. Would any other group be subjected to such scrutiny or harassment?
From working with farmers for the past 35 to 40 years, I am aware that the vast majority want to do what is right. Many older farmers have little education and deserve help and encouragement. Most departmental officials do a great job. Unfortunately, however, certain individuals seem to have chips on their shoulders and focus on the negative, regardless of the damage this can do to farmers who live in isolated areas and who require, and should receive, support. Young and elderly farmers need justice and support. Big and small farmers are fleeing from the land and only fair play will ensure the maximum number of them are retained. I urge the Minister of State to ensure the relevant information is provided so that solicitors and departmental personnel give farmers complete advice at the time of transfer to make this difficult time as easy as possible and to make sure the moneys to which they are entitled are paid on time.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food (Mr. B. Smith): I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. The introduction of the single payment scheme in 2005 brought the new concept of payment entitlements into the direct payments system. Payment entitlements are not attached to land but they are the property of the farmer who was farming during the reference period and was in receipt of direct payments under one or more of the livestock premium and-or arable aid schemes. Entitlements may be sold with or without land but can only be sold without land once 80% have been used in one calendar year. On the other hand, entitlements may only be leased to another farmer if accompanied by an equivalent number of hectares of eligible land but they may also be transferred, with or without land, by gift or through inheritance. The arrangements for the transfer of entitlements by way of sale, lease, gift or inheritance in respect of the 2006 and 2007 scheme years were clearly set out in press releases issued by my Department, which are available on its website. The application forms to be completed by farmers engaged in transferring entitlements are also available on my Department’s website for people who may wish to access that information through this medium.
In this context, where an entire holding is being transferred within the ten-month period for compliance with the single payment scheme requirements, the transferee must complete a separate declaration of undertaking under which he or she undertakes to succeed to the responsibilities of the original applicant and, thereby, becomes entitled to payment. In all such cases, my Department, on receipt of the application to transfer entitlements, decides, on the basis of the date of transfer, whether the declaration of undertaking is required. Individual farmers need not, therefore, concern themselves with this aspect provided they have forwarded the application to transfer entitlements in the first instance. I am satisfied my Department has taken every opportunity for informing farmers and others about the introduction of the single payment scheme and the various requirements pertaining to the transfer of payment entitlements.
The arrangements governing the introduction of the scheme were the subject of two separate series of countrywide information seminars for farmers and others interested in the agricultural sector. In addition, separate information seminars were held for agricultural consultants and others involved in giving advice to farmers. A large volume of information was conveyed through the various media channels including radio and the farming press, while a number of information booklets were prepared and issued to individual farmers. I assure the Deputy that the Department is in the process of writing to the Incorporated Law Society pointing out the need for members of the legal profession, who are dealing with the succession of estates where single payment entitlements are involved, to familiarise themselves fully with the rules pertaining to these entitlements. This additional initiative will make a worthwhile contribution to the efficient operation of the scheme’s arrangements to the benefit of all involved.
I assure the House that all of us want every applicant to receive his or her entitlements. The first year of the scheme went well, as it involved a major transformation from multiple schemes to a single payment scheme. A number of queries were outstanding but I assure the Deputy that the Department is anxious that every applicant receives his or her full entitlements and full information is available to them to assist them with queries that may arise regarding applications that are not straightforward. It behoves those giving advice to farmers, whether they are consultants, Teagasc officials or members of the legal profession, to ensure they are fully apprised of the rules on entitlements, transfer, etc. The additional initiative we are taking will be of benefit in ensuring each applicant draws down his or her full entitlements.
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