Wednesday, 17 September 2014
Topical Issue Debate
Rural Environment Protection Scheme Eligibility
With no ill respect to the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, I think it unfortunate that the senior Minister would not take this matter. It is a very serious issue for hill farmers and has a very serious effect on the rural development programme. His lack of engagement with it to date and his lack of presence here is typical of his lack of engagement on so many other issues in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It seems to be a Department that is driving itself, a bit like the new Google cars. The Minister needs to get the finger out and take more control of his Department. It is unfair that he puts the Minister of State, Deputy Hayes, out for all of these issues.
This issue is extremely complex and it is causing extreme anger and dissension among hill farmers the length and breadth of this country. The notion that entry into the new environmental protection scheme, GLAS, will require a 50% agreement on commonage is absolutely bizarre, completely unworkable and shows that, within the Department, there is a lack of understanding among senior officials of what a commonage is. It is discriminatory against hill farmers because other farmers have far fewer pre-qualifying conditions. With a little cop-on and a little sense, it can be resolved but, instead, the Department has been digging in its heels and is refusing to negotiate around the 50% collective agreement, which, as the Minister of State knows, given he knows what farming is, is practically impossible to achieve.
There is an irony in that hill farmers, who have for many generations been the custodians and carers of our mountains and hills - those mountains and hills we are using to bring in tourists - will be prevented from participating in a new environmental scheme because of this extreme requirement.
What we are looking for is a modicum of cop-on, a modicum of interest from the senior Minister in the Department to resolve this issue without further delay and for him to say to the hill farmers of Ireland that they are part of his vision for agriculture and where he sees the farming industry going because they play a major part, but they are being excluded from every negotiation and the talk about this. There is no hill farmer representative on the commonage agreement committee established under the chairmanship of Mr. Joe Healy and no voice from the hills representing those being discussed by the committee. Again, this is an indication of a Minister who is running his Department with a remote control.
The Minister of State is practical and, unlike the Minister, gets his hands dirty on a farm every so often. I ask him to bring a degree of understanding of the seriousness of this problem to the Department. I ask him to say to the Taoiseach who has a rolling protest outside his office to try to get him to understand the problems such that the Department will listen and be aware of the concerns of farmers. I am not someone who engages in hyperbole, but we are on the verge of going back to where we were 20 years ago when there were disputes about issues such as rod licences. The Government will see neighbour pitched against neighbour and family against family if it continues to pursue this path. What is needed is intervention. Given that the senior Minister will not take on the issue, perhaps the Minister of State might do so, get heads around the table and knock them together. If the Department and the Minister of State show an interest, hill farmers will come to the table. Otherwise, he will not succeed in implementing the rural development programme which will have far broader and more far-reaching consequences and not just for hill farmers. The Minister of State will not succeed in protecting the hills that are so important and will ensure serious dissension across rural Ireland, something we do not want. I ask him to push up his sleeves and respect the rights of the men and women concerned who for generations have looked after this land. If they are faced with this proposal, they will be driven off it.
I thank the Deputy for raising this Topical Issue and giving me time to clarify some of the issues involved in what is a very complex matter for many. The Minister is away at a jobs announcement in Tullamore in the drinks industry. That is the way we do business. I want to be helpful, if at all possible.
GLAS is designed around a tiered approach and the tiers are based on a consideration of priority environmental assets and actions. The tiered approach will give priority access to farmers with important environmental assets. In the case of commonage owners, priority access under tier 1 is guaranteed if at least 50% of the active shareholders sign up to a commonage plan for their commonage. This figure of 50% must be explained better. The next level of prioritisation is tier 2 which largely covers farms with watercourses classified as "vulnerable". Under tier 3, farms which do not fulfil any of the criteria for tiers 1 and 2 but who commit to a series of general environmental actions will qualify.
The proposed maximum payment is €5,000 per annum, with the scheme building up to the inclusion of some 50,000 farmers, with envisaged total expenditure of €1,450 million over the programming period. It is also proposed that, within budget limits, a GLAS+ payment would be put in place for a limited number of farmers who take on particularly challenging actions which deliver an exceptional level of environmental benefit. It is proposed that this payment will be up to €2,000 per annum in addition to the €5,000 paid under GLAS. That gives a total of €7,000.
My priority and that of the Government is to get the rural development programme as a whole approved by the European Commission in order that I can open GLAS as quickly as possible and include up to 30,000 farmers whom I want to attract in year one. Operational details can and will be looked at, but the over-riding imperative is to get GLAS up and running as soon as possible.
There was significant consultation. The Minister travelled the country to see what people wanted prior to the introduction of Pillar 2. When I entered the Department last June, it was at the end of the period of negotiations. If we take ourselves back to that time, the reality is that in Brussels during the Irish Presidency, the Minister handled the negotiations to bring them to a conclusion. I stress that consultation with the farming organisations took place at all times and that they were certainly happy with them.
Turning to look specifically at commonages, the position is as follows. Payments under GLAS can only be made in respect of actions going beyond the baseline
requirements under the basic payment scheme under Pillar 1 of the CAP. In simple terms, this means that a farmer cannot be paid twice for the same commitment under both schemes. I doubt if anyone will disagree with this. Since the introduction of agri-environment schemes in the 1990s, the Pillar 1 baseline has been progressively raised for each programming period and this challenges us all in developing schemes that gain approval at EU level. There is so much that needs to be explained. That is what has given rise to all the hysteria.
