Wednesday, 7 November 2007
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important motion for debate. I am disappointed the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, that girl from Donegal, is not here to provide me with a more informative reply. However, I will leave it to the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, to bridge the gap in her absence.
How or why can the Minister launch a national farm improvement scheme grant in mid-July and end it, suspend it and run out of money, in three and half months? This is incredible treatment of a major industry and must be more than an embarrassment to the Minister. Even the HSE, that famous body operating the health services, normally takes ten months before it starts making cutbacks. It is one more of those gimmicks used to gain votes in the recent election that was so well portrayed by the Department on behalf of the Minister and her party.
Three and half months is barely enough time to get planning permission for these projects but not enough time to consult with architects or engineers to plan the regulatory process. How can farmers plan their future if the rug is pulled from under them after only three months?
My main concern and the reason I raise this issue is that I am now informed those who applied before the deadline were told their applications will not be processed and that the Minister ordered applications received between 22 and 30 October to be put on hold indefinitely. Is this proper procedure for progressive farmers? How can the Government stand over this treatment of people trying to meet their obligations under the rigid farm procedures introduced by the EU and the Government?
This is another sleight of hand by the Minister and whatever about suspending a scheme from the date of announcement, she cannot apply the law retrospectively. I call on her to honour applications received before the 30 October deadline and honour the law as prescribed by the law of the land and enshrined in the Constitution. Every citizen is entitled to the same treatment and benefit under the Constitution. Whatever about ending the scheme, the Minister cannot break and dishonour the contract with applicants who validly applied two weeks prior to the closing date. I am reliably informed that 250 such applications have been made to the Clonakilty office and a further 400 were made to the South Mall office in Cork for east and north-west County Cork. The person who contacted me had intended to replace his milk tank at a cost of over €30,000, for which he would have received a grant of just over €6,000. I call on the Minister to honour her contract to all those who had made valid applications prior to her statement. Her job is to find the money to continue this farm improvement scheme. After all, the duty of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is to improve the agricultural sector.
I hope the Minister of State will have good news for the beleaguered farmers who are doing their best to meet the requirements but are frustrated by red tape and bureaucracy on the part of the Department.
Many developments, including replacing milk tanks, do not require planning permission.
I am glad of this opportunity to set out the position regarding the recent suspension of the farm improvement scheme. The scheme was launched by the Department in July 2007 following the receipt of EU approval for Ireland's rural development programme 2007-13. The scheme provides grant aid up to a maximum eligible investment ceiling of €120,000 for animal housing and related facilities, with a separate ceiling of €120,000 for investments in dairy hygiene. Grant aid was also extended under the new scheme to additional items such as grain bins and silos, out-wintering pads, mats on slats, cubicle beds and internal concrete areas, mobile sheep handling equipment, calf-feeding systems and feeding systems in parlours. Other changes included the removal of all income limits so that all farmers could participate in the scheme and the extension of top-up grants for young farmers to all qualifying applicants under the age of 35.
Under the rural development programme 2007-13, a sum of €85 million was allocated for the modernisation of agricultural holdings, including the farm improvement scheme. This is also the allocation agreed for this area in the partnership agreement, Towards 2016. Some €6 million of this amount was subsequently earmarked for the introduction in 2007 of the pig welfare — sow housing — scheme, thereby leaving an allocation of €79 million for the farm improvement scheme. The Minister made it very clear when launching the scheme last July that a certain financial allocation was provided for this scheme and that it would be suspended when that ceiling was reached. This was also clearly specified in the terms and conditions of the scheme. Everybody, including the farming organisations who were party to the partnership agreement, was aware of this from the outset.
The funding of €79 million for the scheme is part of an overall programme of investment of €350 million which was agreed in the 2006 partnership negotiations for farm waste and other on-farm investment measures. This is part of an overall €8.6 billion of public funding for the agrifood sector as provided for under the partnership agreement and set out in the National Development Plan 2007-13. It is real evidence of this Government's strong and continuing commitment to the further development of this sector.
The need to support farmers to become compliant with the slurry storage requirements of the nitrates directive was a major issue requiring an immediate and effective response from the Government. The Minister therefore introduced the revised farm waste management scheme as a generous and imaginative response. Grant rates of up to 75% are available to farmers under this scheme. The scope of the farm waste management scheme and the extremely generous grant rates resulted in over 48,000 grant applications being received by the Department. Over 34,000 approvals have issued to farmers to commence work. The remaining applications are processed as evidence of full planning permission and other necessary documentation is received from farmers. This is the largest capital investment in the sector in the history of the State and it continues to be the priority for the Minister. Expenditure to date this year under the farm waste management scheme has been €78.3 million, compared with just over €21 million during the whole of the calendar year 2006 and it is expected that expenditure in 2008 will be significantly higher again.
As far as the farm improvement scheme is concerned, over 12,600 applications were received from farmers up to the closing date of 31 October 2007. A wide range of items have been included in these applications, ranging from the purchase of mats for cattle to the installation of new milking machines and bulk milk tanks. Over 1,600 approvals have already issued to farmers to commence work under the scheme and the Department will continue to process these applications up to the level of funding available for the scheme.
As indicated earlier, funding for the farm improvement scheme is provided under the partnership agreement, which also provides for a review of its terms in 2008. In accordance with the terms of that agreement, the review will take stock of the outcomes achieved on the overall goals and consider opportunities to refocus and reprioritise. This is an important consideration in the context of the suspension for now of the scheme as far as new applications are concerned.
There can be no doubt the Government remains strongly committed to the continued development of the sector. The levels of funding proposed over the coming years for on-farm investment are unprecedented. Most importantly, we are also meeting our commitments under the partnership agreement. The uptake on the farm improvement scheme is an indication of the success of the scheme in meeting the needs of farmers. There will obviously be an opportunity in 2008 for all the social partners to review the operation of the various programmes provided for under partnership and, if necessary, to reprioritise within the budget set out in the national development plan.