Tuesday, 24 March 2009
Rural Environment Protection Scheme
I welcome the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment. As I understand it, letters rejecting REPS 4 applications were issued today to a number of farmers across the country, an issue about which there is currently much consternation. I have a particular interest in the REPS scheme given my involvement in 1995 in the roll-out of the REPS 1 scheme. I recall that over a period of two and a half years approximately 46,000 farmers registered as REPS farmers. I have always considered it to be an innovative and creative scheme that does a great deal to protect our environment. Farmers are the greatest custodians of our environment.
REPS 4 was launched in August 2007 but did not really get up and running until January 2008 owing to operational problems with the eREPS system, a computer package for the compilation of plans introduced as a result of the nitrates directive. An information day for planners in September 2007 merely scratched the surface with regard to the workings of the scheme. While terms and conditions and planner specifications were available at the time, they raised more questions than anything else. In hindsight, these should have been vigorously analysed, but owing to time constraints that was not possible. Insufficient information on the scheme was provided by the Department to planners and farmers at that particular time.
New applicants to the scheme were required to have their plans drawn up and submitted prior to 15 May 2008. Huge volumes of plans had to be submitted in a short space of time which, in turn, put huge pressure on planners and farmers to have work completed before this deadline. Planners claim that in the period up to 15 May 2008 they received little guidance, assistance and clarification from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in regard to drawing up REPS 4 plans. I do not know if this is true but the planners with whom I have been in contact on behalf of farmers all point to the vagueness and misinformation from day one in terms of how the scheme was presented. Also, it appeared to them at that time that there was a great deal of confusion within the Department on how to answer REPS planner questions about the scheme.
Late in 2008, farmers received letters confirming that their REPS plans had been received by the Department and were being processed. Once plans were being processed from May to December 2008, planners received letters from the Department seeking extra information, minor adjustments and clarification on some issues in the plans, which is normal procedure. These changes were in most cases promptly made. There was no mention at that time of major issues arising with measures 2 and 4 within the plans. I draw the Minister of State's attention to measure 2 which relates to grassland management, which is quite simple to represent on a plan and measure 4 which relates to habitats. Totally misguided information in respect of these two measures was issued to planners. Farmers received letters stating: "The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food hereby accepts your agri-environmental plan and admits your application subject to the Scheme terms and conditions, and to the provisions of Council Regulations 1698/05." The letter also provided information on when plans commenced, the contract area, how many months and how much they would be paid for in 2008 and how much they would receive for a full calendar year within REPS 4. There was then a time lag between these letters and the next step.
Rumours started to circulate in January 2009 that many of these plans would be rejected or at the very least that a penalty would be imposed on them. Planners were kept in the dark with regard to these procedures and are now being unfairly scapegoated for the whole problem. Many farmers have already missed out on two years of REPS and if plans are rejected they will miss out on another. Farmers simply cannot survive without this direct payment which is the only element of guaranteed income from single farm payments.
Today, farmers across the country received letters in regard to rejection of their plans, an issue about which I am sure all Members will be hearing tomorrow. This is unfair. I am sure the Minister of State will in response to this matter read out the standard reply from the Department. REPS 4 plans should not be rejected. They should be returned to planners for amendment and updating. Also, the Minister of State or his Department officials should explain these measures to planners and advise them in regard to what they must do. This is the least that could be done at this stage for a community under a great deal of pressure to survive until next year.
Trevor Sargent (Minister of State with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Dublin North, Green Party)
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Ar dtús báire, ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Teachta Deenihan as ucht an ábhar tábhachtach seo a ardú. Also, I acknowledge his hard work during his time as Minister of State in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
As stated by Deputy Deenihan, REPS has been one of the most successful schemes operated by my Department since its launch in 1994. It has brought more than €2 billion in payments to Irish farmers. Farmers in REPS received more than €313 million in payments last year. The number of people involved in the scheme, including those applicants for REPS 4 currently being processed, stands at more than 60,000.
As the Deputy stated, REPS has always been about much more than money. It has delivered benefits to the environment, water quality, biodiversity and the landscape. Since the nitrates derogation allowed us to open up the scheme to the highly stocked dairy sector, farmers who would not previously have considered REPS are now showing interest. Indeed, many have actually made their applications. REPS is a complex scheme. Currently, a participant in REPS must include all of his or her land in the scheme and must commit to 11 basic measures and at least two biodiversity options. If Natura land is involved, there may be other obligations. This set of undertakings, negotiated with the European Commission, is the basis for payment.
In recent years, the European Commission and the Court of Auditors have taken an increasingly critical approach in their scrutiny of farm payment schemes not alone in Ireland but in other member states. Agri-environment measures such as REPS are being closely audited following a negative report by the Court of Auditors in 2006 which found that huge amounts of EU money was being spent on schemes the outcomes of which were difficult or even impossible to measure.
We had two audit visits on REPS last year; one by the Court of Auditors and one by the European Commission. Both raised serious questions about our procedures for examining applications for REPS. It was evident that we had to make fundamental changes in the way we dealt with applications. It became necessary, therefore, for my Department to scrutinise every REPS application and plan in the greatest detail. We had to introduce an entirely new system last year for processing REPS 4 applications. I am well aware that this has meant that farmers have had to wait much longer than expected for their first REPS 4 payments. I know that up to half of those who applied in 2008 are still waiting for payments. I do not suggest for one moment that this is a satisfactory situation; it is one we hope not to find ourselves in again.
There are a number of reasons for the delay. First, we had to develop a computer system for screening plans that had been prepared on eREPS, the electronic planning system approved and funded by the Department. There are no safe short cuts in developing computer systems and it took several months to get this one to an acceptable level. Second, the non-eREPS plans had to be screened manually at a time when the staff who had to do this work were also heavily involved in the farm waste management scheme. Also, all the plans had to be cross-checked against the LPIS system and further checked to confirm that they included the necessary biodiversity options. These last two checks were also computerised. At that point, which we reached at the end of January, we were finally able to start making payments on plans about which none of the checks had raised any queries. Of the more than 12,000 plans, however, fewer than 1,400 plans came through the initial set of screening checks without being queried. The rest of the files had to be checked manually. Almost 5,000 of the files have since been processed. The queries have been fully resolved in most cases, although small reductions have been applied to a number of payments because of a deficiency in the plan.
The staff of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are making every effort to get the remaining cases processed as quickly as possible. In the case of a plan that is ineligible, it is important for the relevant farmer to ensure that a valid application is with the Department by 15 May next. While the staff of the Department are doing everything they can to identify cases to which problems pertain, they cannot do everything. Applications in respect of 2009 are already arriving in big numbers. Last year, over 7,000 applications came in between 1 April and 15 May. It is too much to expect the staff of the Department to be able to identify every application with a problem in time for a planner to fix it before 15 May. I emphasise that no aspect of any plan can be put right after that date — that possibility simply does not exist under the regulations with which we have to live. That is why every planner needs to be satisfied that every plan he or she prepares is fully in keeping with the terms and conditions of REPS and the cross-compliance obligations.
I acknowledge that farmers have patiently waited for their REPS payments this year, at a time when cash flow is critical for many people. I ask for their continued patience while the remaining applications are processed. I ask them to keep their faith in REPS, which must continue to evolve if it is to meet changing priorities and reflect changing circumstances. I am confident that the agricultural environment will be an important aspect of EU rural development policy for many years to come.