Tuesday, 26 January 2010
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Martin Ferris: I have asked for this issue to be debated in the light of the failure of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to pay farmers in Kerry, and in other counties, the money they are due under REPS 4. At present only 466 of 1,960 applicants in Kerry have been fully paid. That is less than 25% of all applicants. For the other 1,494 farmers who have not yet received their payment this represents a considerable setback at a time when farm incomes are already under severe pressure. In most instances farmers in receipt of REPS are on the lower income bracket. Given that they were led to believe their payments would have been received prior to Christmas, many farmers were dependent on having their money for Christmas so that they could make some sort of Christmas for their families. However, in my county, Kerry, and in many others that has not been the case. Many farmers borrowed money to carry out farm improvements and other work, but now find themselves unable to meet repayments on time.
The situation throughout the rest of the country is that almost 55% of applicants are in the same position. That amounts to nearly 16,000 farm households who have been let down and many of them are those who can least afford a further financial setback at this time. Kerry, for some reason has the third highest percentage of applicants who have not been paid, with only Waterford and Wicklow having a worse payment record. When I raised two cases in parliamentary questions last week the reply stated this was due to administrative problems in processing the claim. Surely that cannot be the case in so many individual cases and across such a large group in every county. One of the replies I received stated that payment issued to applicants whose applications required no further examination following administrative checks, but that queries arose in those checks for a significant number of applicants. I have been told by agents who work on behalf of applicants that in previous years applications with the same wording to the letter gave rise to no query. It is no wonder that many farmers are questioning the motivation behind the failure to make these payments. Some of them suspect the Government is doing it deliberately in order to save money and others are questioning whether adequate staff are available in the Department offices in Tralee to process the applications.
Perhaps the Minister of State will explain the nature of the problems that have arisen so that 1,494 Kerry farmers will be able to do what is necessary in order to receive their payments. Do the problems relate to the manner in which the forms were submitted? Is there a priority list regarding the submission of forms? If so, surely enough time has passed since the applications were received for such problems to have been identified and addressed. Is it the case that problems within the Department regarding staff shortages and so on are responsible? I know there have been staff changes in the Tralee office. Is this a contributing factor? Whatever the reason it still does not explain why the Minister has failed to honour the commitment he made last year that the payment process would have moved well beyond this by now. The specific undertaking was that payments would begin on 14 December and be completed in January. That has not happened.
The Minister therefore must honour his promise to these farmers, many of whom are experiencing real hardship, and ensure that the payments are made as a matter of urgency. Many of those farmers in Kerry have loans and mortgages from the bank, which were given on the understanding that REPS payments would be received to clear off what is outstanding. I ask the Minister to give the matter his immediate attention.
Deputy Tony Killeen: I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to clarify the situation. Any farmer in REPS 4 whose application has been processed for payment has been paid already, not only in Kerry but also throughout the country. I assure the House that the Department will continue to process applications to payment stage as a priority.
The first payments for the 2009 REPS 4 scheme year issued on 18 December 2009 and payments have continued to issue in the meantime. To date some 9,823 REPS 4 participants have been paid in full. A further 4,508 have received the first phase of 75% of their payments and are due to receive the balancing payment of 25% shortly. Payments will go out this week to a further 1,300 applicants. In Kerry, there are 2,039 REPS 4 participants of whom 462 have received payments. A further 143 have been cleared for payment and payment will issue this week.
I am well aware of the importance of REPS payments to farmers and farm family incomes, especially at this difficult time. However, the Department has to operate in the context of strict EU regulations. These regulations require that detailed administrative checks be carried out on all applications before any payment can be made. The position, in Kerry as elsewhere, is that queries arose in the course of checks on a significant number of applications. The queries arise under a range of issues including area measurement and nutrient management plans. Where queries arise, Department staff are working to resolve the issues as quickly as possible so that payments can be made with the minimum of delay. In many cases, it will be necessary for officials to contact farmers directly about their applications and a number of farm plans have already been sent back to applicants to be amended in line with the terms of the scheme. Amended plans will be processed for payment without delay.
The current situation should not in any way detract from the merits of REPS. The scheme has been one of the most successful operated by the Department since its launch in 1994. It has delivered multiple benefits to the environment in terms of water quality, biodiversity, conservation and landscape enhancement. It has also brought welcome income benefits to farmers, with more than €342 million paid out to REPS participants last year and a total of more than €2 billion paid since 1994. Payments in 2009 reached their highest level ever. The original allocation for last year was just €330 million but additional funds were provided in December last and approved by Dáil Éireann by way of a Supplementary Estimate. Payments due to REPS farmers this year will continue at this high level.
Notwithstanding the Government’s decision to close REPS to new entrants in July of last year, which was unavoidable given the state of the public finances, those farmers who are already in REPS will see out their five-year contracts. This means that there will still be farmers in REPS right up to the end of 2014. By the time the scheme finally comes to an end, payments to farmers will have exceeded €3 billion.
Last Wednesday in Brussels, the Rural Development Management Committee of the European Commission agreed to an amendment to Ireland’s rural development programme. Part of this amendment included proposals for a new agri-environment scheme. This scheme will be funded partly by the EU but will also get very substantial support from the Irish taxpayer. The new scheme will focus on the priority areas of biodiversity, climate change and water management. It will consist of a menu of actions from which farmers can select those that complement the environmental profiles of their farms. The shape of the new scheme reflects the increasing emphasis at EU level on having schemes that deliver clearly identifiable and measurable benefits to the environment and to society. Details of the operation of the new scheme are being finalised within the Department and the intention is to launch it once the formal approval of the European Commission has been received.
REPS is of course not the only scheme contributing to farmers’ cash flow at present. Yesterday, the Department started payments under the 2009 suckler welfare scheme. These payments will be worth €30 million in respect of 2009-born calves for the 53,000 applicants in the scheme and payments will continue into 2010.
Earlier this month, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Smith, authorised payments of a further €190 million in grants to farmers under the farm waste management scheme. This expenditure was in addition to the €49 million already paid out by the Department by way of the second tranche of grant aid under the scheme towards the end of 2009. Total Exchequer funding for this scheme now exceeds €1 billion. All participants in the scheme have now received at least 80% of the payments due and many have been paid in full. I assure the House that the Minister will continue to implement schemes and services to support farm incomes and that, in the case of REPS, will continue with efforts to expedite payments to all participants.
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