Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 21 January 2014
Select Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Estimates for Public Services 2014
Vote 30 - Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Revised)
I welcome the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, and thank him for the briefing given to the select committee. The purpose of the meeting is to consider Vote 30, Revised Estimate for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Before I ask the Minister to make an opening statement, I will briefly deal with the proposed timetable, copies of which have been circulated to members. Following the Minister's opening statement of approximately ten minutes, we will spend 20 minutes discussing administration, including a question and answer session. We will then deal in turn with each of the four programmes. While discussion of some programmes may take longer than 20 minutes, it is proposed to complete our discussion in two hours, although further time will be provided, if necessary. As the Minister noted, a consultation paper on the rural development programme has been circulated to us. While he may wish to expand on the paper, the secretariat has been in discussions with officials from the Department with a view to arranging a briefing for the joint committee. That is being done to be fair to non-Dáil members who do not sit on the select committee. I invite the Minister to make his opening statement.
The outlook for the agrifood sector remains very bright and the sector will continue to contribute strongly to national economic recovery. There is a new awareness of its vital economic importance and a strong recognition that it has the fundamental building blocks in place to reach the demanding targets it set for itself in Food Harvest 2020. This blueprint will contribute significantly to growth in food and drink exports and national prosperity. I am confident that the measures introduced in budget 2014 in a highly challenging fiscal environment will help us to continue on this path towards national recovery.
The agrifood and fishing industry is enjoying a period of strong success. I was pleased to note recently that the most recent statistics from Bord Bia confirmed that this trend was continuing, with all signs pointing to ongoing growth in the sector. The value of Ireland's food and drink exports grew by more than 9% in 2013 to slightly less than €10 billion in the year. Since 2009, the value of food and drink exports has increased by more than 40%.
The Exchequer contribution to the Vote of my Department will amount to €1.22 billion in 2014. This figure comprises €1.019 billion in current expenditure and approximately €200 million in capital expenditure. While on the current expenditure level, the allocation amounts to a modest fall in overall terms in 2014, reflecting the reality of macro-level budgetary constraints, but it is also worth noting that some agricultural schemes are coming to the end of their natural life. Separately, the Department continues to reduce the administrative cost of delivering its programme for farmers and the agrifood sector as part of its reform package.
When drafting the Estimates for 2014, I was conscious of a number of key areas, including the need to provide support for vulnerable sectors and maintain family farm income; the need to provide a support for the very important suckler beef sector; and, consequent on the new Common Agricultural Policy, the need to ensure schemes and programmes under the rural development programme were well funded. On this latter point, last week I was pleased to be in a position to announce that under the new rural development programme, €1.9 billion in national funding would be added to the €2.2 billion European Union funding already secured for expenditure on the seven-year programme. Combined with the €8.5 billion in EU funding that will be paid in direct payments to farmers in the period to 2020, this brings total funding for the sector over the period from 2014 to 2020 to more than €12.5 billion. This constitutes an ongoing and significant strategic financial investment in the agrifood sector.
I have demonstrated the Government's ongoing commitment to support farmers in vulnerable sectors, particularly those farming in disadvantaged areas.
Furthermore, I have maintained the level of payments under the disadvantaged areas payments at 2013 levels, with an allocation of €195 million for 2014.
I am pleased that we were in a position to fund support measures for suckler farmers which will result in investment of €40 million in the beef sector next year. The suckler herd is the seedbed for a quality beef industry, involving more than 100,000 farm families and employing almost 8,000 people in processing and sales and marketing. It drives exports valued at approximately €1.8 billion per annum. Harnessing technology in a way that improves efficiency and, ultimately, profitability at farm level is key and I am convinced that the combination of measures announced can make a major contribution to the expansion of beef output and greater market penetration.
The key elements comprise €23 million for the new beef genomics scheme; payments of €5 million for the continuation of the beef technology adoption programme; €10 million from unspent single farm payment funds for the beef data programme; and €2 million under the suckler cow welfare scheme. This will bring total payments direct to suckler farmers to €40 million in 2014. The continuation of the beef technology adoption programme with a funding allocation of €5 million will build on the outstanding success of the previous two years of the programme to allow its continuation for a third year. Almost 6,000 farmers received an annual payment of €825 each under the 2013 programme. Some €10 million will also be paid for the beef data programme in 2014. In 2013 approximately 34,000 farmers applied for the programme, which assists farmers in improving the genetic quality of their livestock while maintaining a flow of crucial data to the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation that will generate further advances in cattle breeding at national level.
As I mentioned earlier, I have been able to obtain some €23 million in Exchequer funding for the beef genomics scheme. This will provide suckler farmers with a payment of €40 per calf in return for which the farmer will be required to take samples from stock bulls and a selection of suckler cows for genotyping. This will help to accelerate the type of genetic improvement that will drive efficiency and increase profitability at farm level. With the beef data programme, this will provide for payments of up to €60 per calf in the suckler herd. The initiative will help to place Ireland firmly to the forefront globally in beef genetics. It will enhance our reputation as a world leader in sustainable food production. It will increase the carbon efficiency of the sector and, from a marketing perspective, will help to reinforce the uniqueness of our offering on EU and world markets. The collection of this vital genetic information can also provide a building block for further development of a genetic traceability system, which would be a global first. This would place Ireland firmly in first place globally when it comes to consumer assurance and traceability. The transfer of knowledge and best practice to beef farmers through the beef technology adoption programme and the collection, through the beef data programme, of animal events data that will link to the genetic data gathered through the beef genomics scheme are key examples of the smart green growth initiatives proposed under the Food Harvest 2020 strategy. We are building on the progress to date with what we announced last week in respect of the rural development programme to bring payments to farmers from €60 per calf to €80 per calf and by adding to the beef genomics scheme, which we can discuss later.
I am strongly committed to supporting a capital programme throughout the agrifood, fisheries and forestry sectors in 2014. In the marine sector I have provided an increased capital allocation of €12 million to maintain the infrastructure at the Department's fisheries harbours and local authority fisheries harbours, which make a valuable contribution to Ireland's marine sector. The capital allocation to the Marine Institute is being increased to €10 million to cover the cost of its ongoing research programme as well as upgrading its research vessels. Capital funding to Bord Iascaigh Mhara will be increased to €6.5 million to assist in the implementation of the revised Common Fisheries Policy. In other words, we have deliberately increased funding to the marine and fisheries sectors to ensure we can bring about the necessary changes required under the Common Fisheries Policy, which are all positive sustainable changes to fishing but which will require some capital investment from fishermen. We will need to help them in the transition and we will certainly do that through BIM in particular.
I have also continued to provide capital funds in support of on-farm modernisation. Specifically, in 2014 I have provided for the investment requirement needs to support the dairy sector through its expansion plans ahead of the removal of milk quotas in 2015. The ending of milk quotas provides the best opportunity for dairy farmers to increase output volumes rapidly and enhance the earning potential of the sector. As the final year ahead of the quota abolition progresses, I expect to see an increasing level of investment in farm infrastructure in line with the investments already commenced at processing level, which are significant, amounting to €300 million or €400 million.
I am committed to the continuation of an active programme of reducing the cost of running my Department. Costs have fallen by some €88 million since 2008 from €304 million to €216 million, a reduction of 29%. Considerable reform efforts have taken place in recent years. The Department's staffing level has fallen by some 1,600 since 2005, in other words, from 4,800 staff to 3,200, a reduction of one third. Since 2010 there has been a 22% reduction in the staff of the non-commercial State bodies, down to 1,463 from 1,865 at the beginning of 2010. The total Department spend on these agencies has fallen from €247 million in 2008 to an estimated €189 million this year, a reduction of 24%. The cost of running my Department and the State agencies will be some €8.5 million less in 2014. I intend to continue to drive a change management programme throughout the Department and its agencies while ensuring the proper resourcing of front-line services, particularly those directly responsible for food safety, animal welfare and programme delivery.
All in all, I believe the funding provided to the Department for 2014 demonstrates the Government's commitment to the agriculture and marine sectors. It recognises the potential of future growth and employment in the sectors and their important role in the recovery of the Irish economy. I am determined to build on the progress achieved in recent years in developing the agrifood sector and, in particular, to contribute further to the future growth and prosperity the sector can achieve for Ireland, primarily expanding its revenue base through growth in export earnings.
Following the rural development programme, RDP, funding announced last night, I wish to pay tribute to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin. He was very much a part of the conversation and the decision. We had a good negotiating process and, as a Minister, he understands well the importance of the sector. His support for the funding announced last week for the RDP for the next seven years is significant and I thank him for that.
I propose that we proceed with the consideration of the Estimate proper. Let us consider programme A. The Minister remarked that the costs of running his Department would be down by €8.5 million overall. I propose that we go through administration, programme A covering all sectors. This will be a general examination. Members may wish to make comments now and I will call them in the normal way. Deputy Pringle is first. You may wish to make a general point.
I thank the Minister for his opening statement and introduction to today's meeting. I am somewhat disappointed that we do not have any out-turns figures for 2013. They would be most useful in terms of examining the Estimate for 2014. We are simply comparing the 2013 Estimate with the 2014 Estimate. We are not examining the actual outturns that took place during the year and that is somewhat disappointing.
We can provide the committee with those now, if the Chairman wishes it. Obviously, it would have been helpful if the committee members had them before the meeting but I am giving them out now. There has been a change in the procedure for the Estimates.
Out-turn figures are useful for comparisons. Those are the figures. We have nothing to hide. We will try to answer any questions.
I thank the Minister for circulating the figures at this stage. For future reference it would be useful to have them when we get the initial documentation because that makes comparing and interpreting the figures much easier.
There is an increase of over €3.7 million in the budget for office equipment and external IT service in the estimate for 2014. That represents an increase of over €6 million since 2012. Why are there such significant increases year on year and will this be a trend? There is an increase of €554,000 for 2014 in the supplementary measures to protect the financial interests of the EU. What do those costs entail?
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive review and congratulate him and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, on securing the funding that is very important for the sustainability of rural areas. It is important now to know how the various schemes will be focused to achieve their objectives and to minimise administration costs. Administration includes inspections. The charter of rights of farmers is several years old. Will it be reviewed and renewed? I note that the Minister has to deal with a clearance account for the EU budgets and to ensure that a certain number of inspections are carried out but landing in on people and expecting them to be ready causes significant angst. It is important to take cognisance of the fact that people have to work on farms. Appropriate procedures in respect of the charter should be implemented and reviewed.
The Minister spoke very cogently and clearly about saving money. It is important to save every cent that we can on administration and give it to the areas where it is needed at ground level. That is why I am disappointed by the threatened industrial action at Portlaoise. It would be remiss of me not to avail of this opportunity to raise this issue. The action started yesterday with technical staff reporting in the traditional way and refusing to co-operate with proposed transfers of staff within the grade. Initially it will be mild and will cause administrative inconvenience to management without impacting on farmers and the agricultural and food industries. It has, however, been indicated that if there is no resolution to this dispute it will escalate to include action that will delay grant payments to farmers and disrupt the processing and export of cattle and other agricultural products. This could happen in late February or early March.
