Thursday, 8 March 2007
Farm Inspection Scheme.
Question 5: To ask the Minister for Agriculture and Food her views on the farm inspection scheme; if she is satisfied that the extensive paperwork associated with it is appropriate; her plans to review the requirements; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [9213/07]
The introduction of the single payment scheme and my Department's commitment to the farm bodies to ensure maximum integration of inspections across schemes and for cross-compliance has resulted in a drop in annual farm inspection levels from 18,000 under the coupled regime to less than 8,000 in 2006. I agree the inspection requirements linked to cross-compliance are complex and I am committed to negotiating significant changes in the context of the simplification exercise which is currently under way in the Commission. It needs to be made clear that the inspection checklist on cross-compliance should be completed by the departmental inspector, not the farmer.
It is important also to bear in mind that the controls under the various direct payment schemes are detailed in EU regulations. Failure to ensure a satisfactory control environment leaves a member state open to serious financial penalty — a fact that cannot be lightly dismissed given the magnitude of annual payments of €1.9 billion to Irish farmers under the single payment scheme, the disadvantaged areas scheme and REPS. Nonetheless, we believe the cross-compliance inspection requirements are overly demanding on farmers. It is our clearly held view that some practical amendments can be secured without, in any way, undermining the objectives of cross-compliance or putting accountability in the disbursement of EU and national funds at risk.
As we have made clear, the Minister has raised our concerns about the single payment scheme, particularly the inspection arrangements, and the need for advance notice with Commissioner Fischer Boel on a number of occasions. She has also discussed the problems with the German President of the Agriculture Council and we are assured of his commitment in dealing with the issues over the next few months. The Minister discussed her concerns when in Paris last weekend at the international agriculture show with her German and French counterparts and impressed on them the need to lessen the burden of bureaucracy on farmers in the simplification process now under way.
The Commission is at an advanced stage in finalising a review document on cross-compliance. We expect this to be cleared through the Commission before the end of March and it will then go to the Agriculture Council for discussion in April. With the commitment of the Presidency to progressing the dossier speedily, we are hopeful changes can be agreed in time to apply to the 2007 inspection arrangements.
In tandem with this, our Department is carrying out a full review of the inspection arrangements and checklists for the single payment scheme with a view to simplification of the arrangements, including the paperwork, where possible, while at the same time ensuring compliance with the regulatory requirements. The review of the inspection report forms, together with the outcome of the Commission's review of the cross-compliance arrangements generally, will be fully discussed with the farming organisations before the single payment scheme inspections for 2007 get under way. The full details of the Department's 2007 inspection arrangements will also be sent to all farmers in advance of the inspections.
My colleague, Deputy Penrose, tabled a question last week in which he stated that the document consists of 66 pages covering 1,450 different questions, sections and permutations and that it requires the inspector's signature in 28 different places. I accept what the Minister of State said that the document is to be completed and signed off by her inspectors but there is much reading to be done by farmers and much homework to be done to address the questions with inspectors. The content of the document should be substantially reduced, so that it is appropriate for farmers.
As we have said on several occasions, we agree with the sentiments in regard to simplification. We have looked in detail at the 66 page document to which Deputy Penrose referred. It is important to state the only occasion in which all that paperwork would need to be used would be in a case where a farmer had all of the following on his or her farm: wild birds nesting; a habitat or two; sludge; cattle, sheep, goats and pigs; milking cows; and arable crops. He or she would also have to have an outbreak of foot and mouth; blue tongue; and swine vesicular disease. He or she would be a fairly unusual farmer before all the 66 pages would have to be completed.
As the Minister has outlined on several occasions, the inspection forms do not have to be read or completed by the farmer. They are to be completed by the inspector. There is a good reason for a detailed inspection guideline for the inspector, namely, it ensures inspectors from Donegal to Wexford apply the same criteria. If there was a vague, half page guideline, one could have several different applications.
The Minister was very clear earlier when she gave the statistics, which really explain the issue. Some 18,000 farmers were subject to on-farm inspections in 2004. That figure was reduced to 8,000 in 2006. There is a reduction of 82% in the number of farmers being penalised. There is much scaremongering going on and it is not fair to farmers.
I wish to make it clear that the farmer does not have to read or complete the form. The form contains specific guidelines for our inspectors. The inspector is the only person who must read and complete the form, so that there is fairness throughout the country.
We agree there is a need to simplify the form and we are working on that. Much discussion will take place between now and the 2007 single payment inspections. We want to simplify the form and make it clearer for everybody. We will talk to the farm organisations and the documentation will issue to farmers before the inspections commence this year.