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Other Questions - Disadvantaged Areas Scheme

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 755 No. 1

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 9.  Deputy Dessie Ellis Information on Dessie Ellis Zoom on Dessie Ellis  asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney  the way he proposes to deal with applications for single farm payments from farmers in particularly disadvantaged areas whose stocking density was on, or slightly above minimum density pertaining to the current scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7069/12]

Deputy Simon Coveney: Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney This question is slightly confusing in terms of how it is worded, but I believe I know what it is getting at and I would like to bring clarity to the changes we have made to disadvantaged areas payments. It is important to say I had repeatedly stated to farmers in disadvantaged areas in the build-up to the budget that we would need to make savings from the schemes because we could not make enough savings through efficiencies in the Department. Even though the costs of running the Department and its agencies has been reduced by €18 million from last year to this year, we still had to make savings in schemes such as REPS and the disadvantaged areas scheme.

With regard to the disadvantaged areas scheme, I wanted to protect people who are farming with reasonable numbers of stock on the land. I did not want to take any money from them and in my view we have managed to achieve this. We have not touched the rate or the area of 34 hectares for which the rate can be applied. The majority of farmers in disadvantaged areas will continue to farm as they did and will continue to receive the same support they did in the past.

We changed the eligibility criteria for the disadvantaged areas scheme. This means people’s stocking rate needs to be reasonable and we consulted farm organisations on this. I did not pick the figures out of thin air. We stated that instead of having to have one sheep per hectare, one must have two sheep per hectare. Anyone who knows farming will know this is still an incredibly low stocking rate. Instead of having to keep stock for three months of the year, one must keep it for six months of the year. We cannot have people buying stock for a very short period of time and putting animals on the hillside for three months just to draw down a payment.

One area of confusion arose which this question is getting at. We stated that farmers with their main holding outside of a disadvantaged area who either purchase or lease land in a disadvantaged area and draw down a payment on it will receive only a percentage of their entitlement corresponding to the percentage of the overall landholding in a disadvantaged area. However, if farmers whose main holding is in a disadvantaged area rent land outside of a disadvantaged area, they do not lose any of their payments. Farming organisations were very concerned about this issue. I do not want to discourage farmers in disadvantaged areas from trying to improve their holdings by renting or buying land in non-disadvantaged areas. These farmers’ payments will not be negatively affected and it is important to clarify this.

Deputy Michael Colreavy: Information on Michael Colreavy Zoom on Michael Colreavy I understand the intent behind the minimum stocking density and the extension of the retention period. This gets to the core of what is a genuine farmer. It will cost some genuine farmers to get to the minimum stocking density outlined by the Minister. Will the Minister consider having a phased introduction of the minimum stocking levels? He mentioned an appeal system will be put in place in order that no genuine farmer would be ineligible for the scheme. Those of us familiar with appeal systems in the Department of Social [94]Protection do not like the phrase “appeal system” because there is a nine or ten month delay in hearing appeals there.

Deputy Simon Coveney: Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney To be clear, any farmers who must have a low stocking rate because they farm in a commonage area and therefore must abide by a commonage framework programme which requires them to have a low stocking rate are exempt from any cuts and their payments will be maintained.

This is about what happened last year, as last year is the reference year for stocking rates. If one was below the threshold last year, one’s payment will be removed unless one appeals and gets it back. This is not about telling farmers that if they do not increase their stocking rate, they will not receive a payment, because farmers would simply increase their stocking rates. This is about making a calculation of the farmers who actively farmed last year and measuring it on the basis of stocking density and the length of time they kept those animals and whether they were horses, cattle or sheep. Landowners taking on horses for three months of the year to draw down a payment will lose their payment. We can no longer afford this luxury.

If there was a genuine reason in 2011 that people had a low stocking rate, such as a death in the family, a son or daughter taking over the farm and stocking rates being reduced to wean him or her in, or an illness or disease outbreak in the herd, we want to hear about it and such genuine cases will get their payments back. This is what I mean by an appeal system. Some of people who simply maintain land to get a disadvantaged areas payment and do the bare minimum with regard to keeping stock for the minimum amount of time will lose their payments and this is the right approach when we have a reduced amount of money to spend. We must prioritise active and real farmers.

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