I would like to see every effort made to use the normal industrial relations channels to put a stop to this threatened industrial action. There are 600 agricultural staff where a few years ago there were 1,200. Nowhere has there been greater co-operation. There has been a rationalisation from 58 officers to 16, and redeployment of 400 staff. The Minister said that staff members had fallen at the Department. One of the biggest cuts was the 18.6% among the technical staff who co-operated fully with the rationalisation which resulted in tens of millions of euros saved. Along with other public servants they have been subject to two pay cuts since 2009, as well as other changes in their working terms and conditions, applicable under the Haddington Road agreement, which we all saluted as being extremely important. Why did the Department not intervene?
The root cause of this dispute is well known. The management in the Department appears to be refusing to implement official policy, which denies these agricultural officers an opportunity to compete for posts at a time when their traditional role is being diminished. Management persists in allocating inspections to more costly staff. That costs everybody money. We are taxpayers, like the farming community and everybody else. I am confused. There was a policy on cross-stream promotion and redeployment which was always agreed. Why under the Haddington Road agreement have those people not been allowed to participate in competing for those opportunities? Every other Department has implemented the new approach. Why is this policy being blatantly ignored and excluding agricultural officers from competition for assistant principal posts? If there are savings involved in the administration we are entitled to ensure that takes place. Why is that happening? Why was it allowed to reach this impasse? When will it be resolved? Are there not significant savings to be achieved by following Government policy? This is not a new policy. I would appreciate a reply to those questions.
I thank the Minister and his officials for coming here today for a very detailed estimates process. I congratulate the Minister and his officials on securing a vital investment for rural Ireland in last week's rural development programme announcement and the overall package of measures which puts agriculture on a firm footing and gives everybody involved a great opportunity to drive on into the future, to meet the targets for Food Harvest 2020 and continue to grow our food and drink exports.
On programme A ----–
Will the Minister outline the reason for the very significant reduction on the figure for 2013, a difference of €109 million? It is on page 18, under administration, part 7, consultancy services. What were the extra consultancy services in 2013? Was that to do with the presidency or the CAP?
Why is expenditure on office equipment and external IT at this level? I presume it is to do with the new CAP schemes. It is quite a high figure each year. While there are reductions, what is the balancing figure of pensions on total salaries, wages and allowances?
While it might look good that the Department is more efficient as a result of the large number of staff retirements, would it be better to be pay people a bit more and have their services rather than have them sitting at home?
I refer to the expenditure on office premises expenses which seems to have remained stable even though quite a few local offices have been closed down. One would expect that the closure of offices would be reflected in this figure.
I compliment the Minister on the out-turn for rural development expenditure. It is a very important development for rural Ireland which has been struggling in recent years. This expenditure will be an important stimulus which it is hoped will be beneficial for both rural and urban Ireland.
Deputy Heydon referred to the figure for consultancy costs. A once-off figure of €1.3 million is set aside for expenses related to the EU Presidency last year. Were consultancy services required to assist with the Irish Presidency role?
Yes, that is the total figure for the extraordinary amount required for the Presidency. For example, there was an increased level of travel in the first six months of last year. That figure refers to expenditure confined to 2013 so there will be a reduction for 2014.
I refer to the dilemma posed by Deputy Barry whether the Department should continue to pay staff and at least have the benefit of their services or else retire them which also costs money. One of the great features of Irish public administration is that we tend to do both simultaneously in that people retire with a lump sum and they are brought back and paid again. I refer to the case of Irish Water as a great example and also the teaching profession, although the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, has been trying to combat that practice. How many consultants were previously departmental staff? The Minister may not have that information to hand. Are many such people employed in various capacities by the Department, such as the consultants to whom the Minister referred? This seems to be a feature of Irish public administration which is not confined to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
I will begin with Deputy McNamara's question. The Department has a policy of tendering for consultancy services. For example, consultancy services for the horse racing industry was were by Indecon. There is no arrangement for retired staff to be hired as consultants. One exception was made for good reason because the Department needed that individual's expertise. For example, retired departmental veterinary staff are not hired as consultants.
On the question about IT costs, the increased Estimate for expenditure on IT is related to the implementation of the new CAP and CFP, Common Fisheries Policy. The Department will need to redesign its IT systems to fit the new policy direction. A new scheme will be needed for the new GLAS environmental programme. The new IT system will need to be in place this year to allow for the introduction of the new CAP policy in 2015. The Department manages its own IT services as opposed to hiring outside services. For example, Revenue uses an external consultancy to run its online service. My Department has an internal IT section which requires staff who can write code and design new systems. This work will need to be done this year and this is the reason IT costs will be higher than last year. The expenditure will be used to implement a system to manage the implementation of a new CAP and CFP.
In reply to Deputy Penrose, negotiations on the charter for farmers' rights will commence this month. We gave that commitment to farming representative bodies. It is appropriate to discuss a new charter for farmers' rights at a time when a new CAP is being finalised. We know the policy direction and how much money we need to spend. We will discuss matters such as inspections and the implementation of regulations.
The Department of which I am the political leader has shown a willingness to adapt to change and reform to an extent that is more impressive than any other Department, bar none. We have an outstanding team of people who have accepted and embraced that significant change, such as a reduction in staff numbers, redeployment and office closures. I have nothing but positive things to say about the attitude to reform shown by staff in my Department. There is a difference of opinion on a particular issue between IMPACT - which represents technical staff - and management with regard to a competition for promotion for assistant principal officer positions. We have invited the workers involved to discussions tomorrow and this invitation has been accepted. I am hopeful that any differences can be resolved tomorrow and so avoid any escalation of industrial action that would potentially affect services. The management has an open mind with a view to resolving an issue. I know the workers will also approach the discussion on that basis. Nobody in the Department wants to be involved in industrial action. The Department has provided a lot of good news stories with regard to public sector reform and delivery for our clients. I am hopeful tomorrow's meeting will be an opportunity to end that industrial action before it becomes more serious.
We have clarified the figures for consultancy services raised by Deputy Heydon.
There is a reduction there from €150,000 down to €40,000. Depending on the issues on which I need to obtain advice or in respect of which the Department needs an outside opinion, that consultancy figure can go up or down. We are not budgeting for a significant sum this year.
Deputy Barry raised the issue of the pay bill coming down but the pensions bill possibly increasing. It is general Government policy to seek to reduce the numbers in the public sector. Those numbers rose steadily over a period time until we ended up with a public sector that was larger than it needed to be. That growth was fuelled by overspending at a time when we could afford it. Under this Government and towards the end of the last Government's term, there was a realisation that Ireland as a country could no longer afford a pay bill of that magnitude. We have been successful in reducing numbers across the public sector, including in my Department. In fact, my Department is ahead of its targets in this regard. It was a whole-of-government decision to reduce numbers. Clearly, there is a consequence of that in terms of pensions, but the net cost to the State is significantly down. That is clear from the figures coming from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in terms of the overall cost of salaries and pensions across the public sector.
From time to time, we need to take on advice and consultancy to help us to redesign systems within the Department. My officials inform me that approximately 50% of this expenditure is for outside IT consultancy services and 50% for in-house work. We recruit people on temporary contracts to, for example, write code. They do not come cheaply but it is essential to take them on so that we can put in place systems that work. We also need to bring in consultants from time to time to help us redesign systems in order to accommodate new policy frameworks. Breaking down the figure for expenditure on IT services, it is approximately 50:50 in terms of in-house versus external consultancy.
Within our IT section we have people on short-term contracts who come in to write code and redesign systems. We are responsible for distributing €1.2 billion in direct payments and an additional €405 million this year under the rural development programme. That equates to a substantial structural requirement in terms of dependable IT systems. We are putting a system in place that will ensure the correct distribution of approximately €12.5 billion over the next seven years. In that context, an investment of €10 million in ensuring we have effective systems is reasonable. If our system is not dependable, we will be subject to fines from the EU and all types of problems will arise in terms of the farmers' charter.
As I said, IT contractors make up €9.5 million of the total allocation. These are the people who come into the Department on short-term contracts, writing code and designing systems. The actual figure for IT outsourcing is €1.4 million. In other words, the vast bulk of the expenditure relates to the employment of IT experts who work with our teams in the IT department writing and redesigning our systems to deal with the new policy framework that has been agreed through the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy.
By putting in place better IT systems we save money in the long term by avoiding disallowances and fines. Ireland is receiving fewer disallowances than any other country within the EU because we have IT systems that work. Other countries have IT systems that have let them down. We are spending when we need to spend to make sure we maintain an IT structure that functions as it should for the distribution of huge sums of money to 130,000 farmers. We are trying to keep costs down as best we can, but we will invest when we need to, such as in the case of the new mapping system and a new IT system for the new CAP and CFP. If that is not done, we would have to outsource the job, which would be more expensive and would mean having far less control if something goes wrong. Looking at the countries that have outsourced their IT systems, there are significant difficulties, in many cases, when things go wrong, because they are essentially stuck with the one provider. We have made a policy decision to have an in-house capacity in terms of IT management and delivery, but we have to bring in outsiders to upskill that team and help to rewrite code and redesign systems when such is needed. That is what is covered under this particular expenditure.
We cannot get the staff. Moreover, it does not make sense to employ people on a huge salary when they are required only for a specific project, such as redesigning an IT system.
They would not make themselves available for permanent employment. That is how the marketplace works - the most highly-skilled IT people can pick and choose. It is a question of supply and demand; if one wants the best coders in the country, one has to pay them. Most of them have no interest in working in the Department on a long-term basis. They come in to redesign a system and train up the staff who will be operating it and then they move on. That is how top IT consultants work, at least according to my understanding of it.
We are not going to make further progress on that matter now. I wish to inform Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív that we are dealing with the administration budget in a general sense before moving to our consideration of the four programmes. I am sure he received a copy of the timetable. If he wishes to make observations on the administrative budget, he may do so now. I accept that he was obliged to be in the House for Priority Questions.
I will focus on the macro rather than the micro. How can the Minister justify reductions of 17% in respect of disadvantaged areas, 30% in respect of animal health, 53% in respect of the REPS - a reduction over three years - and only 9% and 7%, respectively, in respect of the administrative budget and non-commercial State bodies? It seems that farmers are being hit, while the bureaucracy is being saved. What is being done in this regard is completely unacceptable. We know that the use of technology means that much of what needs to be done manually from an administrative point of view can be reduced.
The second issue to which I wish to refer relates to those who were responsible for writing the code for the maps issued by the Department and its claim to the effect that certain people over-claimed in respect of their lands. One would need a microscope to see the X01, X02 and X03 designations on the maps to which I refer. Many farmers are elderly and either cannot understand what is involved or cannot see the X designations on maps. I have looked at many such maps in recent months and trying to find an X on one is similar to playing a child's game. It is also difficult to establish whether a designation is X01 or X03. If the Department had done what I am about to suggest, it would have saved itself a great deal of trouble. When it wrote farmers, why was it not in a position to indicate the estimated over-claims made - according to its computer files - and the penalties that would arise in 2013 as a consequence? Many farmers receive letters which only indicate the plots of land that the Department is disputing. They do not understand they are obliged to revisit their figures, carry out a new calculation in respect of the eligible area and discover whether it is over or under 3% or over or under 20%. If it is greater than 3%, one multiplies the figure for the lost land by three. If it is greater than 20%, one is out the gate and cannot claim.
In the light of all of the computer technology used and all of the money spent, it is amazing that the information the Department has in its possession cannot be provided for farmers in an accessible and understandable form. If a farmer knows he or she is going to lose €100 in a year, he or she might not bother to pursue the issue. The Department might state 60% of an area of his or her property is scrubland, whereas he or she might state it is 40%. In addition, it might be stated it is 30% or 80% rock.
