Tuesday, 24 March 2009
Common Agricultural Policy.
I announced yesterday that unused funds available in 2009 from the single farm payment national reserve would be paid to hill sheep farmers in the form of an uplands sheep payment. The amount in question is approximately €7 million in 2009. These funds have become available as a result of a request by me, supported by a number of my counterparts from other European Union member states, in the context of the health check negotiations, for the facility to use unspent funds from the national single farm payment ceilings to fund measures targeted at specific sectors in need of assistance.
Under the scheme I announced yesterday and based on the eligible area declared by farmers in 2008, approximately 14,000 hill sheep farmers will benefit from the new payment this year. On the basis of data available for 2008, I estimate that the level of aid will be of the order of €35 per hectare with a maximum payment of €525 per farmer. Payments will commence on 1 December 2009. In introducing this payment my main objective was to address the difficulties and specific costs, including compliance costs, facing the sheep sector. In reaching the decision I was mindful of the need to ensure that it created no additional burden for farmers, was simple and had a low cost to administer.
This payment, for which I sought and secured the agreement of the Commission, is for 2009 alone. I will make a decision on the use of unspent CAP funds from 2010 onwards when further information is available on the detailed EU rules that will apply. I understand that the Commission will bring forward its proposals in this regard very shortly and they will be adopted in May or June of this year.
A maximum payment of €525 per sheep farmer will do nothing to arrest the alarming decline in sheep numbers and in particular the decimation of sheep stock with the slaughter of ewes in recent years. The Minister's decision is motivated more by the numbers game rather than any strategic analysis of what the industry needs and flies in the face of the Malone report, for example, which clearly indicated the problems. What the Minister gives with one hand he takes away with the other. As late as last Monday at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council he decided to proceed with the compulsory electronic tagging of sheep which will take away more than the €525, which is the maximum payment. How can the Minister claim that what he is delivering to sheep farmers will in any way address the critical structural problems in the industry, which are the exodus of farmers from the industry and the need to ensure the breeding population is maintained in order sustain the off-farm employment associated with the industry?
When we succeeded last year in getting the European Commission to give approval in principle to member states having access to unused funds — we sought to have access to all the unused funds for 2009 — that was not agreed at European Union level. The only funding to which we have access is the €7 million. I was conscious that it is a relatively small amount of money. We wanted to ensure there would be no administrative costs in disbursing that money and that we would have quick and ready access to the relevant data to enable us to pay it. The easiest and most effective way of paying out that funding was on the basis of the 2007-08 sheep census. People within that category will make the appropriate application with their single-payment form. If we were to issue it on the basis of any other scheme there would be administrative costs, which would not be beneficial to the individual flock owner. I was very conscious that we needed to ensure that it went towards an economically or environmentally sensitive category. That was another consideration.
The Fianna Fáil 2007 general election manifesto promised €27.5 million for the sheep industry to tackle the type of issues specifically identified in the Malone report, particularly the issue of the alarming decline in the number of breeding ewes in the country. That would have been the correct strategic decision to make. While I accept that the €7 million available is nowhere near adequate, it would have sent the type of message necessary to stabilise sheep numbers and give some indication that, for example, in 2010, as the French Minister for Agriculture has already done, the unspent CAP funds in 2010 would be targeted in that direction also. Would the Minister not accept even at this late stage that he should send a signal to the industry that there will be a reward in 2010 for maintaining the number of breeding ewes on any farm and that that reward will be the ring-fencing of unspent CAP funds, which will in 2010 be in the region of €29 million to farmers who will maintain their breeding ewe numbers for that season?
We were anxious to allocate this money on the basis of ensuring that there was the smallest possible administrative cost. There is practically no cost — it is only a matter of changing the application form that goes out to each single-payment applicant. I do not know whether the industry is interested in going along the French route. The French took a linear cut from the single payment under Article 68 and then put it into a specific fund for sheep.
The Deputy may not have had a chance to read my press release of yesterday. In the final paragraph I indicated that all sectors would be eligible for consideration for the unused funds. In particular I mentioned that mountain and lowland sheep production would be eligible for consideration under the unused and modulation funds. As I said earlier we do not have the details of the scheme or proposals from Europe that would enable us to use the unused funds.
No. The French have done it under Article 68 with a linear cut and it is not from the unused funds. It is slightly different. I know it is confusing. I just want to emphasise that we have not yet got the specifics of what programmes will be eligible for consideration under the unused funds.
Earlier I referred to the statement I issued in announcing this. If the Deputy has an opportunity to read the final paragraph he will see there was a clear message.