Thursday, 27 October 2016
9. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on payment levels for farmers under the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32323/16]
GLAS is an agri-environment climate measure under the Rural Development Programme 2014 to 2020. Its aim is to deliver environmental benefits which will protect and enhance our biodiversity and water quality and raise awareness of and encourage actions which mitigate the effects of climate change. The scheme contains actions which will deliver the expected environmental dividends and is the result of widespread consultation with stakeholders and protracted negotiations with the European Commission.
GLAS is a voluntary scheme in which participants elect to carry out specific environmental commitments. In order for a verifiable benefit to be achieved, the governing regulations require that these commitments must be delivered for a minimum of five years. There is a wide range of actions to choose from in GLAS, providing scope for farmers across all types of farming system to submit applications and maximise their payment under the scheme. Some 25,800 farmers are actively participating in tranche 1 of GLAS, of whom 22,300 were eligible for a part year payment for three months in 2015. A further 11,500 farmers have been approved in tranche 2.
GLAS is structured along three distinct tiers, with priority entry for farmers in tier 1, namely, those with priority environmental assets such as farmland bird habitats, commonages and high status water areas, followed by tier 2, with tier 3 farmers being allocated places last. While the unprecedented level of applications under the scheme is in line with forecasts made by my Department, it has meant that for GLAS 2, priority had to be given to tier 1 and tier 2 candidates, namely, those who either manage key environmental assets such as endangered birds, protected habitats or high quality watercourses, or who have committed to undertake particularly valuable environmental actions such as growing feed crops for wild birds, adopting low impact tillage techniques or using low emission slurry spreading methods. Farmers had been urged to present the highest standard environmental plans under GLAS 2 and adopt actions that would promote them from tier 3 to a higher tier, thereby significantly increasing the chance of selection. More than 80% of applicants in the second tranche of GLAS opted to do so and, with the funding available, they were approved.
Under the general scheme, a maximum payment ceiling of €5,000 per annum applies, but in the case of exceptional environmental commitments a participant may qualify for payment up to €7,000 under GLAS plus. Applicants do not select distinct actions to qualify for GLAS plus. The increased payments available under this measure are automatically applied where the annual cost for a farmer of addressing a combination of tier 1 priority environmental assets, PEAs, exceeds €5,000. Farmers managing bird priority environmental assets can qualify for GLAS plus on the strength of their bird PEA alone, without the need for any other PEA, provided they manage an area of habitat sufficient to draw the additional payment. The number of GLAS plus applicants will only become apparent when applications are finalised and have been fully costed.
This is the first full payment year for GLAS 1 and GLAS 2 and the first instalment of the 2016 payments to the 38,000 approved GLAS 1 and GLAS 2 farmers are due to start issuing towards the end of the year when all validation checks have been completed. While the current average payment per participant is €4,600, no definitive information on the average payment will be available until all payments are made.
In February 2015, when the Minister's predecessor, the current Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, first announced the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, he indicated that €1.45 billion would be allocated specifically to it until the current Common Agriculture Policy programme expires at the end of 2020. As the Minister pointed out, the maximum standard GLAS payment will be €5,000. However, the average payment made thus far is €4,600 and total payments last year amounted to only €11 million. There are 38,000 farmers in the scheme, much fewer than the projected total of 50,000. The scheme will reopen at the end of 2016. If the full complement of 50,000 participants is reached by January 2017, farmers starting the scheme at the beginning of next year will only complete four years in GLAS under the current rural development programme because that programme expires at the end of 2020. As such, the maximum amount that could be spent by the end of 2020 is slightly more than €1 billion, giving a shortfall of €376 million on the projected expenditure of €1.45 billion, on which the previous Minister gave a commitment. I ask the Minister to ensure €1.45 billion is spent by the end of 2020 when the current rural development programme will expire. Farming incomes are in crisis. This money cannot be kicked out to the 2020s because it would result in farm incomes being hit this year and next year.
I want to nail this issue because the assertion that we will not deliver on the rural development programme and GLAS commitments is false. This year the Department is paying €40 million under the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, a rural development programme that ran from 2007 until 2013. People joined this five-year programme in 2006 and 2007. The Deputy will recall that a previous Fianna Fáil-led Government suspended access to the rural environmental protection scheme. This year we will pay out €2 million under the REPS which operated under a previous rural development programme. These programmes of investment are constantly rolling over.
I hope the Deputy is not suggesting that when I reopen GLAS and people have the benefit of it in January 2017, they will only participate for three years, as that is not the case. The programme will be of five years' duration. The programmes roll over and the level of funding will remain the same. Despite the suggestion in the title of the rural development programme that it will operate from 2014 until 2020, the Irish rural development programme did not receive Commission approval until May 2015. For this reason, GLAS was opened in October 2015.
These are rolling programmes of investment and we will not leave behind a single penny. The Deputy should realise this because the Department is still paying out under the REP scheme that a Fianna Fáil-led Government suspended in 2008. In addition, we are still paying out under the agri-environment options scheme which featured in the 2007 to 2013 programme. The Deputy's statement was wildly wrong and misleading, but I congratulate him nevertheless as it will garner a good headline.
As I stated, when the Minister's predecessor announced the green low-carbon agri-environmental scheme in February 2015, he specifically stated €1.45 billion would be allocated to GLAS by the end of 2020.
No, if the Minister checks, he will find that his predecessor stated €1.45 billion would be allocated by the end of 2020. That commitment garnered big headlines for the previous Minister. The Minister is now telling me that this was a bluff, that the then Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, was engaged in headline grabbing and that the money will not now reach farmers until some time in the 2020s.
If I told the Minister I would employ him for six years at a salary of €145,000 up to the end of 2020, and I then came along and told him two or three years later he would still get the €145,000 but not until 2022 or 2023, he would not be very happy. That is what he is saying to farmers.
Anybody who joins the scheme gets a five-year cut at it. The Deputy is suggesting I should have a cut-off point in 2020 whereas those who get their payments in 2017 will have five years. The State is paying the AEOS and REPS grants because these payments roll over. They are not so cleanly defined, cut and packaged as to be for exactly five years. Every penny provided under the rural development programme for the period 2014-20 may not be drawn down within that calendar period but it will be available. Therefore, somebody who goes into the scheme in January of next year will get a five-year payment, so payments will run until at least 2021.
Before we move to Question No. 10, I point out to Deputy McConalogue I have been very lenient with the time and I ask him not to abuse my leniency. I will cut the question after six minutes, whether the Deputy has come back in or not.