Before them. If there is a small penalty involved, most farmers in the interests of avoiding hassle might leave well enough alone. However, they do not know what the penalty will be, unless they ask someone to carry out the calculation for them. Is the Minister in a position to assure us that there will be no retrospection in what he refers to as mapping errors, particularly in view of the fact that the digitised maps currently being used are based on previous versions produced by his Department? Will he confirm that penalties will not be imposed for the years prior to 2013, unless people were purposely trying to cheat the system?
If Deputy Pringle wishes to pose other questions about ICT systems, we can provide him with detailed answers. We have nothing to hide and must invest in systems that will work, otherwise the cost we will incur in the long term will be much greater.
In the context of Deputy Ó Cuív's comments on why we have not cut administrative and staffing levels to the same extent as in other areas, since 2008 our administration costs have decreased by almost one third. This is consistent-----
I have no problem giving credit where it is due. I have given credit where it is due in the context of correct decisions made by the previous Administration.
There was a requirement to reduce the cost of administration across government. That requirement was forced on both the previous Administration and the current one. I would like to believe the reductions relating to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine were achieved in a way which did not undermine services to farmers. To be clear, the idea that one can simplify all of this and try to make a political point by stating we are cutting REPS payments by more than we are cutting administration costs is a non-runner. We can only do what we are allowed to do under agreements - the Croke Park and Haddington Road agreements - that were signed up to by the previous and current Government. One cannot just lay people off or reduce their salaries without agreement being reached on such actions. We have reduced staffing levels dramatically - by one third, to be precise - since 2009. Like all other public servants throughout the country, those in my Department have been obliged to accept reductions in their salaries. The idea that we could somehow start to slash both salaries and numbers in one Department and ignore the rules of engagement negotiated is nonsense, as I think the Deputy knows.
The issues relating to mapping have nothing to do with the writing of code or anything of that nature. The actual accuracy of maps has changed. Last summer we were required to introduce a new mapping system by the European Commission. We now rely on satellite imagery rather than images taken by high flying aircraft. Mapping systems are much more accurate than they have ever been and it is now much easier to identify land that is eligible and that which is not. Whether we like it, we must deal with the reality whereby land which attracted funding in the past, even as recently as last year, should not have attracted it. We addressed this matter last year in the context of more accurate mapping. We have put an appeals committee in place which involves staff from within the Department and external to it and which is chaired by Mr. Padraig Gibbons who was a popular choice among farmers. We will ensure farmers receive fair treatment. We are aware that 93% have no issue above the figure of 3%. In other words, a relatively minor over-claim took place and the figure for retrospection to 2009 will also be relatively minor because less than 3% of farmers' land is involved. The figure for the other 7% of farmers is slightly higher than this.
Approximately 400 farmers throughout the country have a difficulty in respect of over-claims in excess of 20%. We are going to try to deal with them on a case by case basis. If it is possible to do so, we will reduce the figure below 20%. We will work with farmers and net off parcels of land in respect of which they might have slight over-claims or under-claims. We will do everything possible to try to minimise the financial impact for farmers who, for whatever reason, over-claimed on land that was not eligible.
The alternative to doing that - which is the approach some other countries have taken - is that the Commission will estimate the level of overclaim, then multiply that figure significantly and apply a disallowance or a fine to the tune of approximately €160 million. That is the figure I have. Either we can try to solve this problem by accurately assessing what land was not eligible and in respect of which there was therefore an overclaim which must be repaid and we keep the repayments to a minimum by using such accuracy, which is what we are trying to do, or the Commission will do the job for us and it will be a much more significant figure that every farmer will have to pay because that disallowance will have to come out of the agricultural budget. That is the position and I believe the Deputy knows that. We have had this discussion in the Dáil. We must, whether we like it or not, deal with retrospective overclaims for the past four years, and we will do that. For most farmers, this is a relatively small sum of money. For farmers who have less than 3% of an issue, the average retrospection repayment is approximately €400 out of a figure of approximately €11,000 in terms of an annual payment.
Yes, in total. It is a relatively small figure. The average overclaim in that category is only about 1% and it is a repayment. For some farmers, we took that retrospective payment last year to try to ensure that they would not have a problem. Anybody who thinks that to be popular we can simply tell the Commission we are not paying any retrospective payments, I can advise them that what will happen to Ireland will be what has happened to other countries-----
-----whereby we will have a significant disallowance applied to us which we will have to factor into our budgets. That is crazy when we have the technical capacity to be able to do this much more accurately. We will work with individual farmers to try to limit any financial repayments that they have to make and we can make those repayments, if necessary, over a number of years to try to help cashflow for farmers. We are working with the farming organisations to try to do that as accurately as we can. I appeal to people not to hype up this issue unnecessarily because we have to deal with it and we are dealing with it in as accurate a way as we can. We will have as fair an appeals process - two appeals processes - as we can for farmers who have difficulties.
When the first letter is sent to them it does not indicate the financial consequences involved. I see these every Saturday. The second issue, which the Minister has not addressed, is why are the maps with these little Xs on them so small and so difficult to read. It is a big issue for older people.
Excuse me Deputy, let me speak. The first question posed by the Deputy is that the initial letter stating that there is an overclaim does not necessarily state what the financial implications are with regard to the level of the overclaim. His second question related to the size of the map, which the Minister has answered.
My question is about the coding. When a disallowance is applied, in the case of these maps, written at the top in very small print is a list and it sets out the area digitised, the area claimed and the eligible area. It then gives a small figure, the disallowances, and then states what the farmer is allowed after all of that.
The figures in terms of the number were the same size that were sent out to farmers when the Deputy was a Minister; he had no issue with this then.
When one looks at a map, one seeks all those Xs in the column and one then has to look at the map to try to find the Xs, and the Xs are written in such small print that most farmers do not even see that there are Xs on the map. If the Minister wants to get a realistic sense of this issue, I invite him to come to Maam Cross next Saturday and meet the farmers and talk to them.
Hold on, Deputy Ferris; Deputy Penrose has indicated as well. I will call Deputy Ferris now. I have to step out for two minutes. We are dealing with administration across all four programmes first. Deputy Ferris had indicated that he could not be here at the start of the meeting. The administration covers the four programmes. It was intended that we would be dealing with programme A at this stage, the Deputy might move on to programme A after the point he wishes to make.
With regard to overclaims, as the Minister is probably aware, I was at a meeting in west Cork a week or so ago, attended by more than 400 people farmers from west Cork. Many of them claimed they are losing between €3,000 and €5,000 as a consequence of this. That might be the accumulated figure or the yearly figure, I am not sure but I will work on the basis of the accumulated figure. Most of these people are low-income farmers and are totally dependent on this income. Many of those to whom I spoke after the meeting stated categorically that the claims they submitted were claims that were agreed with the Department. They did nothing wrong in their eyes. They were claims the Department approved in terms of what they were claiming for and they now find they are being penalised for overclaiming and retrospective payments are being taken from them. The consequences of this affects not only the applicant-recipient but also the wider community. I have attended many meetings over the years and the farmers at this meeting were very angry. They were angry with the Minister, the Department, local representatives and the leadership of the farming organisations. The problem with this is the retrospective aspect of it. The farmers firmly believe that they did nothing wrong, the Department was well aware of the position from their previous maps and so forth. These digital maps were approved by the Department and now they find themselves in this position. Is there any flexibility the Minister can exercise to alleviate this problem? I do not see how they can be penalised if they were compliant. I understand that the non-compliance comes as a result satellite readings but pre-satellite readings they were complaint.
First, it is the farmers who are responsible for signing off on their maps - if they are changed or not changed - each year and that is the basis for payments to be made on qualifying land. If a farmer is claiming on land that is not eligible for payments-----
No. The Department does not approve; it approves a payment on the basis of an application. It is the legal responsibility of farmers to ensure they are making their applications on the basis of eligible land. We have a more accurate set of photographs now in terms assessing land and we are required, as is every other member state of the European Union, to make an estimate as to whether there were overclaims and, if so, to return that money. This is public money which is being given to farmers for producing food sustainably and all the other things that are covered by the Common Agricultural Policy. If public money is being given to a farmer on the basis of drawing down money on eligible land, and if some of that land is not eligible, then that public money has to be given back.
No, it is not. The farmer determines what is eligible. He or she has a responsibility to do that and the Department then checks the eligibility by inspection. If there has been a physical inspection on a farm and the claim has been approved on the basis of the inspection by the Department there will not be any retrospective claims on the land. If there is a dispute as to eligibility there are two appeals processes in place. That is why, where appropriate, we will go out and walk the land as well as talk about the imagery that exists, to try to get as accurate an assessment as possible. We cannot have a situation whereby farmers say they got a payment on the land in the past because nobody said it was ineligible and therefore they should not have to give back the money.
Yes, and Deputy Penrose did so and he got a response. On the cost of administration, resources are in place to ensure that if on-farm inspections are required, the appeals process will be funded and adequately resourced. That is fair enough. Deputy Ferris should be brief. I will not come back to the matter under programme D.
I wish to finish my response to Deputy Ferris. This is a very difficult issue. I accept many farmers feel very angry and hard-done by in terms of the issue but in the position I am in I only have two alternatives. Either we deal with this as a country through my Department and an appeals process working with farmers on a case-by-case basis to try to get an accurate assessment of what is eligible and what is not, and repay the money that was drawn down on land that was not eligible. Failing that the Commission, which is coming in February to assess the process, will determine a figure of overclaim and it will multiply the figure substantially and apply a fine to this country, just like it has done in France, Italy and the United Kingdom, for very substantial amounts of money. Every farmer will suffer as a result of that. We are trying to address a difficult situation. Simply putting our head in the sand and ignoring it is not an option, nor is it an option to say we will not make retrospective payments because we do not want to do that. We must deal with the retrospection issue and we will try to deal with it as fairly as we can with farmers. Nobody will pay back a cent more than they have to in terms of claiming a payment on land that is not eligible. We will work with farmers on that but, unfortunately, I cannot simply ignore what I am required to do by the European Commission. If I do, the alternative is a much bigger financial loss for farming, collectively.
It was agreed that 1 o’clock suited everybody. I tried to go through the running order at 1 o’clock and we reconvened at 2 o'clock in order to give ourselves time. Some people were here but others were not.
We were talking about administration and the overall cost of running all programmes across the Department. We had clarification earlier on mapping in response to a question I posed. We heard there was provision in mapping for the administration end of it in programme D. It is part of programme D. I will move to administration. Deputy Penrose had one quick point to make.
I accept what the Minister said but why would maps be sent to a farmer being reviewed that exclude land he legitimately owns, on which he has claimed previously? I do not refer to land that is leased. It is land next door to his house that is excluded. That is the basis of the overclaim that is alleged against him.
Farmers have responsibility each year to put a red line around areas on their holdings that are not agricultural land. If a road is put in across a field then the appropriate change must be made. If a yard or shed is extended or if it was decided to take land out of agricultural use the farmer has an obligation to show that. If there is an extension of scrub which makes the land not eligible for payments or for farming then that must be shown on the map. I encourage farmers to use the appeals system so that we can try to work out fairer solutions in difficult cases than might be the initial response based on the map. We must get the process under way so that we can get outcomes farmers will accept.
