Wednesday, 21 March 2012
Question 3: To ask the Minister for Agriculture; Food and the Marine the reason after dealing with 11 members of his Department's staff and after being promised since early December that their agri environmental options scheme payment would be processed, that a person (details supplied) has still not received payment; the reason his Department has yet to process payments for more than 2,000 farmers in respect of 2010 payments; if he will outline the problem be it technical, is it resources, is it lack of accountability that has caused these delays, in view of the fact that farmers are now in their third year of the scheme and still unpaid for the first year and the situation has gone on for two years; his views that if the work was to be done by hand without computer or photocopier, all 8,000 applications should have been processed by the 11 staff members listed in the details supplied; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14593/12]
By way of background, the situation in regard to payments under the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, is that the European Union regulations governing its administration require that full and comprehensive administrative checks, including cross-checks with the land parcel identification system, LPIS, must be completed before any payment can issue. EU audits have made it absolutely clear that compliance with the regulations must be strictly adhered to and that all checks must be passed and eligibility conditions met before payment issues. This means that individual payments may not be made until all aspects of a farmer's application are in order, all outstanding documentation provided and all queries resolved.
AEOS represented a departure from the traditional agri-environment scheme and presented a significant administrative challenge for the Department and farmers alike. Particular difficulties arose in regard to the redigitisation of land parcels and the submission of receipts in respect of capital investments. Furthermore, it was necessary to develop a computerised payment system that would facilitate payment not only for year one of the scheme but for each of the five years the scheme will run. While this development work delayed the commencement of the initial part-year payments by four months, it facilitated the commencement of the first full-year payments to clear cases in a timely fashion. Indeed, payment in respect of 2011 commenced before the end of 2011 to applicants who had successfully passed the administrative checks.
The AEOS application of the person named was received in my Department on 17 May 2010. The actions selected by the applicant included species-rich grassland and traditional hay meadow, both of which are classed as area-based actions. Under the scheme's terms and conditions, these area-based actions must be carried out on full LPIS parcels, as recorded by the Department. The area-based actions chosen by the person named were not on full LPIS parcels and, therefore, required digitisation. An amendment form was submitted by the applicant to the single payment section, SPS, to have the area-based actions on the AEOS application redigitised. However, following completion of this digitisation, discrepancies were discovered between the SPS areas declared and found. These discrepancies were satisfactorily investigated and have been resolved. Payments in respect of 2010 amount to €894.93, comprising the first 75% instalment, issued on 28 February 2012, and the 25% balancing payment of €298.03, issued on 1 March 2012.
I do not normally read long replies but the Deputy asked about a specific case and I wished to give a specific answer and there is a lot more detail on that case. I have been frustrated by the roll-out of some payments relating to the agri-environment option scheme, AEOS. There have been genuine reasons for this and I assure the Deputy I have been pushing staff in my Department as hard as I can to get these issues resolved. They mainly revolve around the fact that mapping pertaining to applications for the single farm payment did not match mapping related to applications for AEOS. It was necessary to resolve this issue and then redigitise the maps for both single farm payments and AEOS schemes. This has taken time and has been frustrating. While I am unhappy about this, now that the mapping issues have been resolved it will mean that in future years, people will get payments early.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
In regard to payment for the 2011 scheme year, a number of queries were identified on the capital investment forms and receipts submitted by the person named. A letter issued to the individual on 23 February 2012 in regard to these queries and they have been also satisfactorily resolved. The 75% payment totalling €3,749.99 in respect of 2011 issued to the person named on 12 March 2012 and the balancing 25%, totalling €1,249.99, issued on 14 March.
My Department has made every effort to assist farmers in regularising their applications and has devoted extra resources to dealing with query cases. However, in many cases the issues associated with individual applications, as with the application of the person named, require redigitisation of land parcels. This is a complex issue which can impact not only on a person's agri-environment application but also on his or her single farm payment or disadvantaged area scheme payment, or both. While these complexities can have an impact on individual cases, I am sure the Deputy will recognise the success of my Department in making timely payments under a variety of different schemes. In the case of the single farm payment, for example, while the earliest payment date provided for under EU rules was 1 December last year, I successfully sought the approval of the Commissioner to have advance payments made as and from 17 October. This was the earliest possible legal date for making payments, it being the start of the new EU financial year.
