Thursday, 9 February 2012
Dáil Éireann Debate
1. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he will outline any underspend from his 2011 budget allocation in 2011; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7539/12]
Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Simon Coveney): If the House will permit, and while this portfolio is often dominated by agriculture, I wish to mention the extraordinary response to what has been an unfolding tragedy in Union Hall during the past month or so. There was some success yesterday in the finding of another body.
The response of the fishing community, in particular the Deasy family in Union Hall, the Coast Guard, the Garda, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, RNLI, Civil Defence and the hundreds of volunteers who have participated in an extraordinary outpouring of support and organisation following the tragic events that saw the Tit Bonhomme crash into Adam’s Rock and sink is an inspiration to many people. We are thinking of the families that have lost loved ones and recovered bodies and we hope that, during the coming days, we will be able to bring some peace to the family of Said Mohammed, whose body has still not been found.
Deputy Michael Moynihan: I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for this opportunity. We extend our deepest sympathies to the families of the fishermen. We must thank the people of Union Hall for their good will and camaraderie, in that they built a community almost instantaneously, and commend them on showing the best of Irishness.
Our deepest sympathies go to the families of the fishermen who were lost in the tragedy of four weeks ago. Fishing is a precarious livelihood. We would like to be associated with the Minister’s words of sympathy, as well as his words of gratitude for those who gathered around, including the State’s services and the community as a whole.
Deputy Michael Colreavy: On behalf of Sinn Féin, I echo the Minister’s words regarding this tragedy and extend our solidarity with all of those who have lost loved ones. It was striking that, out of the darkness of this awful tragedy, we saw a beautiful beacon of community spirit and co-operation. The care, concern and efforts of the State agencies and volunteers were striking and lifted the hearts of everyone affected by the tragedy.
Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan: It was Synge’s play “Riders to the Sea” that encapsulated the sacrifices made by fishing communities and the number of people they have given to the sea. I appreciate the Minister’s comments. West County Cork is a place I know very well. Its community spirit is always present at times such as this.
There was a gross underspend of €226 million in the Department’s budget allocation of €1.647 billion in 2011. The expenditure on the EU-funded single payment amounted to a further €1.316 million above this. The underspend of Exchequer funding arose as a result of the fact that the original programme allocations were not drawn down or because there were savings due to improved efficiencies during the year. The underspend arose despite the fact that every effort was made to make prudent provision for liabilities at the beginning of the year. Subject to administrative checking procedures having been completed, claims being verified and necessary inspections carried out in line with departmental and EU audit requirements, all liabilities were met and the underspend did not arise as a result of a decision by the Department to withhold payments.
I will outline the main areas of underspend. Some €10 million was underspent on the administration budget. Some €18.7 million was underspent in respect of the eradication programme, ERAD, which relates to bovine TB and brucellosis schemes, and other miscellaneous animal health schemes. Primary among these is BSE, which reflects the ongoing welcome reduction in the incidence of that disease. Some €30.6 million was underspent on the suckler cow welfare scheme. The original plan was to pay the premia due in respect of 2010 and 2011 in 2011. Due to the pattern of claims, however, doing so was not possible. The underspend will fall to be paid in 2012 and there is no reduction in the overall payments to farmers.
Some €23.2 million was underspent in respect of the clearance of EU accounts. This funding is provided to meet the cost of potential disallowances following European Commission audits of EU-funded or co-funded schemes and was not required in 2011. Some €40 million was underspent on the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, and €19.9 million on the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS. This is attributable to the fact that, under EU regulations, full and comprehensive administrative checks, including cross checks with the land parcel identification system, must be completed before any payment is made.
Notwithstanding these requirements, 22,000 REPS 4 farmers were paid in 2011, compared with 14,000 in 2010, and payments under the agri-environment options scheme are well advanced. There was an underspend of €24.2 million under marketing and processing schemes, reflecting the slower than expected capital investment in projects by food companies. An underspend of €20.4 million arose in the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, which was closed temporarily in 2011 and is now reopened. The underspend in this instance arose from the fact that approved projects did not mature in the form of claims for payment.
The balance of savings is attributable to a large number of other headings under the Department’s Vote. On the other hand, there was an additional spend of €13 million on the less favoured areas scheme over and above the Vote allocation in 2011. In addition, under public financial procedures, my Department has carried forward the maximum permitted carryover savings, totalling €29.834 million, which have been added to the 2012 budget. These carryover savings are reflected in the 2012 budget allocations announced last December. The figures do not take account of the payments by the Department under the single payment scheme, which amounted to €1,316 million in 2011.
Overall, much of the Department’s Vote comprises schemes and measures that are subject to external factors such as demand from beneficiaries, market and economic factors, animal disease incidence and the pace of completion of capital investment and research projects, as well as the need to adhere to important issues of governance and, where relevant, compliance with EU operational rules and requirements. While every effort is made to forecast expenditure as accurately as possible each year, there is, inevitably, some degree of uncertainty in determining the appropriate level of budget to be assigned to various schemes and programmes. The Department is obliged to ensure, in so far as possible, that adequate resources are in place to deal with all manner of eventualities and possible unforeseen occurrences. Full details of the 2011 outturn will be available in the Revised Estimates to be published later this month by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and greater detail will subsequently be made available on my Department’s website.
Deputy Michael Moynihan: I wish we had time to go through each of the subheads. In regard to REPS and the agri-environment options scheme, there was an underspend of €40 million and €19 million, respectively. Of that total underspend of €59 million, how much is due to be paid in 2012, based on figures for 2011, and how much is an actual saving?
Deputy Simon Coveney: There is no actual saving in terms of reduced payments to farmers. The issue here is the year in which the payments are made. There have been no cuts in the agri-environment options scheme, and cuts in REPS only come into force this year, following the most recent budget. The payments that have carried over from one year into the next arose primarily because of mapping issues and those payments must be still made to farmers. As I said, we are rolling out the payments quicker than at any time in the past, but that does not mean there is no carryover between years.
My Department is very different from other Departments in that we have to put an Estimate together based on the best case scenario in terms of making all of the payments that could be possibly made in the next 12 months. Sometimes those payments cannot be made because of issues such as auditing, checks, inspections or blockages around mapping, as happened in this case. We will have an opportunity to go through each of the subheads in detail when the Estimates are brought before the Oireachtas committee. I look forward to that opportunity.
Deputy Michael Moynihan: When the Minister reopened the 2011 agri-environment options scheme he was rather sceptical about the money that was available given the underspend of €19 million in 2011. Would it not have been possible for him, on the basis of the figures he had and in the context of the overall savings of some €220 million budgeted for in the Department, to allow for a maximum grant under the agri-environment options scheme of €5,000 rather than €4,000?
Deputy Simon Coveney: There was never a problem with funding the agri-environment options scheme last year, even for a larger scheme. The problem is that the scheme carries over year on year. Last year’s budget was never a problem and there was always money available for it. The problem is next year and the year after. I could not put together a scheme to commit €40 million or €50 million, as the previous Government had, without knowing whether there would be funds available for it next year and the year after. As it turns out, that funding is not available, which is why we had to run a less costly scheme.
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