I wish to make one point of clarification. In the new CAP there will be areas of ecological focus. One will have a gross area of land, a net farmed area and parts of the excluded area in between would qualify for ecological focus.
Hedgerows that are marked off a map today that do not qualify in the gross area might qualify in time. The issue is not really for discussion at today’s meeting but it could form part of the general review of maps. Unfortunately, it will become a third figure.
I am moving on to programme A – agrifood policy development and trade. The briefing document with which members have been supplied shows that the subheads excluded from administration are A3 to A12. Does the Minister wish to make an opening point on programme A?
The programme relates to agrifood policy development and trade. I am in your hands Chairman as to what you want. We issued some information to colleagues on the assessment of the Department’s performance under various headings. If you want me to go through them I can do so, Chairman.
Under subhead A12, genomics, the Minister has indicated that he will introduce a beef genomics scheme. Could he outline what will be involved from the farmer’s perspective and what he estimates the cost will be to the farmer in terms of participation and getting samples?
I have a number of questions relating to programme group A. There is an estimate for legal costs under subhead A10(7) of €3.3 million. The figure in the 2013 Estimate was €3.35 million but the outturn was €685,000. When we questioned this in July we were told it was prudent to include €3.3 million for 2013 but we see the outturn is €685,000. We are back again this year with another €3.3 million. I believe that is an over-estimate and it might be overly prudent. In 2013 we were dealing with a €5 million reduction in the disadvantaged area payment but when we consider the outturn for 2013, and I did a rough calculation on the figures the Minister gave us, there was an underspend of approximately €19 million under the different programme headings, which would have offset the €5 million reduction in the disadvantaged area payment last year if we were not being so prudent in terms of the figures. Has an overly cautious approach been taken in regard to some of the figures before us? It may not be significant this year because no scheme has seen a reduction but it is something I would like to tease out with the Minister.
Regarding subhead A10(11), which is the commercialisation of State agencies, there is an Estimate of €150,000. I accept that is a small amount but there is a new line in that regard and I wonder what is the intention into the future in terms of the meaning of the commercialisation of State agencies.
In subhead A3 on research and training there is a 5% reduction of €1.5 million. What is the difference between research and training and A5, which is Teagasc grant-in-aid? Does research and training come under Teagasc also or is it separate? In terms of the slight reduction for Teagasc, is the Minister happy that Teagasc will be able to continue to provide the vital services it provides?
I welcome the beef genomics scheme. I missed Deputy Ó Cuív's outline of the detail of it in his opening statement but it is to be welcomed that we would look to protect our beef sector at a time of massive dairy growth.
I acknowledge that this Government has continually sought to maintain the Horse and Greyhound Fund, with a very small reduction. I accept that every area has to take a small cut but we tried to maintain the Horse and Greyhound Fund as best we could in light of the fact that previously it was cut to the bone. It must be recorded that the horse and greyhound industry cannot continue in the long term with this level of funding. I spoke on the Betting (Amendment) Bill last week. We need to move to more sustained, self-sufficient funding but for now, in the position we are in with annual budgets, it is the best we can hope for the industry.
Under subhead A8, the Bord Iascaigh Mhara grant, there is an increase of about €2 million. The Minister has outlined that this will be the Vote in 2014.
I, too, welcome the beef genomics scheme. I come from a traditional beef fattening county. Suckler cow herds are the genesis of our beef industry and that sector has suffered. The Minister indicated yesterday that there will be €80 per calf. A total of €23 million is provided. How will he make that up to ensure we secure the €80 per calf? It is a great step forward to allow us penetrate the lucrative markets still available. There is a lot to be done regarding our level of penetration across the eurozone in terms of the big, high quality beef markets but this measure will give us the impetus to achieve the full-scale penetration we deserve for a quality beef product and our traceability.
On the beef genomics scheme, I outlined earlier how that will work but essentially, any farmer with suckler cows who is also participating in the beef data programme, which is currently approximately 34,000 farmers, will be eligible to join the beef genomics scheme. The beef data programme will be opened to new participants as well in 2014. The farmer will receive €40 per calf under the beef genomics scheme. When added to the €20 per calf provided for on the beef data programme, that will mean €60 per calf for the farmer involved in the two amalgamated schemes. The farmer will be required to genotype about 15% of his or her cows by submitting samples to the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, ICBF. Farmers who own a stock bull will also have to have it genotyped. The farmer will pay ICBF for the collection kit required for the animal selected for genotyping and for the cost of genotyping, estimated at €30 per animal genotype. Obviously, we will try to get down that cost down as much as we can.
Farmers with BVD permanently infected calves will have to commit to disposing of those calves. Essentially, that is how it will work. Only 15% of the animals will be required to be genotyped but the farmer will be paid the €60 per calf on all of their animals. In the new rural development programme, RDP, we are looking to increase that figure to €80. It will be the new beef genomic and data scheme in the new RDP, which essentially is what makes up the €40 and €20, the current €60 per calf. That will be increased to €80 per calf to make sure we incentivise as many farmers as we can, and we are planning to make that payment on about 650,000 calves in the suckler herd. We have budgeted for approximately €53 million.
To ensure people understand this, the idea behind this scheme is to try to help the suckler herd become more commercially viable and more profitable by building a national database that matches an animal's DNA with its likely performance. In other words, if a farmer is sending in performance data on his or her animals around ease of calving, confirmation and so on, and they have also data on that animal in terms of its genotype, its DNA, we will then be able to make much more accurate predictions as to how calves are likely to perform based on their DNA. We will also be able to give farmers much more accurate information in terms of breeding programmes and the kind of bull they should be using depending on the genotype of the animals they are breeding. This is about applying technology to improve our breeding programmes and to have a national database that can inform farmers to make decisions that will help them become more profitable in the marketplace.
While we need to give some income support in terms of the suckler farmer in Ireland, we are doing that while incentivising a change in behaviour that will help this sector in its entirety become more efficient and more profitable. That is the idea. When we add that to sexed semen technology and genomics technology, and no other country in the world is attempting to do this, we are in a position to get a much better understating and to provide more information that can allow farmers make more informed decisions in terms of their breeding programmes and the performance of their herds.
We always have to be cautious in regard to legal costs. People take us to court all the time. As the Deputy knows from the fishing industry, people challenge decisions we make all the time, therefore, we have to have enough money in the kitty in case we get a major legal challenge that we have to deal with in the year. We do not spend the money if we do not have to, which is the reason the outturn in terms of legal costs is much less than was anticipated, but we move budget lines from one line to another line if we can see that we will be underspent in the year. We can give the Deputy some detail on the overall underspend later if he wishes so that people can understand where the underspend was but there will always be some level of underspend in a Department.
Otherwise, one is flirting with over-expenditure, which the Department of Finance certainly does not tolerate easily. On the commercialisation of State bodies, the note I have to hand indicates it is to help State bodies to develop a more commercial approach and is matched by funding from Enterprise Ireland. I may need to send a more detailed note to the Deputy in this regard. The Department has a number of ways of doing this such as, for example, carrying out lean reviews, to examine the management performance within certain agencies linked to the Department to ascertain whether it is possible to drive greater efficiencies, get better value for money and so on. However, there is a separate funding line for the lean review process. My understanding is this is a fund to help the Department's non-commercial State bodies to develop a more commercial approach, which also involves Enterprise Ireland. However, I must send on further information on it to the Deputy because that is as much as I know.
In response to Deputy Hayden, not all research and training takes place under the auspices of Teagasc. The Department supports Teagasc with a significant budget each year and as the Deputy is aware, it has multiple roles, namely, education, research and development and consultancy for farming. Teagasc has these three areas of responsibility, all of which must be funded. In recent years, the major drive has been in respect of research and development, as well as trying to provide for an increasing educational need in agricultural colleges. For example, the Department sanctioned increased staff numbers to try to staff the agricultural colleges as numbers and demand for those courses have increased dramatically in recent years. Entirely separate to this, however, the Department has a competition for research and development funding in respect of food and forestry and it is a significant funding stream that supports research and development programmes across multiple universities in Ireland, as well as some research in Northern Ireland. They are two different funding financing mechanisms in respect of research and development with regard to agrifood and the food industry in general. I welcome the Deputy's comments on the horse and greyhound fund. I also seek a more sustainable model in that regard and the Department is working towards this through new legislation, which will be published shortly.
Deputy Penrose has left the meeting but in respect of Bord Iascaigh Mhara, BIM, the Department has deliberately increased that board's resources this year. We are at the beginning of an implementation process for the Common Fisheries Policy review, which will involve a lot of gear change for fishermen. We also are in the middle of a safety initiative for fishermen to try to make it a less tragic industry and, consequently, I considered that BIM needed increased resources to do both those things. I believe that to be the right decision and obviously, it only will spend money when it can get good value for money from it. I believe that covers everything.
I thank the Minister for his explanation of the beef genomic scheme. It strikes me that it is quite novel and innovative. Does the Minister propose to patent the research being done? Is it linked with universities and is the research and development money being spent on it coming from other parts of the budget? Does the Minister envisage this to be knowledge that could be exported down the line or will it be made free to everyone who seeks it?
I thank the Chairman and apologise for being obliged to leave the meeting for a little while. To return to Teagasc and the area of education in particular, I refer to the incentives that were introduced last week in the context of the recent CAP allocation. Obviously there will be greater incentives for young farmers to return to the farming cycle, which, while not popular a number of years ago, is now popular. Farmers who had off-farm jobs will find it difficult to return to education to qualify for these schemes. Is the provision of additional schemes under consideration to enable such farmers to qualify for future funding in respect of the top-ups and the 60% grant aid support that has been mentioned? To an extent, restrictions are in place on some schemes right across the education system at present and with the available funding, will such restrictions be maintained? Alternatively, is there a possibility of putting in place other educational courses for young farmers returning to the system?
While I will ask the Minister to respond, I also wish to ask a question myself. As matter of interest, under food aid donations I presume a specific additional sum of €1 million has been allocated somewhere, because the amount has been consistent since 2011.
Yes, an additional sum of €1 million was allocated, which was a slightly increased contribution from the Department in respect of food allocation for the development aid budget.
I thought that increase was merited. It went to the Congo and was sanctioned in December. I assure the Chairman it is money that is being well spent. However, that contribution, which is part of the overall calculation in respect of the Government's commitment to the development aid budget, is not money that would have been spent elsewhere. Nevertheless, I consider it to have been worthwhile expenditure.
As for some of the other questions, on education and the new young farmers schemes that will be rolled out in the new rural development programme, RDP, farmers will be obliged to show they have an appropriate qualification. One cannot have a situation in which families decide to hand over the farm to a son or daughter simply to get a 25% top-up on their single farm payment if that son or daughter is not actually farming. In other words, there is a no-change scenario with the running of that farm but people simply try to reapply in a son or daughter's name to get the top-up payments. This is not acceptable and, consequently, a young farmer would be obliged to show he or she has come into farming within the past three years. Obviously, such farmers must be under the age of 40 and will get a young farmers top-up payment for five years, while under the age of 40, as part of Pillar 1. Likewise, under Pillar 2 preferential treatment essentially will be given in respect of grant aid. If they are investing in their farms, they will receive a 60% grant support for the total cost of a project, rather than the 40% grant aid support that applies to everyone else. However, for those positive supports for young farmers, there will be a requirement and an obligation on that young farmer to show he or she has a suitable qualification, such as, for example a green certificate. They will be obliged to get this either on a temporary course through evening classes or whatever or will be obliged to attend an agricultural college to get it. I consider this to be appropriate.
