Tuesday, 24 March 2009
Suckler Cow Welfare Scheme.
Question 51: To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the level of payment for the remaining years in view of his recent guarantee that the €250 million suckler cow welfare scheme will be maintained. [12004/09]
I am not in a position to confirm that payments will continue to be made under the suckler cow welfare scheme. The Government has decided, having regard to the urgent need to address the public finances, to introduce a supplementary budget in the Dáil on 7 April next. Over 53,000 farmers applied for the suckler cow welfare scheme in 2008. The estimated cost of the scheme for that year, at a rate of €80 per cow, is approximately €77 million. As approximately €33 million had been spent by the end of 2008, a further €44 million has been provided in my Department's 2009 Estimate to pay for the remaining calves that were born in 2008. Of the €44 million mentioned, over €14.5 million has already been paid to farmers in 2009. Payments are continuing on a weekly basis as additional animals become eligible and certain application details are clarified with individual applicants. It must be borne in mind that the money being paid to farmers under this scheme is an additional income stream — it was not there before last year. All the funding in question is coming from the Exchequer.
I am concerned that the suckler cow welfare scheme may be abolished or further eroded. That was the basis of my decision to table this question. Over 32,000 beef farmers have participated in the Teagasc training sessions that are required under the scheme. It is vitally important that the scheme be maintained in the first instance. The answer given by the Minister will not reassure the House. Will the scheme be maintained? If so, farmers are entitled to know the level at which it will be maintained. I appreciate that the Minister cannot make a statement on the budgetary position ahead of 7 April next. However, farmers are entitled to know whether the scheme will be maintained.
I share Deputy Sherlock's view that this is a good scheme. It has proven beneficial during the year in which it has been in existence. As I said in response to a question asked on a previous occasion by Deputy Sherlock or Deputy Creed, it is intended to honour the commitment — to provide €250 million over five years — that was made when the suckler cow welfare scheme was introduced. I reiterate that the scheme, which is designed to help farmers to adapt to market requirements, provides particular value. I would like to be able to make a decision as soon as possible. It will not be possible to make any decisions on the 2009 scheme in advance of the publication of the revised Book of Estimates for the Department, which will happen after the decisions that are made before 7 April are announced in this House on that date. I remind the House that €31.75 million was paid out in respect of last year's scheme up to the end of 2008. I can confirm, in response to a question I was asked earlier, that the amount paid so far in 2009 is in excess of €14.6 million. Therefore, the total amount paid to date under the 2008 scheme is almost €48 million.
I appreciate that the Government and the Department are having to operate under difficult financial constraints. The Minister will accept that beef production is a marginal enterprise. It is a part-time enterprise for many people. Will the Minister consider revising the terms of the suckler cow welfare scheme so that an €80 level of payment can be guaranteed to all farmers for their first 20, 25 or 30 suckler cows? That would ensure that the maximum benefit would accrue to smaller producers, in particular. The level of payment under the scheme could be tapered downwards for applications that are made in respect of greater numbers of animals. The needs of smaller producers should be prioritised because their capacity to retain an income from farming depends on whether they can draw the maximum amount from this scheme.
Members of this House have also proposed a reduction in the number of years of participation in the scheme. Although the suckler cow welfare scheme is entirely funded from the Exchequer, the Government had to get state aid approval from the EU before it could be introduced. Further approval would be needed from the Union if a major variation in the conditions of the scheme were to be made. Any worthwhile proposals on the continuation of various aspects of the scheme will be considered. For example, the amount of money paid to an applicant might vary depending on the number of eligible animals he or she has.