Tuesday, 17 November 2015
Farm Assist Scheme
68. To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection if she will consider reversing the change made to the farm assist scheme with respect to income disregards given that it has had a serious negative affect on the income levels of already struggling farming families; the reason she has not carried out an analysis to assess the impact that the change has had on these families; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40148/15]
Will the Minister consider reversing the change to the farm assist scheme with respect to income disregards given the serious affect this change has had on the income of farming families and will she update the House on the reason an impact assessment of the affect of these cuts on families in receipt of farm assist has not been carried out?
The farm assist scheme provides support for farmers on low incomes and is similar to jobseeker’s allowance. Farm assist recipients retain the advantages of the jobseeker’s allowance scheme, such as the retention of secondary benefits and access to activation programmes. The 2015 Revised Estimates for the Department provide for expenditure of almost €89 million on the farm assist scheme.
Changes introduced in budgets 2012 and 2013 have brought farm assist into closer alignment with the treatment under the jobseeker’s allowance scheme of self-employed persons. Farm families with the lowest income were least affected by these changes as the headline rates of farm assist were maintained.
Last year, the Christmas bonus was reintroduced, payable at 25% of the weekly rate. This year, I am in a position to provide a 75% Christmas bonus payment for all long-term welfare recipients, including recipients of farm assist. All recipients, with children, of farm assist are benefitting from the increase in child benefit of €5 per month per child as announced in budget 2015. In addition, farm assist recipients eligible for the fuel allowance will gain from the increase in January of €2.50 per week, from €20 to €22.50 per week, over the fuel season. Recipients of farm assist will see a significant improvement in their payments. In particular, the Christmas bonus will constitute a significant payment to such families.
One would think from the Minister's response that her stewardship of the Department of Social Protection has led to an improvement for farmers in receipt of farm assist. Unfortunately, her response bears no reflection on reality. When was the last time the Minister set foot on a family farm or the farm of someone who depends on farm assist as weekly income?
There are 1,500 farming families in Donegal and 9,500 such families across the country who are in receipt of farm assist. For those who are not aware of it, farm assist is paid at the level of jobseeker's allowance. Previously only 70% of a farm family's income in terms of means was taken into account. Under the Minister's stewardship, every euro earned by a farm family is taken into account for the purposes of farm assist payments, which removes the incentive for people to work and be productive. As a result of this change, many farm families are now surviving at below subsistence level.
It is long past time this change, which is having a damaging impact on rural Ireland, was reversed. It effectively sends out the message that farm families, particularly those with small farms, are not wanted in the context of farming our land. I call on the Minister to commit to an impact assessment of this change with a view to reversing it.
I am happy to say that it is being partially reinstated in December at a cost of almost €200 million. I am delighted to point out to the Deputy that farm families, who are in receipt of farm assist, will properly benefit from that payment.
In addition, families in receipt of farm assist who also get a fuel allowance will receive an increase of €2.50 per week in fuel allowance from 1 January next, which is something that Fianna Fáil in government failed to even look at.