The agricultural colleges unquestionably are under some pressure. It is amazing that a decade ago, people were talking about the need to close agricultural colleges and we now are struggling to provide enough places and to have enough staff. However, the Department will continue to support Teagasc in respect of the resources it needs to provide that education. I can provide the Deputy with a note, if he wishes, with regard to Teagasc training programmes but the figures are available for him to seek.
On the beef genomics, essentially this is a policy approach. I do not think it possible to patent DNA testing, which is essentially what this does. However, if a genuinely unique management system is developed that can be patented, perhaps that should be considered. Essentially, this programme is about gathering data on to a central database and comparing accurately DNA samples with the performance of animals in order to be able to make accurate predictions into the future. This type of centralised database approach will provide farmers with really useful information for their future breeding programmes. It will be managed by the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, ICBF, which currently manages the national database for the beef herd anyway. It will involve building a couple of new layers onto its central database system.
If there is anything to be patented that we could export for a financial return in the future, we will certainly look at that.
That revenue goes into the Department of Finance. Now that 1% tax will be extended to online and remote betting which will increase the revenue stream from betting tax.
Let me answer the question. That revenue goes into the Department of Finance and does not get allocated automatically to my Department. We still must make decisions on the Horse and Greyhound Fund which are consistent with our overall expenditure ceiling and budget. If there is a good income stream coming into the Exchequer general from betting revenue which is dominated by the horse and greyhound sectors, it helps me make a case for the Horse and Greyhound Fund.
I can send the exact figures to Deputy Ó Cuív. By extending the betting tax to online and remote betting, we hope to increase the yield by €11 million. I think the figure is €23 million or €24 million.
It will increase the yield towards the allocation but there is still a discrepancy between what we will get in tax on online betting and what is committed to in the Horse and Greyhound Fund. I would like to see an increased revenue stream from betting revenues in the future but we need to get a system that works up and running first and then we can have a debate on the rate.
Would the Minister be in favour of raising the betting tax rate to 3%? The reason it was reduced was because punters were migrating to online betting but they will not be able to do that now. Does the Minister favour hypothecation?
As I have said to the Minister for Finance on a number of occasions, we first need to get a system in place that collects a levy from online and remote betting, that is, telephone betting, from both betting exchanges and online bookies. We need to get that system up and running. Many countries have looked at how to do this and have not been very successful.
Once we have a system up and running at 1%, then we need to have a debate on increasing the rate. My views on this would be well known. I certainly would have no difficulty in increasing the rate in an effort to get an increased revenue stream but, more importantly, we need to get a system up and running that does not allow any online bet taking to escape the levy.
On the genotyping, nobody can argue against what the Department is doing. The use of technology makes much sense. Must the data be provided for all of the calves even though 1.5 in ten will be sampled?
The Minister stated he hoped to reach 600,000 calves; presumably, he meant 15% of them. There are many more calves than that in the country. There was a suckler cow welfare scheme. It did not involve this genotyping, but it was improving the quality of animals quite considerably by better husbandry and better practices, without bothering about the DNA element. Will there be any incentive for the other half of the country, which comprise the smaller farmers, to continue to improve husbandry? It was well accepted that the suckler cow welfare scheme, while not the deluxe scheme that those involved in genomics will be doing, without changing the DNA, was improving the quality of calf produced in the market and was informing farmers. I wonder will there be an equal measure for the non-genomic farmers, who in the main are the smaller operators who produce half of the calves of the country, to encourage them to improve the way they farm and to support a vulnerable sector, that is, the suckler cow sector, which is in decline.
May I respond because there is something I need to clarify here before we go down this road any further? There are two matters being confused here. There is the 2014 payment for the beef suckler herd, part of which requires a farmer to take a DNA sample from 15% of the herd and to provide information on his or her herd. That is a separate scheme to the one on which we are building for the rural development programme, RDP. We have not yet decided in terms of the beef genomics and data scheme within the RDP whether a farmer will be required to take samples from 15% or all of his or her herd. That is a decision that we will finalise during the consultation process on improving that scheme and it is something on which I would encourage the committee to make suggestions and recommendations. We are increasing the payment for farmers and the requirements of farmers can also be increased in terms of the beef genomics scheme. We want to get as much data as we can and as many DNA samples as we can from the herd. It is important not to confuse the beef genomics and data scheme which will be in the new RDP starting in 2015 with our current commitment to the genomics scheme for 2014. One builds on the other but they are two different requirements and it is important to clarify that.
On the safety aspect of the Bord Iascaigh Mhara scheme, it is a year and a week since the Tit Bonhommetragedy in Union Hall and Glandore. It was obvious at the time there was no personal iPod on any of the fisherman. There was no such mechanism where fishermen have been lost at sea and their bodies have never been found. As part of that safety aspect of it, has the Minister given consideration to grant-aiding a personal iPod or personal-----
We are grant aiding that. That was announced in Union Hall. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, held a joint launch to announce a grant-aid scheme for personal location devices, emergency position indicating radiobeacons, EPERB, from boats which, when they hit the water, float and send off a distress signal, and a number of other matters. One will see the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport introducing requirements on safety in the not-too-distant future.
We also introduced new training programmes for fishermen. In order to qualify for the grant aid for the equipment, they will have to do a certain amount of safety training. They will have to upskill within a certain period of time. It is not an overly onerous time commitment that they must make but they must do it. We also have a committee representing stakeholders in the sector which will report to me and has finalised work on new recommendations on marine safety for the fishing sector.
There are too many fishermen dying tragically in Irish waters and we are trying to find a way of reducing those numbers. Part of that will involve grant aid, part will involve training and part of it may involve new regulations, if such are needed.
Just as the safety culture must be improved in agriculture, we have work to do in the fishing industry. However, in terms of EPIRBs and personal location devices, the technology is now available for fishermen and it is grant-aided.
Why is there no scheme for half of the farmers, that is, those who will not be in the beef genomic scheme, both to help a wonderful sector and try to continue to improve the quality of animals through ordinary husbandry and all of the other measures?
They do. Quite a number of farmers chose not to be involved in the scheme. We are catering for the number who decided to apply for the scheme and a few more, but there will be farmers who will choose not to be part of the new beef genomic scheme. I do not know why, but that is their choice. They may not want the hassle, for example. Some of them may be part-time. However, this is not about big and small farmers. There is no reason farmers with small suckler herds cannot be part of the scheme if they want to be. It is not a case either of west versus east or north versus south. Nobody is excluded if he or she wants to be part of the scheme. The idea that we have to provide something else for those who do not qualify or those who are not part of the beef genomic scheme does not arise. Any suckler farmer who does not want to be part of it is choosing not to be, just like the farmers who chose not to be part of the suckler cow welfare scheme. We cannot pay those farmers if they are not doing anything to draw down a payment. If we did, we would be introducing some kind of coupled payment and we are not doing so.
Can the Minister tell us what record-keeping will be involved? It is not just a question of taking a sample, as all the data must be provided, in addition to records. My experience shows that some of the best farmers are not into records, as all of us note every week.
The 2014 scheme will require the taking of samples to be sent to the ICBF. Those who want to be part of the scheme will receive a clear instruction pack on what they are required to do. Combining the two schemes, they will be paid €60 per-----
This is about Exchequer spending on various schemes. In the context of the rural development programme for 2014 to 2020, the exact detail of the current genomic scheme, as part of the built-on beef data programme that was announced, was outlined by the Minister in his presentation. Every scheme that has ever been devised has involved a certain amount of paperwork and compliance. No scheme ever rolled out has attracted 100% participation, not even the old headage payments scheme which was quite simple. We need to bear in mind that no matter what scheme we introduce, it will not have full participation. The philosophical debate is for the Dáil Chamber rather than this committee. I want agreement.
The beef data transfer scheme has evolved from the suckler cow welfare scheme. We continue to gather relevant information from farmers who know how it works. All of the farmers involved were also involved in the suckler cow welfare scheme. There will be no resistance to this. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív is trying to create a problem that is not there.
We can give the Deputy any information he wants on the beef genomic scheme, just as we give it to farmers. We will give him what is available.
The beef data programme is actually simpler than the suckler cow welfare scheme by a mile. It is probably attracting fewer farmers because there is less money available.
Can we proceed to subheads B.3.1 to B.3.21, inclusive, please? They concern food safety, animal health and welfare.
I have two questions. Subhead B.3.8 concerns the control of horses and there is an estimate of €1.6 million for 2014. The outturn for 2013 was €3.05 million based on an estimate of €1.5 million. What was the explanation for this? Given that the control of horses will comprise an ongoing problem, should the Minister not have included a higher figure for 2014?
With regard to sbuhead B.3.20 – Other – the outturn for 2013 was €2.3 million, whereas the Estimate figure was €300,000. I possibly know the answer to this question, but I am just wondering what the explanation is for the additional expenditure of €2 million. Is it to do with the cost of the horsemeat scandal? What was the cost to the Department?
I, too, was going to ask about subhead B.3.8 on animal welfare and the control of horses. I will await the answer to Deputy Thomas Pringle's question on the provision for the coming year.
Subheads B.3.10 and B.3.11 concern BSE compensation and related costs and BSE testing. With regard to compensation and related costs, there is a very welcome and significant reduction in line with the reduced incidence of positive cases. What is the Minister's outlook on BSE testing? Does he envisage a day on which we will be able to draw a line under it and not make provision for it? What is the current position?
I refer to the provision for the control of horses this year. This is an ongoing issue. A substantial problem relating to horses arose in my part of the country during the Christmas period. Has the Minister plans to move the issue forward? There is a stalemate currently. There was a reduction in the number of horses slaughtered last year. Fortunately, it has been a good winter up to now but if the weather deteriorates, this will become a serious issue Has provision been made for that scenario if it arises?
Subheads B3.12 relates to the fallen animal scheme. A farmer who has an animal to dispose of must pay a substantial amount to the knackery? Does he pay the entire cost or does the Department pay a proportion of the cost of the disposal?
Must animals that are injured on farms, for example, those that suffer a leg break be disposed of in certain places or can be disposed of anywhere without going to the knackery?
Does the reduction in the allocation for TB testing signify an improvement in the control of the disease, which would be welcome?
Do the savings under the fallen animal scheme derive from the changes that have been introduced such as the distances from the knackery? I raised this in the Dáil when they were implemented in December.
With regard to the control of horses, I do not question the Minister's Estimate but one of the problems is a great deal of work is being devolved to local authorities but they are not being given adequate resources. If he scrounges money from other subheads, could he please increase the funding for the control of horses that is given to local authorities? They are experiencing straitened financial capacity to deal with the problem, which was rightly alluded to by Deputy Deering.
Perhaps investing money in an identification scheme for horses and dogs through the use of microchipping and so on should form part of a policy to collect data. Data on thoroughbreds and non-thoroughbreds are collected but the problem arises in the area of registered breeds societies. The outturn last year doubled in comparison to the original provision and everybody is anxious about this.
