Thursday, 27 October 2016
Agriculture Scheme Payments
12. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the measures he will take to include the group of farmers known as "old young farmers" who are excluded from entitlements due to their having been farming before 2009 but who are still under 40 years of age. [32185/16]
What measures will the Minister take to include the group of farmers, known as "old young farmers", who were excluded from entitlements due to their having been engaged in farming before 2009 but who are still under 40 years of age? They comprise a small group who feel very neglected and left out of the whole system just because they happened to start farming before 2009. Many got into the industry and rented land at a young age only to find they are now being excluded and cannot get the same entitlements and supports as other farmers. The number involved is small enough so this could be sorted out relatively easily if the Government had the will to do so.
In accordance with the EU regulations governing the national reserve and the young farmer scheme, a "young farmer" is defined as a farmer aged no more than 40 years in the year when she or he first submits an application under the basic payment scheme and who commenced farming activity no more than five years prior to submitting that application. The regulation also provides that priority under the national reserve is given to "young farmers" and to "new entrants to farming". A new entrant is defined as a farmer who commenced agricultural activity during the previous two years. The regulations governing the operation of the national reserve also include an optional provision whereby member states may use the national reserve to allocate new entitlements or give a top-up on the value of existing entitlements for persons who suffer from a "specific disadvantage".
Following my Department’s consultation with the EU Commission, the then Minister announced in March 2015 that the group commonly known as "old young farmers", who established their holding between 1 January 2008 and 31 December 2009 and who, due to the timeframe of setting up their holding, did not benefit from either the installation aid or the young farmer category of the national reserve, can be considered a group suffering from specific disadvantage. The result is that this group was eligible to apply under the national reserve measure of the 2015 basic payment scheme. Some 280 applicants were successful under the old young farmer category of the 2015 national reserve.
The Deputy may also be referring to the group of farmers commonly known as the "forgotten farmer" group. This group comprises farmers aged under 40 who established their holdings prior to 2008 and who hold low-value entitlements. Preliminary analysis carried out by my Department shows there are some 3,900 farmers in this category. An estimation of the cost of increasing the value of existing entitlements to the national average for these 3,900 farmers stands at over €12 million.
There was no national reserve in 2016 as all available funding, €24 million, had been utilised under the 2015 scheme. In order to provide for a national reserve in 2017, funding is required to replenish the reserve. EU regulations governing the scheme provide that funding for the replenishment of the national reserve may be obtained by means of surrender of entitlements that remain unused by farmers for two consecutive years and by claw-back derived following the sale of entitlements without land. It is envisaged that funding derived from these two sources in 2017 will be very limited. The regulations also provide for the application of a linear cut to the value of all farmers’ entitlements to replenish the national reserve.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
Under the national reserve, priority access must be given to the two mandatory categories of "young farmer" and "new entrant to farming". Support for other categories, such as those that may be regarded as suffering from "specific disadvantage", can only be considered once the two mandatory categories have been catered for. EU Commission approval would be required to have the forgotten farmer group included under the specific disadvantage category of the national reserve. Information submitted to the Department on behalf of this group of farmers indicates that many have established holdings as far back as the 1990s.
In order to qualify for the national reserve, all applicants must have achieved the required level of agricultural education at FETAC level-6 standard and comply with the off-farm income limits pertaining to the national reserve. Decisions in regard to the national reserve for 2017 will be considered once the position on potential funding has been established.
There is a programme for Government commitment to trying to resolve this. This is clear and something needs to be done about it.
With regard to European regulations, my understanding is that Europe is open to finding a solution to this. I have heard this from people in Europe who met representatives of the Commission and believe a scheme could be put forward that would resolve this problem.
With regard to the national reserve, I understand the cap will be lowered next year such that no farmer will be able to claim more than €100,000. This should leave room to do what I propose regarding the national reserve.
The Minister said nearly 4,000 farmers are affected. I understand the number is considerably smaller. At this point in time, they will be seeking to have the supports in place. The budget was an opportunity for that. Sometimes issues that do not cost a lot of money can be resolved. It is a missed opportunity not to try to resolve this matter for the farmers. They are left with nothing.
This is an issue that requires European Commission approval. That is not easily available based on my conversations with the Commission. There is a mid-term review of the CAP coming up, however, and we will continue to explore the possibility of resolving the matter for the farmers affected.
Even if we were permitted to do as proposed, it would then be a question of what is in the reserve. If I do not use my entitlements for two years, they are lost by me and enter the reserve. If I lease my entitlements to the Deputy, there is a claw-back into the reserve from the lease of some entitlements. The problem with that approach is that if I make an allocation, I have no choice but to make an allocation to every individual applicant that is the equivalent of the national average. That process, of clawing back or entitlement surrender, would not nearly be sufficient to deal with the 3,900 individuals. The alternative would be to make a linear cut across every farmer's entitlements. To ensure I could deal with the 3,900 through entitlements, I would have to cut every payment by the required percentage to bring the value up to the required level. The Deputy might have a different view if this were to happen. It is a complicated area but we are committed to exploring it as far as we can with the Commission.
Can I take it that the Minister is making a commitment that in the mid-term CAP review he will seek a solution from the Commission? I understand that maybe Ministers are doing their best in this situation but, in fairness, it is a small enough number of farmers, and I do not think the correct effort has been put in place to try to resolve this issue to date.
To be fair, the Department did succeed in addressing the entitlement to treatment from the national reserve for the group referred to as "old young farmers". This is a less clearly defined group. They are the forgotten farmers. They are not a homogenous group; their circumstances vary. Some of them may not even have the fundamental prerequisite of the green certification. It is a challenging issue. We have had discussions with the Commission about it. We did not get a lot of traction on it but we will re-engage with the Commission in the context of the mid-term review. It is challenging. However, even if we get permission in principle to deal with it, how we get entitlements into the national reserve for them is then an issue that must be grappled with. There is not much appetite, particularly in the current climate, to make a linear cut across every single farmer's payment to ensure that these people are looked after, so it is not as simple as the Deputy thinks it is.