Farmers are required under the basic payment scheme to maintain land in good agricultural and environmental condition, GAEC, and commonage land is no exception to this requirement. Therefore, in order to secure funding for hill farmers under GLAS, we have to design a scheme which manifestly goes beyond the baseline. We also have to ensure the commitments outlined are measurable and controllable as this is critical to securing approval. The key characteristic of commonage land is that it is farmed in common and the actions undertaken under GLAS will have to reflect this. We cannot have multiple and varying plans submitted for the commonage - we need a single plan lodged by a single adviser that sets out clearly what the objectives are over a five year period and what those participating in this plan will do individually and together to achieve these objectives.
On this point, we clearly need to have sufficient people working together to achieve the best results for the commonages in the interests of both the farming community and the environment. I believe 50% participation is the minimum required to make this work and, in recognition of the additional effort involved, I have increased the rate of payment from €75 per hectare under the last programme to €120 per hectare for GLAS. I have listened very carefully to the concerns of hill farmers and recognise that they are real. That is why over the course of the consultation process on the RDP which have extended to a year and half we have adapted and rebalanced our proposals for commonages. It is particularly important to point out that the 50% requirement is based on active farmers only, that is, those actually grazing the commonage. To give an example, if there are 20 shareholders on a commonage but only ten of them are actively grazing the land, the 50% requirement to trigger priority access to GLAS is just five farmers. I do not believe a minimum participation requirement based on this model is insurmountable, but where real difficulties are being encountered, I have already said the farmers concerned can approach the commonage implementation committee to make their case.
Other issues that I know have been of concern to hill farmers include clarity on the Pillar 1 baseline, having adequate time to adapt, the imposition of minimum and maximum stocking levels and the imposition of penalties. We have brought a good deal of clarity to all of these issues in public statements in recent weeks and my sense is that farmers are much more comfortable with what is being proposed. The baseline has been set at 0.1 of a livestock unit per hectare, with farmers having until December 2015 to achieve this. I have made it very clear that my Department will not be imposing minimum-maximum stocking levels for each commonage, but it will provide such figures to help guide the planning process. It is open to the shareholders themselves to propose a different regime if they believe it is better suited to the needs of the commonage. The objectives of the GLAS plan are to be achieved over time and penalties will be applied individually where it is clear that an individual is at fault - there is no question of the group being penalised for something that was clearly the responsibility of an individual.
I hope and believe we have addressed many of the concerns of hill farmers in the clarification provided to date. I have also arranged for a series of public meetings at key locations nationwide in order that farmers will have an opportunity to talk to officials from my Department, ask their questions and consider the replies. We are reaching a stage where all sides can see that we have much more in common on this important matter than might have been realised to date.
I am delighted that the Minister is making an announcement. That has been his trait as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. He is the Minister for the industry, but he forgets that to have a food industry, we need farmers and a Minister for farming in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
What the Minister of State did not get to points to most of the difficulties with this issue. Even getting the agreement of 50% of active farmers on a commonage will be absolutely impossible, as one is talking about hundreds of people. The Department has not even defined what the commonage plan will look like and what the minimum requirements will be. Second, it is forcing the people concerned to use one single adviser to get agreement. The practicalities would surely instruct and guide the Minister of State that this will be impossible. He knows this because he has been operating in rural Ireland for a long time. No matter how great GLAS is - it might be the best thing since sliced bread - if they do not get agreement, they cannot join GLAS. The irony of those who have cared for the environment, the mountains and the hills for generations being excluded from a scheme that aims to care for the environment is rich.
That is the difficulty and why many decent people are out protesting and attending protest meetings. It is not hysteria. It is a genuine concern and worry that people will be excluded from incomes that will keep them on the land and in rural areas. Otherwise, they will leave and we will be left with all of the problems identified. Why is the Welsh proposal so different from the Irish one? It is a country with a similar topography, yet the Welsh proposals are completely different. Is it a case of us once again gold-plating European legislation to be the good boys while not reflecting on the consequences for Irish citizens?
We have a very small window in order to engage with this issue. I acknowledge that some changes have been made to stocking rates in the past few weeks. The figure of 50% simply will not work and because it will not, the rural development programme about which the Minister of State speaks will not attain its achievements, will not secure the buy-in the Government needs for it to attain its achievements and will not get support on the ground. This will affect the programme and our standing in Europe. No matter how good the new Commissioner will be, this will not help. I, therefore, ask the Minister of State for a small dose of sense and reason. I ask him to explain to his civil servants who are driving this issue that it will not work and that they must go back to the drawing board to stop what will happen.
The Minister will pit neighbour against neighbour, brother against brother, and we do not want to go down that road again.
I acknowledge that there is a great deal of concern among many people living in rural Ireland. The Minister and I and our departmental officials are committed to the rural development programme, which was fought for long and hard. It was difficult to get the matching funding, but it was achieved, and the last thing we want is for the scheme to fail.
There is a great deal of hysteria about particular issues, and people are being frightened at public meetings. Public pronouncements by some individuals have been unhelpful. I refer to an example of 20 shareholders on a commonage of whom only ten are grazing the land. The 50% requirement to trigger priority access to GLAS amounts to just five farmers. That is the reality. If agreement cannot be secured between the individuals on the commonage, the commonage implementation group can sit and examine the issue.
This can be worked through. It is unfair for people to say this is unworkable and that rural Ireland will collapse. We have committed significant money to this scheme and we want it to work fairly. There is an opportunity to make it work fairly. At departmental level we want it work, and we will talk to people and help them to get over the line if other aspects of this need to change. However, the lack of understanding is a problem. I stress that the commonage implementation group is available to resolve problems where people cannot get a plan together with their planners.