We have done a significant amount on the control of horses issue in a short period. There has been more done on horse welfare over the past 12 months than over the past 12 years. The process had commenced prior to the horse meat crisis to improve the regulations and data relating to horses such as who owns them, their location, the premises they are on and the process by which some enter the human food chain, which needs to be checked and examined and so on. We now have a centralised database and passport issuing organisations, of which they are seven, must agree to supply information to the database before they can issue a passport for a horse. We, therefore, have a handle for the first time on the number of horses in Ireland, where they are, who owns them and so on. It is illegal to own a horse that does not have a microchip and a passport. This is not a option. One cannot have one's horse slaughtered for human consumption unless in its first six months or before the end of its first calendar year it has been microchipped and issued with a passport because we cannot trace the veterinary drugs and so on that it has consumed. Phenylbutazone is one example but there are others. Under EU regulations, no horse can enter the human food chain unless it has a passport and has been microchipped in its first six months of life.
Many farmers have asked why I do not introduce a system to test horses before they go into factories to check if there are traces of bute and so on in their blood. That is not acceptable. EU regulations are clear on this and they are in place to protect the integrity of the human food chain. Last year, approximately 10,500 horses were slaughtered in Ireland for human consumption compared to 24,000 in 2012. People think there has been a dramatic reduction on previous years but while there was a dramatic reduction on the previous year, 10,500 is the third highest number of horses slaughtered ever in the State. There was a glut of horses that were not wanted in our system. One of the problems associated with a recession is people cannot afford to keep horses and many of them sought to dispose of them. If they can be sold for human consumption, the owners will be paid between €400 and €600, otherwise they have to pay to have them humanely disposed of, rendered and so on. That is why they want to sell horses to factories.
Last year, we tightened up dramatically on this issue. There was evidence to suggest that some horses may have been going to factories to be slaughtered on the back of false passports. That is no longer possible. My Department supervise every slaughtering facility. Up until this time last year, some of them were supervised by local authorities but that is no longer the case. Now that we have a centralised database, the information regarding passports is much more accurate. If a person owns a horse in this State, he or she must have a passport and a microchip for the animal and he or she must register his or her equine premises otherwise he or she is keeping an animal in breach of the regulations. If the horse is at risk of welfare abuse, we will confiscate it. Last year, with the co-operation of the Garda and local authorities, we confiscated approximately 4,500 animals because we felt their welfare may have been compromised. We will not give the animals back to their owners unless they can demonstrate they have appropriate identification for them and they have an equine registered premises.
We are changing attitudes regarding how horse owners need to behave. We will enforce the law and we will take prosecutions against those who abuse horses. The Animal Health and Welfare Act to which many of the members contributed addresses this. We have made dramatic strides in horse welfare. Some people would like me to introduce a mass cull of horses that are valueless and for which there is no market as a welfare initiative. We have a plan that could work to facilitate such an approach but it is not the right approach because many of the welfare compromised horses would not be handed over in that scenario. People who have horses out the back that they no longer want or do not want to feed and do not have a market for expect the Minister to take the horses off their hands. I am sorry but I will not do that. I will spend public money to protect the welfare of animals; I will not spend it to help the income of people who have horses and who want grant aid to get rid of them because they cannot sell them. We take seriously the responsibility that goes with horse ownership and people need to understand that. I will happily give members who want a detailed outline of what the Department has done on horse welfare and protecting the integrity of the food chain in the context of horse slaughtering because we have spent a great deal of time on it and we will continue to focus on the issue.
We are getting value for money from local authorities, which is why I have not allocated as much money as last year for the confiscation of horses but if I need to increase that figure this year, I will.
We will continue to take a proactive approach to horse welfare. We will make examples of people if they are knowingly abusing their animals. If anyone has a horse they cannot afford to keep, they can use the freefone number for my Department and we will intervene to ensure the animal’s welfare is looked after. We will spend public moneys to do that. We increased the figure last year by €1.5 million on top of the Estimate. We are working with local authorities and the Garda, which has been helpful in some cases.
We are trying to consolidate and tidy up the dairy science Vote. It is our view that the dairy science allocation is more appropriate to subhead B13.21 rather than being covered in the administrative budget.
There has been a steady and substantial decline in TB while brucellosis has virtually been wiped out, both good news stories for Ireland. TB is down from 29,900 instances in 2008 to 15,000 in 2013. That is a dramatic reduction across our herd. There is a saving that goes with that in the compensation we need to give to farmers for TB reactor numbers. We have been so successful that the UK is now discussing the Irish approach towards TB reduction as the model to follow. That is a signal that we have the right approach to TB, brucellosis and disease control generally.
The €2 million figure relates to the spend on the fodder transport scheme. It must be remembered that we had to supplement the cost of importing fodder into Ireland early in the year.
The supports for a fallen animal from the Department amount to €30 for the animal collector and €58 for the renderer. The current subsidy rates, excluding VAT at 13.5%, per over 48-month bovines are €30 for collection, paid to knackery/animal collectors and €58 for rendering, paid to category 1 rendering plants. The cost of collection to the farmer for such animals is capped at €54.03, including VAT.
The BSE testing programme is again a positive story. BSE is an historical problem in Ireland but we still maintain the most rigorous testing programme in the world. I can tell export markets that, despite the fact it is no longer in our herd, we still test to ensure that is the case. There will be a slight reduction next year in the allocation from €2.2 million down to €1.7 million.
Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív:
On the control of horses, could the Minister give us a breakdown of how the costs for urban areas and rural areas compare? There is an endemic problem in urban areas. I believe prevention would be much better than a cure. What discussions has the Minister had with his colleague, the Minister for Finance, on the development of further horse projects in urban areas to divert people from keeping horses in inappropriate settings instead of spending millions of euro disposing of these horses?
With extra moneys coming in from the betting tax, would the Minister, along with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government persuade the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to set aside some of the yield to deal with the problem of abandoned horses in urban areas?
Practically all of the 4,500 seizures made last year were in urban settings, either towns or cities. For example, on the north side of Cork city at the end of November, 83 horses on public lands were seized. Quite a number of these horses had to be put down because of welfare concerns. We rehomed 42 of those horses through a voluntary organisation. Most of them were rehomed in the UK. Some of the horses went back to the owners when they could show they had the horses microchipped, passported and an equine-registered premises willing to take them.
The Garda, departmental vets and Cork City Council were involved in this case. That type of approach has been replicated across the country where local authorities have been proactive and helpful in most cases.
I agree with Deputy Ó Cuív that we cannot simply confiscate all horses from Traveller communities, for example, or other urban-based communities that cannot afford to keep animals. If the animal’s welfare is compromised, we will intervene and seize the animal. We also have an obligation from the social point of view to examine expanding programmes for young people connected with horses but who live in an urban environment and who may benefit from learning horsemanship. In the meantime, until we have those programmes in place, we will intervene on welfare grounds and be pretty uncompromising in doing so, as we have an obligation in this regard. Some of the welfare stories about horses on urban lands are just horrific and we will simply not tolerate it. On the social issue outlined by the Deputy, I am very supportive of the development of urban-horse programmes. In the past few days I have spoken to a local councillor based on the outskirts of Dublin on this very issue.
We will try to follow up on that but we have limited financial resources in our Department to be able to do anything extensive in that area.
If one has a horse, one must register one's premises as an equine-registered premises. If one is a farmer who is farming, one should also register one's premises as a place where there are equines.
We will look at that. People need to know that this is not some kind of voluntary option. This is a requirement in terms of horse ownership.
It might be no harm to do so. Before I move to programme C, it would be remiss of me not to welcome the reduction in the overall TB numbers. There is an odd hot spot around the country and I happen to live in the middle of one. I notice that there is a slight increase in the provision that would be targeted at areas that seem to have consistently higher - far higher in some cases - average outbreaks of TB per thousand animals compared to the national average. It is three times the national average in my constituency. If I did not make that point, I would be accused of not standing up for my own area. Everybody else seems to be able to do it so I should be able to do it as well.
Programme C deals with the rural economy, environmental and structural changes. We are dealing with C.3 to C.10, inclusive.
We have an estimate of €184 million for rural environment. It says that 12,000 left REPS 4 in 2013, a further 16,148 will be leaving in 2014 and a final tranche of 850 will be exiting in 2015. How many of the 16,148 farmers leaving in 2014 are budgeted to be paid the last payment under REPS in 2014? Could the Minister give me a breakdown between the early retirement and the installation aid in the €10 million that is provided? How much will that estimate be in 2015? Could we get a strategic look at what is happening here?
In respect of agricultural development, was the full allocation taken up in 2013 and, if not, how much went back to the Exchequer? There seems to be a serious problem with regard to the licences for aquaculture development. I understand that 58 bays believe they are suitable for it. Could the Minister give us an indication of how many licences are pending?
I note that in respect of C.5.2, there is a €1-million increase for horticulture. Could the Minister outline how he envisages that being spent? In respect of harbour development, there is a significant increase from €8.6 million last year to €12 million. Could the Minister outline where he sees that extra revenue being allocated.
I wish to raise three separate issues with the Minister. With regard to piers, it is set down that there is a separate allocation for fisheries, harbours and aquaculture development. The subcommittee on fisheries released a report last week. One of the recommendations was that county councils be funded to carry out an assessment of existing infrastructure and any surveys required to enable them to apply for funding from the Department. The current situation is that the Department does provide funding for necessary works but only provides funding for the actual physical works. County councils must get to the stage of planning so that involves various environmental impact statements and other costly works that are required to get them to the stage where they can apply for funding. Has there been any change to that policy and is the Department now in a position to fund the surveys and desktop work to get them to the stage of being able to do the bricks and mortar work?
The second issue I wish to raise relates to the Irish Seed Savers Association, which is an organisation of national importance and gets quite an amount of national coverage regarding the financial difficulties it is in. Obviously, there has been a reduction in funding from the Exchequer to the Irish Seed Savers Association. I am very grateful to the Minister for his interest in the association and for the fact that, subject to EU approval, he has agreed to increase the budget for the association in 2014. A large part of the difficulty the association is encountering is not just because of a reduction in Exchequer funding. It is also because there is a reduction in the volume of sales on which it relies for a large part of its funding and a reduction in membership as people across the country seek to reduce expenditure. The association performs a fairly vital national function in maintaining biodiversity in this State, which Department officials have acknowledged. Will the Minister look at a multi-annual funding approach? Again, I do not wish to appear ungrateful for the additional funding the Minister has agreed to provide. It has been communicated to the Irish Seed Savers Association and we are all grateful for it but the Minister might look at a multi-annual approach which might enable it to look at how it is funded into the future.
I am not entirely sure whether the final issue to falls to the Department, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government or other Departments. I suppose the fact that the OPW falls between many Departments is part of the problem. A considerable amount of farmland in south west Clare around Kildysart and Ballynacally was flooded due to storm damage when the embankments along the Shannon estuary were breached. There was a time when those embankments and culverts up across the west of Clare in Carrigaholt and right up to Quilty would have been maintained by the OPW. They are not now maintained by the OPW and there is a bit of a bunfight between Clare County Council and the OPW as to whose responsibility they are. The same is true of the embankments along the estuary. That is of little consolation to the farmers involved. All of these areas are designated as special protection areas, SPA, and special areas of conservation, SAC. There is a very detailed protocol and detailed analysis in Great Britain regarding how state agencies must respond when flood protection mechanisms are damaged.
