Thursday, 26 November 2009
Rural Environment Protection Scheme.
Question 3: To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food his plans to address the financial difficulty caused by the closure of the REPS 4 scheme to new applicants; his views on the uncertainty that this poses for farmers in serious financial difficulty; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43826/09]
REPS 4 was closed to new applicants in July against the background of the deterioration in the public finances, the limited resources available to the Department and the increasing cost of the scheme as a result of the increase in the number of REPS participants. Over 12,000 farmers joined REPS 4 in 2007 and 2008, and about 17,000 more applications were received up to the 2009 closing date of 15 May for 2009. A further 1,500 applications which were received up to the time of closure will be processed as applications for 2010. I will be seeking the approval of the House for a Supplementary Estimate for my Department to transfer savings and additional receipts to scheme expenditure, including REPS. If agreed, payments due to REPS farmers in 2009 will be the highest ever. All those already in REPS will continue to receive annual payments until their current contracts run their course.
I plan to introduce a new agri-environment scheme in 2010 which will reduce compliance costs to participants and which will provide a menu of targeted environmental actions from which farmers may choose. Funding for the new scheme will include the additional modulation funds which I ensured would be retained for the benefit of Irish farmers in the negotiations on the CAP health check of last year. It will also include matching Exchequer funding. My officials are at present in discussions with the European Commission on the details of the scheme. The level of funding for the new scheme will be decided in the forthcoming budget and in the context of the allocation of resources for my Department.
Does the Minister's Department have a tracking mechanism to assess the financial status of those who will exit REPS 2 and REPS 3 and who will move on to a State social welfare payment, that is, farm assist? If the Department has done such an assessment, does the Minister agree that it is financially irresponsible to withdraw REPS and thereby increase the State's liability in the form of farm assist? We need to take a cross-departmental view on this matter and acknowledge that the farm assist payment is 100% funded by the State whereas the REP scheme is 55% co-funded by the EU.
I ask the Minister to step back from the decision to suspend REPS 4 and not to conclude a deal with Brussels on a new rural development programme, pending a cross-departmental assessment of the issue.
REPS is not intended primarily as an income support measure but as an agri-environment measure. However, we all know its importance to the income of farmers.
My Department has been in consultation with other Departments, particularly the Department of Social and Family Affairs with regard to the loss of farm incomes, particularly during this year. The computations have been done of possible losses if people did not avail of such schemes. This year, we will pay out €369 million under REPS 3 and REPS 4. There are, at present, 63,000 participants in REPS, the highest level ever. Last year, there were 46,000 people in REPS. The scheme is under discussion with the EU Commission. The level of funding available for it will be finalised in the context of the budget, in the second week of next month.
The Minister may dance on the head of a pin as much as he likes in arguing that REPS 4 is not an income supplement measure. He should tell that to the thousands of farmers throughout the country who, as they exit REPS 2 or REPS 3, are losing, on average, €6,500. Given the year they have had, that payment means the difference between putting bread on the table or not. The REP scheme is co-funded by Europe. Farmers who lose it will move to a payment which is 100% funded by the Exchequer. There is no logic in that.
This year, 10,000 farmers have a farm assist payment or are in the process of applying for one. That figure will increase significantly in the coming months in direct proportion to the numbers leaving REPS. I know I speak for Opposition Deputies and, I am sure, for backbenchers in the Minister's party, when I ask him to desist from his plan to introduce a Mickey Mouse REPS 4 programme and to reinstate the scheme he suspended in July last.
We will not be introducing an inadequate agri-environment measure in 2010. I am fully conscious of the serious pressure on farmers and farm families. Poor commodity prices and other difficulties have created problems. The number of farmers in REPS this year is the highest ever.
REPS has been an important source of income but it is important to note there is a certain cost to participation in it. We should all acknowledge that people must meet certain criteria. It is not a transfer of income as such. The farmer carries out a substantial amount of work to meet the relevant criteria and some of it is a pay back for the labour costs involved in the work carried out by him or her.
I am very familiar with, and conscious of, the serious difficulties facing the farming community in regard to income pressure with poor commodity prices, extreme difficulties with weather, lack of credit and so on. All of those have combined to make this year particularly difficult. I wish to introduce a substantial agri-environment measure commencing in 2010. In excess of 17,000 people entered REPS this year and they will continue with their plans over the next five years. That is the highest number of applications ever received. The second highest number of applications was 12,000. Currently, 63,000 people are participating in REPS who will receive payments. Substantial funds will issue from the Department from mid-December onwards.
I am fully conscious of the difficulties. I know from meeting farmers in my constituency and from speaking to my colleagues, the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent and Members on all sides of both Houses of the Oireachtas of the importance of this measure and scheme and its success to date.