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Written Answers - Disadvantaged Areas Scheme

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 755 No. 1

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 29.  Deputy Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan Information on Luke 'Ming' Flanagan Zoom on Luke 'Ming' Flanagan  asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney  his views that the use of last year's stocking rates as criteria for eligibility for entry to this year's disadvantage areas scheme, DAS, is inequitable and a deliberate attempt to eradicate so-called non-productive farmers; his further views that a farmer's circumstances can change and that their stocking density may have been low in the previous year for many reasons and to use previous stocking density is not necessarily a reflection of their current rate of stocking; his views that the spirit of the DAS is to assist farmers in disadvantaged areas and not to reduce the number of farmers on the land as this new criteria will inevitable do; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7009/12]

 31.  Deputy Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan Information on Luke 'Ming' Flanagan Zoom on Luke 'Ming' Flanagan  asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney  the reason he has removed horses from the criteria for disadvantaged area scheme; his views that this will impact the smaller farmer disproportionately and also that in the longer term the exclusion of horses from DAS assessment will reduce the size of the national horse herd and weaken our position as a renowned horse-breeding nation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7010/12]

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Simon Coveney): Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney I propose to take Questions Nos. 29 and 31 together.

It is widely recognised that the Disadvantaged Areas Scheme is a very important one for this country, as the total area designated as disadvantaged is almost 75% of Ireland’s total land area. From an economic perspective, the Scheme is particularly significant, contributing to the support of in excess of 100,000 Irish farm families, whose ability to farm is restricted by the physical environment and, in particular, the impact of the prevailing wet cold climatic conditions.

The budgeted expenditure under the 2012 Scheme will be reduced from €220 million to €190 million and, in order to achieve the €30 million saving in expenditure, it is proposed to introduce specified changes to the Scheme eligibility criteria for 2012. This will be achieved by making technical adjustments to the Scheme criteria to ensure that the aid payment is focused on farmers, whose farming enterprises are situated exclusively in Less Favoured Areas and who are making a significant contribution to achieving the objectives of the Scheme.

Faced with the task of achieving significant savings in the annual budget for the Disadvantaged Areas Scheme, I chose to take the opportunity to make the Scheme more targeted, rather than simply apply an across the board cuts to all participants. By focusing the proposed changes on those farmers who (i) are farming exclusively in Disadvantaged Areas, (ii) make a significant contribution to the maintenance of a viable rural community and (iii) contribute to the [112]enhancement of the environment, these savings will be achieved without the need to reduce the existing rates of aid. Furthermore, there will also be no reduction in the maximum area payable — 34 hectares.

There are an increasing number of applicants under the Scheme, who have discontinued livestock (cattle or sheep) farming, but who continue to benefit from aid under the Scheme by grazing some horses on their land. It is proposed that horses and donkeys will no longer be eligible for the stocking density calculation on the basis that these applicants’ contribution to the rural economy is minimal. However, equine (horse) breeding enterprises will continue to be eligible on the basis of the contribution they make to the local economy. The precise definition of an equine breeding enterprise is being formulated.

I am, however, particularly mindful that any proposed changes in scheme qualifying criteria, regardless of how focused and targeted their aim, will result in anomalies, because of which I have already indicated that specific provision will be made for those farmers, as described by the Deputy, who may find that their stocking rates are less than now required. Specifically, I have directed that a formal procedure be put in place to cater for all who consider that their inability to meet the proposed revised scheme requirements is due to force majeure/exceptional circumstances. Those affected will be invited to outline such details to my Department, each case then being considered on its merits. Again with specific regard to the proposed stocking provisions, where individuals can show that their inability to meet the revised requirements are due to their participation in a recognised environmental programme, for example, the necessary allowance will be made. Consideration will also be given to new entrants to farming.

I would again stress that, in proposing the changes in question, the intention is to better focus the Scheme, which is to the benefit of the majority of those farming in areas with recognised constraints, while at the same time attempting to cater for those genuinely prevented from achieving the revised minimums.

The Scheme, which is co-funded by the EU, is an integral part of Ireland’s Rural Development Plan, 2007/2013, and as such, any proposed change to Scheme criteria requires the agreement of the EU Commission. In this regard, therefore, the changes announced in the context of the recent Budget have been submitted to Brussels; the Commission’s response is expected shortly.

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