There is an obligation on the part of the State because these SAC and SPA designations have caused considerable difficulties for farmers. Perhaps this is a silver lining in the cloud in light of the duty to restore SAC and SPA areas to ensure there is sufficient habitat for the various species for which they have been designated. Are protocols in place and how are decisions made on whether State agencies will repair damaged embankments? It is a cause of concern to farmers in the area. It might not be the Minister's responsibility but he sits at the Cabinet and a bun fight between State agencies would be unseemly given the damage that has been done.
With regard to targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS, under subhead C.5.1, the allocation for 2013 was €20.1 million but the outturn was €11.07 million, or just over 50% of the original allocation. This year's allocation is €17.3 million. It is clear that issues have arisen in regard to how money can be drawn down from this scheme. Will other incentives be introduced this year to encourage engagement given that it is a particularly good scheme? Is further flexibility required to allow money to be drawn down? We will, for example, need additional funding for dairying. The allocation for the dairy hygiene scheme increased from €10,000 to €26,000. Is there a correlation between the two sets of figures? Can there be more flexibility in the draw down of TAMS money in view of the fact that only 50% of the budget allocation was drawn down last year?
I realise the figures on the installation aid and farm retirement schemes are historical and have been paid out by now but is the Minister open to considering another installation aid scheme for young farmers under the new RDP? It is the most effective policy instrument at his disposal to increase land mobility.
Subhead C.6.7 deals with bioenergy fuels, including miscanthus and willow. The budget allocation was €1 million but, for obvious reasons, the outturn was only €178,000. Only a limited area was planted with bioenergy crops because of issues relating to the ultimate use of these crops. Subhead C.6.3 on forestry development is a related area. A large number of farmers are harvesting willow crops and putting them into aerated storage but problems arise due to the breakdown and heating of the material. In England, sugar cane harvesters are being modified to cut billets, which are bits of timber only a few inches in length. These billets do not degrade as quickly because air can circulate through them and they can be used to produce wood briquettes or other forms of wood heating fuel. We need to expand beyond our current practices because nothing is happening. Will the Minister consider copying what is being done in the UK, where a renewable heat incentive scheme pays 1 p per kW/h of fossil fuels substituted with biomass. Departments would need to work together to create a final destination for these products because currently people are spraying off miscanthus fields. We have made a good step forward on the medium-term objectives but we are starting to lose ground.
In regard to REPS, we are budgeting for all the payments due to the remaining farmers in REPS this year. That figure will drop dramatically into next year but it still requires a substantial amount of money to meet the estimated €184 million in payments. The allocation for AEOS will increase by €10 million because of the increased payments we anticipate making this year as the scheme is ramped up.
We were given the figures. Some 12,000 farmers left in 2013 and 16,148 will leave in 2014. The final tranche of 850 will exit in 2015. Does the budget ensure these 16,148 farmers will get their final payments in 2014 so that only 850 farmers will remain to be paid in 2015?
If their payments are due in 2014, the answer is "Yes". We are trying to pay farmers coming out of REPS as quickly as we can. We will have to accommodate the hangover payments that go into 2015 but there will be a new scheme by then.
The amount for installation aid is only €10,000, whereas the figure for early retirement is approximately €10 million. In regard to Deputy Penrose's question on whether we will introduce a new installation aid scheme, we investigated how we can spend money to the maximum effect. When installation aid was introduced, there was no requirement on young farmers to spend it in any particular way. The money was given to young farmers, supposedly to get them started. That was a good principle but they could spend it on anything. There was no requirement for them to spend it on agriculture.
We will continue to positively discriminate in favour of young farmers by giving them a top-up of 25% on their single farm payments which means €16,000 over five years to someone who claims the maximum available under the scheme. Obviously that figure varies according to how much land is being claimed. They also have access to preferential capital supports under Pillar 2. Under the rural development programme, a young farmer who wants to invest in capital infrastructure on his or her farm can get 60% grant aid, whereas his or her parents would get 40% grant aid. These capital grants amount to a significant amount of money. They can also get support for establishing partnerships or producing artisan food. There is a strong package for young farmers.
I made what I think was the right judgment call, as I explained to Macra na Feirme at its annual meeting. We cannot be in the business of giving out money without understanding how it will achieve value for money. There are strong incentives for young farmers and for generational change within the new RDP.
We will not give them a huge lump-sum, no questions asked, and let them spend it however they want. Those days are over. We can no longer afford that luxury. That does not mean we have not allocated very significant sums of money for young farmers. We have.
Licensing for aquaculture has been one of my great frustrations since taking this job. We are getting through it and are trying to fast-track it as best we can while staying within the agreed EC regulations. Last year I approved approximately 140 aquaculture licences, maybe more. I can get the exact figures. It is a slight increase on the previous year. We are assessing bays as quickly as we can. If a bay or harbour is a special area of conservation, SAC, we have to go through a process of environmental assessment before we can even accept an application for an aquaculture licence. That means our Department, working with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Irish Marine Institute, getting the science done on those bays before we can assess the aquaculture applications.
This is a very important area for me but we must do it in a way that is sustainable and environmentally acceptable. We have an obligation to do that and the Commission will require it, and that is right. That does not mean we cannot get on with the job as quickly as possible. People who seek aquaculture licences or licence extensions in some bays are waiting for their bay to be assessed, and that is very frustrating for them. We have to try to get around to assessing those bays as quickly as we can. We are prioritising the bays that have the most applications or potential applications to try and get as many of them dealt with as possible.
I am not sure that solves the immediate problem. Within the next five to ten years we will hopefully have a streamlined and much more efficient system of assessing licence applications and in terms of re-assessing applications. I am slow to give someone a licence for the next 25 or 30 years. We need the checks and balances of a re-application. We will examine that. I am not opposed to it.
Other EU countries do not have the pressure we have from the Commission regarding putting a gold-plated aquaculture licensing system in place.
Because in the past this was not done well and the Commission took us to court and won. It now requires us to put in place a much more robust and environmentally sound licensing system. I agree with it on that, but it involves resources and a lot of time for the assessment of bays. We will do that and will try to increase the resources to do it. I have spoken to the Marine Institute about that and we are examining how we can do that in a way that is acceptable to the Commission and in accordance with the new regulations, but that also speeds it up.
Had we not been as loose about this licensing system in the past, we would not be under the microscope now, but I have to deal with what I have to deal with as a Minister. Seafood processing has been a good news story. In the last two years we have spent a lot of money helping seafood processing by giving companies grant-aid assistance to upgrade their equipment and so on. That is part of the reason the value of seafood exports has dramatically increased, even though the volume has remained more or less the same.
Yes, but it is not demand-led without a backstop. We have only so much money to spend. We are looking to increase horticulture grant aid. We are importing a lot of horticulture in Ireland. We provide for only approximately 60% of our domestic needs here. We can increase that. That is why we are examining grant aiding the development of more horticultural facilities such as polytunnels and glass houses.
A number of people asked about the harbours funds. We have two ways of supporting the physical development of harbours. My Department is responsible for, and owns on behalf of the State, seven fisheries harbours. We need to invest in the infrastructure of those harbours. Killybegs is the biggest, then Castletownbere and we have many others such as Rossaveal, Greencastle, Howth and Dunmore East. There is an ongoing maintenance requirement there and some capital projects that we are trying to spend money on. We have a second programme where we work with local authorities who apply for marine access projects, mainly around fishing, but not solely. We provide 75% co-funding for local authorities for projects up to a certain value. Last year and the year before, local authorities applied for that financial support and we have given it as much as we can support.
Following the storm damage of the last number of weeks I have made the case in Cabinet and outside it that this model might be a good model for repairing some of the storm damage to the coastal harbours that have been affected. We have done quite some work with local authorities in 92 piers and harbours to get an assessment of physical damage we might be able to support. The Government will make a collective response in terms of resources that will be available for that work, along with the Ministers, Deputies Brian Hayes and Hogan.
We will not provide money for survey work and consultants for fisheries harbours. If local authorities want to develop their harbours they can do the ground work first in terms of surveys or consultancy. I insist on spending our money on physical work. It is a stimulus. It is about creating jobs in coastal communities around the country. We have a relatively small amount of money to spend and I want it to be spent on physical construction jobs around harbours, piers, access points, slipways, walkways and rock armour. They are the kind of projects we have been supporting. If we had more money we would also look at supporting some of the survey work required, but we do not. A local authority can make a special case to us, for example if there is a special reason around marine safety, such as the need for a harbour to be dredged. Generally we support physical construction activity and that is the best way to spend our limited resources. It is small money in the bigger scheme of things.
We have revised the Estimate for Irish Seed Savers upwards by 15%. One would not think that looking at the Seed Savers campaign on social media and the questions asked of me. It is the right thing to do. It is an important organisation but it also needs to find ways it can help to fund itself. We cannot pay for everything. There are very few examples where I have decided to increase anybody's budget by 15%. We made that decision virtually overnight because we had overlooked it during the budget debates. The Deputy raised it with me and so we responded to it.
Flooded farm land exists not only in County Clare. There has been much physical damage to agricultural land right along the western seaboard. OPW has primary responsibility for managing floods and ensuring we take action to reduce the effects of floods in the future. Essentially a climate-change adaptation strategy is required. It is very expensive and OPW has limited resources and must prioritise how it spends them. If the Deputy is asking me whether the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine can provide capital resources for reinstating farmland that has been washed away, that is a difficult ask. There will be a collective response from Government on the overall flood damage. That will come in approximately a fortnight's time.
Deputy Pat Deering referred to TAMS. There have been issues and there was an underspend last year. I would like the full amount of €20 million to be drawn down, but that did not happen because farmers decided, for whatever reason, that they did not want to spend. In the first half of the year we had terrible weather and they experienced fodder problems and a horsemeat crisis and confidence in the sector to borrow and invest in farms was knocked because many farmers had debts linked with the fodder issue and so on. The second half of the year was much more positive and dairy farmers were more willing to invest in building projects. I am hopeful this year that optimism will result in a full draw-down, particularly in the dairy sector which is preparing for quota abolition in April 2015. This is the time to invest in dairy farms and plan for expansion and increased herds and milk volume. That is why we are providing a strong TAMS programme again this year. I am hopeful more money will be drawn down this year than last year. However, it is a demand-led scheme and we cannot force farmers to participate, although there are sufficient incentives in place to draw down the money. We do not need to improve the scheme because it is a good one as it is.
There were other reasons farmers did not draw down the money last year. There was a pig welfare issue which posed a problem. Pig farmers must have loose sow housing. This is a welfare requirement laid down by the Commission and we are grant-aiding pig farmers to upgrade their facilities to comply with it. Many of them secured planning permission, but they could not physically get the works done in time with the contractors and we extended the deadline for compliance until the end of February. Much of the TAMS money earmarked for the sow welfare loose housing scheme has been deferred to this year and it will be drawn down. Extending the deadline led to an easing off of sow welfare expenditure, but this was done for all the right reasons. It would have been rushed if we had not done this. I am reasonably confident that all of the money allocated under TAMS will be drawn down this year. I cannot say this for sure, but the figure will be higher than last year.
Deputy Willie Penrose referred to the new RDP. I answered the question on installation aid.
Deputy Tom Barry asked about bioenergy My Department and the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources have been in constant discussions about a bioenergy strategy and how to link with the Food Harvest 2020 strategy and so on. There are more problems around miscanthus than willow, but we need to examine what is working elsewhere because the energy crops initiative, particularly miscanthus, has not been successful in Ireland. It does not pay a person to transport the bulk material to Bord na Móna for co-firing and so on unless he or she is harvesting near Edenderry. Some farmers have sprayed the crop and are ploughing in. We have amended the rules to permit them to do this without paying a clawback penalty to the Department for the grants they received, but it is still not a satisfactory scenario. Energy crops probably need more consideration and to be the subject of another debate.