That said, I am conscious of the importance of payments to farmers' incomes and every effort is made to resolve queries as quickly as possible. At this stage €6.033 million has issued in respect of the initial part-year payment to the 7,681 applicants who have been cleared for payment. A further 1,092 cases remain unpaid. In these cases, the particular difficulties have been identified and the Department has made contact with the applicants to outline the nature of the query and the actions required to facilitate payment. I have given the highest priority to finalising all of these cases as quickly as possible.
In addition, €14.262 million has been paid to 3,720 of the 8,236 applicants remaining in AEOS I who are due a payment in respect of 2011. Unpaid farmers in year two are largely those with problems associated with their capital investment claims. My Department is currently dealing with queries associated with capital investment claims already submitted or is urging farmers to submit the necessary documentation as quickly as possible. Payments in respect of both years will continue on an ongoing basis as queries are resolved.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I note that apart from my constituent, others also contacted me about this issue. When people rang the Department, it was accepted that they had not provided incorrect information or anything like that. It was accepted that it was a problem within the Department, that it would be sorted out within a couple of days and that the people would get their payments. My constituent rang the Department repeatedly and was told the same thing again and again. The individual contacted the Department at least 11 times and was told about the problem with digitising. Although the Department accepted that my constituent had not provided incorrect information and would be paid, the individual concerned still was not paid.
I do not know whether the Minister is familiar with the television programme, "Little Britain". One of the characters it features is a person who works for a travel agent. Every time a customer asks for something, the person working behind a desk looks up and says, "the computer says No". This is what is happening in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Even though it is accepted that a problem exists when a human speaks to a human down the telephone line, on the replacement of the telephone receiver, the computer system takes over again and the computer says "No". That cannot be acceptable and makes a joke out of civil servants.
If someone from my Department tells a farmer that he or she will be paid within days, I expect that to happen. I note that last year, payments in general in my Department were way ahead of any previous year on record. I refer to the timeliness of payments such as disadvantaged area payments, single farm payments and those AEOS payments that could be made on time. They were significantly ahead of the previous year.
A specific problem arose by which the Deputy's constituent or client was frustrated, and understandably so. I believe that approximately 1,500 people were in that category. I was not happy about this because it led to a perception that my Department was not dealing in an efficient way with payments in general. I have tried to change this and the AEOS team has been in my office on numerous occasions to try to find a way to get this job done quicker. The issue has pertained to mapping, the fact that the Department tenders out the digitisation services for that mapping, as well as the interaction between the Department, farmers and the company that provides the digitising for the Department. All I can tell the Deputy is the likelihood of a repeat of such delays is extremely slim now that maps have been digitised and full data are available on a computer screen.
This does serious harm to the reputation of civil servants. The constituent with whom I was dealing now has a highly negative view of civil servants, which is not right because it is not the case across the board. As the Minister responsible, Deputy Coveney must guarantee this does not happen again. More importantly, the person concerned is a citizen who was demeaned by this process. Will the Minister write to the individual in question and state this will not happen again on his watch? I am sure the person would be satisfied with such a response.
The issue is that there were delays in respect of the payment. Such delays should not have occurred but there were genuine reasons for them. I would certainly not criticise the staff of my Department in that regard. The latter have worked overtime in trying to issue these payments.
The issue arose in the context of a process problem which related to changing maps, in the first instance, and then digitising those changes. Delays arose as a result of the problem to which I refer. I accept that it may have taken longer than should have been the case to arrive at a resolution in respect of this problem. However, that resolution will ensure that there are unlikely to be delays in respect of AEOS 1 or AEOS 2 in the future because digitised maps are now available to the Department and to the farmers concerned.
What happened in this case was a classic teething problem. We may have further such problems in future when we move to a new CAP, which has the potential of bringing with it an entirely new set of environmental schemes. We need to learn lessons from the AEOS experience in order to try to minimise the likelihood of a recurrence of delays such as that under discussion. On the whole, my Department is more efficient now than it ever has been in the context of issuing payments. A particular issue arose in this instance which is unfortunate but we are trying to correct matters.
Before we proceed, I remind everyone that there are six minutes per priority question. Those six minutes include two minutes for the Minister's initial reply. With co-operation from Members, I am sure we will make some progress.