Wednesday, 15 September 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank Deputies Carthy and Cahill for raising this issue. As has been rightly outlined, 2019 was a very difficult year for beef farmers. There was a need for support to help them cope with market difficulties, which were largely driven by Brexit. That is why we fought hard to get money from Europe to establish the beef exceptional aid measure, BEAM, which ended up with €77 million being paid to 33,000 farmers in 2019, €50 million of which came from the EU with the balance having come from the national Exchequer. In return, farmers were required over the following two years to reduce by 5% their bovine organic nitrogen produced on the farm. The European Commission insisted there was an element of restructuring of the Irish beef sector built into the scheme. Money is never given without some conditionality attached. That was clearly set out in article 1.3 of the Commission regulation 2019/113(2) of 2 July 2019 and it was also in section 7 of the BEAM scheme's terms and conditions in 2019. Such was the urgent nature of the market difficulty that the money was paid upfront, subject to the participants' compliance with the scheme requirements.
Almost 19,000 farmers have now met their requirements and exited the scheme. A further 11,000 farmers have opted to avail of the flexibility the Minister, Deputy McConalogoe, fought hard for and secured in January from the European Commission. This allowed a farmer to opt for a later reduction period over which the 5% could be delivered. The later period runs from 1 January 2021 to 31 December 2021 compared to the original period which ran from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021.
All 33,000 farmers in the BEAM scheme had the opportunity to avail of the later reduction period if they wished and if it was necessary. Farmers could apply for the deferral between 19 March and 21 June. The Department made it clear to farmers there was no downside to applying for the deferment option because we wanted to make sure everybody who wanted to apply for that deferment could do so without any fear. Those who opted for the deferment but met the scheme conditions in the original period were automatically removed from the later reduction period because they had met the requirements. Almost 5,300 farmer participants were in this category and have exited the scheme without recoupment. The remaining 3,600 farmers decided not to opt for the later reduction period and, as of the end of June 2021, have failed to meet the obligations they signed up to under the BEAM scheme's terms and conditions.
Of the 3,600 farmers, 66% or 2,396, who are in the recoupment situation increased their nitrates during that reduction period. These 3,600 farmers will have some or all of the money they received in 2019 recouped. The total being recouped is now €5.2 million with the average recoupment per farmer at €1,700. Among the 3,600 farmers, almost 10% of cases involve less than €200 and almost a quarter involve less than €400.
The rules on recoupment of interest are the same across all schemes. They are set down. There is conditionality with respect to European rules involving European money. The Deputies highlighted concern for the farmers involved. They had the option to continue on in the scheme but decided not to do that. As I said, two thirds of these farmers decided to increase their nitrogen organic output. The majority of those farmers made that conscious decision in the full knowledge that they were outside the terms and conditions of the scheme. That was a business decision for them to make and they felt it was the right thing to do, which was their right, but the terms of the scheme mean that money has to be recouped.
I accept the communication around the recoupment letter to the 3,600 farmers could have been clearer and was not handled properly. The Minister, Deputy McConalogue has instructed Department officials to issue an apology to this cohort of farmers for the premature manner in which their moneys were deducted. I take on board the concerns raised. I am happy to answer further in response to supplementary questions.