A sum of €5.7 million has been allocated for the Haulbowline remediation project this year. That will continue for a number of years. Is the project being funded out of the Department's own resources?
No. It is included in the Estimate, but the money is coming from central funds. We are responsible for spending the money and have sanction to spend up to €40 million. If we do not deal with the environmental issue - it is essentially a toxic landfill site in the middle of Cork Harbour without a licence - we will be fined by the Commission. We are, therefore, required to deal with it and are doing so. I have sanction to spend up to €40 million to make the site safe. I hope it will cost less than this. We have made an application to the EPA for a licence and a planning application to An Bord Pleanála to do the work necessary to make safe the site which is located at East Tip on Haulbowline Island. While it is part of the Estimate, I assure the Deputy that we are not taking the money from schemes for farmers. This is money Ministers collectively have agreed to provide and I am the Minister in charge of delivery of the project. We could spend more than that this year, if the EPA licence and planning permission are granted, but that is the estimate for now.
There are many small piers and harbour slips along the coast, some of which were built by the Congested Districts Board. An inventory was created by local authorities in some counties, particularly Cork and Galway. When I was Minister, the Department funded some of this work in order that we would have an accurate record of what was in place. It did not involve detailed surveys, rather it involved visual surveys of piers. A two-page description of every pier and landing place was supplied. Some of them are in charge of councils, while others are not and few of them do not have a value. They are either used for marine leisure activities or fishing. The database makes is easier for local authorities and the Department to make informed decisions on investing money and for people to be creative in developing harbours through Leader companies and the rural social scheme if the Minister funds them. It would be cost effective, therefore, to use some of the allocation for harbours and piers to expand this inventory to cover all of the counties in which surveys have not been carried out. Rather than having a hotchpotch view, it was a useful tool in developing a comprehensive plan to use all of these facilities.
That is a good approach. Local authorities have a great deal of information on the harbours for which they are responsible. We have an estimate of the damage caused to that infrastructure in the past six weeks and are continuing to work on it. The Deputy and I share an interest in marine, coastal and island communities and the infrastructure they need. We are preparing a detailed assessment of the damage that needs to be repaired which I will bring to the Government. An inventory of infrastructure should be developed, although I am not sure of the extent of what is available. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, my Department and local authorities, collectively, should have access to such an inventory. I will follow it up and ascertain what is available.
The Minister has said only a small percentage of farmers have a figure of more than 3% and that an even smaller percentage have a figure of more than 20%. What percentage have less than ten or 20 ha?
The problem is that for a farmer with 100 ha, 3% is 3 ha which is a hell of a mistake to make. However, for a farmer with 10 ha, it is 0.3 ha and for a farmer with 5 ha, it is 0.15 ha. If the Minister examines the map, which I need back after a while, he will find it very instructive. Based on the Land Registry map that the land holder had - that person did not have the Department's mapping techniques - one can see how this thing can be totally disproportionate to the people at the bottom of the pile. It is involving a huge bureaucratic engine and at the end of the day there is not much money involved with these very small farmers. A farmer is getting €100 a hectare. For someone who is 0.4 ha out and if that represents more than 3%, the farmer gets cut by 1.2 ha multiplied by the five years from 2009 to 2013. That suddenly becomes 7 ha which means that it is virtually one year's payment gone.
I do not know if any other country is doing what Ireland is doing, but I suspect very few countries have the capacity to do what we are doing, which is to assess every land parcel in the country accurately and to see if there is an overclaim. Some 7% of farmers are affected above the 3% figure. We then need to work out with the farmers why that is. If there is reason to do so we need to go out and carry out a physical inspection of the land. This year, we are proposing to go through it in as much detail as we can and work out with farmers what was eligible and what was not, and why it was not eligible so that we can ensure that money that should not have been drawn down is paid back.
We need to take an approach to the spending of public money that is transparent and beyond question. If we do not do that, the Commission will take an aggressive approach to this, make its own estimate and apply a disallowance, for which every farmer will have to pay. I encourage farmers to use the appeal system that is in place. We want to be as helpful as we can in getting farmers under the 20% threshold and getting farmers under the 3% threshold when we can. Everything we do here is being monitored and audited by the Commission. It is not open to me to make some kind of arbitrary policy decision that because somebody has a small farm and a small payment, we should just ignore a payment on land that was not eligible. That option is not open to me, as the Commission has made very clear. We are adopting those options that are open to me. We will work with farmers on a case-by-case basis.
The Deputy is right in saying that most of the farmers who have problems in terms of the 20% have small holdings. There are a few big ones - only 400 of those - but most of them are relatively small farmers. There are issues we need to go through with those landowners and farmers explaining why the land is not eligible. Where there is an overclaim of more than 20%, we plan on dealing with those individually with the farmer.
Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív:
The good thing about this case is that this lady had a REPS inspection six years ago with the exact same map. The REPS inspector, like the lady involved, had the kind of technology she had and he passed it. From what the Minister said earlier, she seems to be through the gap by definition.
Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív:
However, the REPS inspector passed it and said the acreage was right six years ago. I do not think the Ombudsman will rule in favour of the Minister when we take it to the Ombudsman. I believe the Ombudsman will agree there was a reasonably legitimate expectation on her part because her land had not changed.
I will not get into this here, but there are cases where because of difficulties in the years of the wet summers, people did not get in to carry our normal maintenance on ground that would need topping and it appears on the map. There is a process to request a physical inspection of the land by a Department inspector. It is good to highlight the cases and the various different situations that can arise but we need to be reassured that the process is fair and adequately resourced so that these cases can be assessed individually. The most important thing is for the Department to take a proactive approach to getting people under the thresholds of 20% and 3%. For the purposes of this meeting, which is an Estimates meeting, we need to ensure there are adequate resources for the process to be conducted. I could cite several cases of people who would argue that these maps had been signed off in 2010 and that they would not be retrospectively challenged again.
This whole process has changed. I highlighted a potential anomaly down the road with regard to ecological focus areas. In the context of this discussion on mapping, some of the areas have lost land through flooding, erosion or movement of material onto what was previously grassland. For those some force majeurerecognition should be given retrospectively.
In D3.2, the cost of capital intervention, this is obviously very much dependent on what goes into intervention. I ask the Minister to outline how the intervention process works and the disparity between 2013 when it was €955,000 to an estimate of €100,000. Sorry, I have not crosschecked the outturn and whether that €955,000 was all drawn down. I should have crosschecked that first.
Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív:
I only gave that as a sample I happened to have because I am working on it for the person in question but I have endless similar examples.
Many of these people received a redigitised map with small corrections a few years ago and they presumed it was correct. Now they have received another digitised map. I understand the Ombudsman is examining the retrospective action the Department took in 2011 on disadvantaged area payments. I have no doubt the Ombudsman will state the process being followed here is unfair and we will test it all the way to the Ombudsman. It seems to be tying up many of the Department's resources.
Recently somebody who had overdeclared came to me with one of these maps. The person had not realised a garraí had been left out which far exceeds the overdeclaration on what was included. We must find out from the Department before a case is made whether the person will be penalised on the double for not declaring all the land. People are human.
Suppose for argument sake the Department examined cases where it is clear and obvious the person is defrauding the Department and penalised them. Suppose then the Department considered other cases involving 0.1 ha or 0.3 ha on land which is very difficult to measure, such as that which contains rocks and scrub, and calculated the overpayment by Europe was €10 million and paid it back to Europe. Would the Department still be fined? Rather than taking money from the farmer the Department would take it from the Exchequer but would avoid a fine by paying back the overpayment. It would mean effectively the Department disallowed European payments because it was paid out of Exchequer resources.
We must make the corrections to the maps. The objective is to get to a position at the start of 2015 for a new CAP round with accurate maps and money being drawn down on eligible land. As part of this process, which we are required to introduce by the Commission, we must assess, in terms of making our maps more accurate, whether there has been an overclaim on land which was ineligible for the past four years and, if so, we must give back the money. Some countries have stated they cannot deal with the detail and it is too big a job. In such cases the Commission has made an assessment of the overpayment, multiplied it by a considerable figure and there have been significant disallowances. In Ireland we are attempting to accurately address the overpayment so the only farmers asked to make repayments are those who have overclaimed, whether they knew they were doing it or not.
Every year farmers have a responsibility to check their maps and ensure they are accurate, and this is clear in the application. I do not like having to ask people for money back but the alternative is a significant fine. If we decide to ask the Exchequer to pay it we will have a problem because everybody will pay for the fact certain farmers drew down payments on land which was ineligible and we will know the percentage of land which was not eligible because we must correct the mapping accurately in advance of 2015.
Suppose the Minister decided that where an overclaim was less than 1 ha or 0.5 ha the farmer would not be penalised for five years retrospectively and the Exchequer would take the hit. I am sure the amount of money involved would be so minuscule as not to make any significant difference in the scale of things.
Surely it is appropriate that people who own land which is not eligible who have drawn down payments on that land are those who must pay back the money they should not have drawn down in the first place rather than asking the general Exchequer.
We will not get agreement on this and Deputy Ó Cuív has made his point. Something that would be of reassurance to everybody is a commitment that for the duration of the next Comment Agricultural Policy this exercise, when completed, will not be revisited. Everybody is aware of the fact it has caused much uncertainty because nobody seems to know how many more times they can come back to the well and revisit it on their terms The Commission could give an undertaking that once completed it is accepted, no matter what technology is introduced, be it laser measurements.
This is a much more accurate way. It is not like we have a reassessment every year. The mapping technology has changed and allows us to be much more accurate. It happened last July. As a result of this accuracy we now know some land which was not eligible for payment drew down payments. The Commission also knows this and we must take the course of action we are taking.
It reminds me of the case of the widow woman who by mistake was on the rural social scheme while in receipt of a widow's pension. She was inadvertently overpaid by the rural social scheme. She did not mean to cheat the scheme by €2,300. In fairness to the Department it did not hit the poor widow woman. I would say the ordinary plain people of Ireland would rather spend the fraction of the euro themselves. We did not reclaim it. We told her she owed us the money but we did not claim it. The maps I gave the Minister are typical of a large number of maps in the west of Ireland. They involve 0.01 ha. Until recently the people or the officials had no way to measure this accurately. Suddenly people are being penalised 15 times for errors involving 0.01 ha. Some cases come to a judgment call as to whether scrub is a forage area and whether it can be grazed in the summer or winter. It is bizarre.
If anybody has been sent out something for less than the exclusion level it should be retracted. This would be a simple way to deal with it.
I am conscious we have met for three and a half hours. I thank the committee secretariat for the briefing material they provided for us to work through. I thank the members who came at the beginning and stayed to the end. It is not easy in such a select committee meeting because people want to go through much forensic detail. I thank the Minister and his officials for assisting the committee with its consideration of the revised Estimate for 2014. As the select committee has completed its consideration of the revised Estimate for public services, in accordance with Standing Order 87, the clerk to the committee will convey a message to this effect to the Clerk of the Dáil. Under Standing Order 86(2), the message is deemed to be the report of the committee.