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[caption id="attachment_998" align="alignright" width="240"] Minister Coveney responds to Mick's parliamentary question[/caption]

Last Thursday (October 6th) Mick questioned Minister Simon Coveney about potential cuts to agricultural support schemes, arguing for the need to protect the most vulnerable people working in this sector. See below for the Minister's response or watch the exchange in full by clicking here.

Question 3: To ask the Minister for Agriculture; Fisheries and Food if he will maintain the current level of funding to REP scheme, agri-environment options scheme and the disadvantaged areas payment in Budget 2012; if he will acknowledge that many of our small farmers are dependent upon schemes such as these and will be very negatively impacted by any reduction in funding; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Simon Coveney: Fair play to the Deputy. He wants me to announce my budget a few months early. The reality, of course, is that I cannot give him the assurance he seeks, namely, that there will be no cuts to any of the schemes from which we make payments - REPS, AOS, disadvantaged area payments, the less favoured area scheme, LFAs, and so on. When I met the IFA yesterday I told delegates it is important to be up-front with people from the start. There will be cutbacks in our budget which will affect some schemes. We have not yet decided which schemes or at what level but the reality is that the four year budgetary framework in which I must operate involves a reduction in expenditure from €1.647 billion to €1.286 billion by my Department, from 2011 to 2012. That reduction, as published material, was available from when the last Government was in place, showing €361 million in reduction between this year and next year. Some of the reduction will be accounted for by schemes that are ending naturally in any case, for example, the waste management scheme on farms which was very capital intensive. A number of people have left REPS and gone into AOS which is not as expensive to the State.

However, even when all these issues are taken into account we are still being asked to make savings of between €150 million and €200 million, which is a lot of money. That is why we have been very serious about going through a long and difficult expenditure review process, to try to reduce the cost of delivering services from my Department and to make as much of a saving as possible. The need remains to make some savings from the schemes we operate. I want to work with farming organisations and anybody else who wants to be part of the process to decide which sectors of the farming community can shoulder some of that burden so that we can protect the more vulnerable sectors of farming.

I will make decisions based on two principles, first, to protect the lowest income farmer and people who live in the most vulnerable areas who cannot take advantage of increased prices or very strong markets, in other words, people in disadvantaged areas. Second, I want to make decisions that are consistent with the targets in the Food Harvest 2020 strategy that will allow farming to continue to expand and grow. Even if those principles are applied there will be some difficult choices to make. Some cuts will be required which will target some of the schemes to which the Deputy referred.

Mick Wallace: I thank the Minister and give him credit for appearing to be very interested in his subject. He is one of the few Ministers who comes to the House and is able to give his replies without notes. This shows a strong level of interest and an understanding of the situation.

The Minister answered my question, more or less. If we were arguing about social issues or any other issues that concern the State and how it decides to spend its money I would make the same point. The Minister referred in his answer to what we need to do. I realise there will be less money to divide up. My appeal is much as the Minister noted. Here, as in all other sectors we should feel a responsibility to protect the more vulnerable. It goes without saying that all cuts most hurt the most vulnerable. The Minister’s reply indicates he seems to be geared towards acting with that in mind.

The last time I raised some of these points in the Chamber the Minister stated the disadvantaged area payments would be paid in September. I understand from some farmers who spoke to me that they still have not been paid. I am sure that is not the Minister’s fault. The farmers in County Wexford do not seem to have been paid, at any rate. Will they be paid soon? Some moneys are due from last year on the AOS and still have not been paid.

Simon Coveney: I shall put on the record the facts about the disadvantaged area payments because that is a fair question. Some farmers have been paid and some have not. I shall give the numbers. To date, €164 million has been paid to 75,000 farmers from the disadvantaged area payments scheme, DAS. This is €42 million ahead of the position in 2010 and we have worked hard to try to get payments paid more quickly. Of the 25,000 people awaiting payments, 5,000 are non-compliant with stocking density, 10,000 have been contacted about over-claims or dual claims that need clarification; 3,000 inspections are being processed and 7,000 require maps to be digitised. In those cases maps have been sent in, physically, on a piece of paper, and need to be digitised onto a computer which takes time. Sometimes there is an inconsistency between maps that needs clarification or inspection. If any payments have not come through yet under the DAS it is either because they require clarity and explanation or because there is a disqualification. We are anxious to try to clarify these points quickly and make the payments as quickly as we can.

The same applies to the AOS payments from last year, which we have already started to pay . There are mapping issues here too. For example, when applying for AOS many people have included maps that do not match the maps they submitted for their single farm payment. Something is wrong somewhere and until we get clarity we cannot make payments because when the Commission audits what we do those issues will arise. There are real reasons for any delays that exist but I assure the Deputy we are working extremely hard to get payments out as quickly as possible.

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