Tuesday, 16 January 2018
Topical Issue Debate
The delay of green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, payments because of IT payments has been a debacle. According to my numbers, 500 people are still awaiting payment in Kerry, accounting for approximately €2.5 million. Since he comes from this background, the Minister of State will be conscious of how important this money is for low-income earners within the farming community. Many of the farmers awaiting payment have large overheads. Some have been unable to meet their bank loans. Others have had to borrow because their children are attending third level education. They have outstanding bills from co-ops for fertiliser and so on.
Nationally, thousands have had their payments delayed because of the problem with the online application system. This has been ongoing for three years and is not getting any better. In fact, it is getting worse. There seems to be no end or solution in sight. In the west, commonage management plans had to be drawn up before 31 October. Due to a problem with the digital process, many farmers - shareholders in commonages in particular - have been unable to make their online applications.
When can the 500 people in question expect to be paid and, from a national perspective, how does the Minister of State hope to deal with this ongoing problem with online applications?
Before I begin, I wish to acknowledge Deputy Ferris's tireless work as his party's spokesperson on agriculture. In particular, the work he has done on behalf of fishermen in Kerry throughout his career in politics has been second to none.
I have followed the Minister of State's career. He is a practical, sensible and down-to-earth man. I want a simple answer from him. Last year, IT problems held up GLAS payments. We told farmers that they had done everything right but that the Department had IT problems. There were IT problems the year before last as well. My office has been in Agriculture House for many years and I 100% respect the staff working there. They are second to none. However, I do not understand what "IT problems" means. If I am a small hill farmer or someone who is struggling and relying on my cheque to come in the post, I want to know what a bloody "IT problem" is. Will the Minister of State tell us so that we can go home to Kerry and tell the farmers that Deputy Ferris and I are referring to what the problem is and that the Department will solve it?
It is not fair. Each of us gets paid every month, week or so on, but these people rely on that payment. They want it and are relying on us to come to Dáil Éireann to fight for them. I am not blaming the Minister of State. I am only asking him to explain what these IT problems are. If the farmer has done everything right and all his or her documentation is right, what is the IT problem? These farmers need their money. They have to pay contractors from last year. They must pay for silage. A farmer cannot buy straw anymore. A round bale of silage is beating €30 and is difficult to find. Will the Minister of State please help us and give us the answer?
-----where I attended the IFA's AGM for a questions and answers session with the Minister, Deputy Creed, who would normally take this Topical Issue debate. This question, among others, was raised. I had to return and deputise while the Minister and the Taoiseach joined the IFA great and good for dinner.
I am here to answer for everyone.
I am pleased with the level of payments made in the past three months. Almost €1.7 billion has issued to farmers in that time, which is the highest amount ever paid. Indeed, Ireland leads other member states in terms of our implementation of the rural development programme and has the second highest drawdown rate of EU funds.
GLAS is the most popular scheme ever run under a rural development programme in Ireland. The original target of 50,000 participants was surpassed well ahead of the target date, such is the popularity of the scheme. Given that the first approvals under the scheme run from 1 October 2015, it is a remarkable achievement to have exceeded this target within a period of 15 months.
GLAS has a maximum annual payment of €5,000 under the general scheme with provision for a payment of up to €7,000, known as GLAS+, where the farmer is required to give exceptional environmental commitments in a limited number of cases. Last year, we paid out almost €200 million under GLAS and have continued payments each week into the new year.
Like previous agri-environment schemes, GLAS supports participants in improving their agricultural productivity and practices in a sustainable manner. The scheme delivers overarching benefits to the rural environment and addresses the issues of the mitigation of the impacts of climate change, the enhancement of biodiversity and the improvement of water quality. It provides valuable support to participants who deliver public goods and environmental benefits that enhance the sustainability credentials of Irish agriculture.
The scheme is co-funded by the national Exchequer and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, EAFRD. As required under EU regulation, two payments issue in respect of each year, these being, the advance payment followed at a later stage by a balancing payment. In 2016 and again in 2017, the advance payment represented 85% of the annual payment with the balancing payment being 15%. In 2017, advance payments commenced on schedule in November and continue to be made on an ongoing basis as tranches of cases are cleared.
There are 49,700 active participants in GLAS. By the end of this week, more than 40,000 of these will have received their 2017 advance payments, valued at €161 million. This represents over 87% of farmers eligible for a 2017 advance payment.
In more than 3,000 of the outstanding cases, applicants remain ineligible for payment until they complete the steps that they must take before the Department can process their payments. There is nothing that we can do to advance these payments until the applicants complete their obligations. In most of these cases, this relates to outstanding documentation, which they must submit. As soon as this is received and assuming everything is in order, my Department will move immediately to issue payments.
The main issues include the need for advisers to submit farm nutrient management plans to the dedicated online system, commence commonage management plans in the case of participants with a commonage action and submit the required documentation in the case of the low-emission slurry spreading and rare breed actions.
To be clear, many of these payments are not delayed, as has been suggested. It is simply the case that it is not possible for the Department to make them.
It is hard to know who to believe here, to be quite honest. AgriLand.iereports that the Department is arguing that the agricultural consultants, ACs, are being unfair to it, as are people like myself and Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, who raise these issues in the House in the interests of the people we represent, particularly the small farmers who are trying to survive on very marginal land. The ACs make it quite clear that they are not going to be the scapegoats. They say that payments for GLAS training days are being held up-----
The ACs, the agricultural consultants, who are the management plans people. They say that training days are required to be completed before the end of the year and if participating farmers missed the deadline of 31 December, then the 15% balancing payments will be withheld until the appropriate training is complete. The training is being carried out by the ACs but they are not being paid, the farmers are not being paid for attending the training days and a 15% deduction is being applied if training has not been completed by 31 December. Somebody is not telling us the truth.
Effectively, 500 farmers in our county have received nothing because of what the Department says is an error in the IT system. That has to be sorted out and it is up to the Minister and his Department to sort it. It is not up to Deputy Michael Healy-Rae and myself to sort it out. All we can do is raise the issue.
The reply is totally unacceptable but I am not blaming the Minister of State. He did not write it but whoever did does not have the first clue about agriculture. We know about the people who have not submitted their nutrient plans and about such cases but the people we are talking about are not in that category. The category of people we are talking about are those who are 100% compliant. The Department is saying they should be paid but that it cannot pay them because of an IT problem. I am not getting at the Minister of State but I ask him again to explain, on the record of the Dáil, the IT problem in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine at present because that problem is holding up payments. People at the other end of the phone in the Department are telling farmers that the Department cannot pay them because of an IT problem. We had this last year and the year before that. Where else can Deputy Ferris or I ask this question only in the House? I do not want to put the Minister of State to the pin of his collar about it but can he answer the question himself? Has anyone in his Department told him what the bloody IT problem is? He can imagine how frustrating it would be, were one in Glencar and seeking payment. They rely on us to come up here and demand answers. What is the IT problem?
To go back to the issue concerning the ACs raised by Deputy Ferris, I do not quite understand what that is about but I will try to find out. This is the first I have heard about trainers or participants on one-day training courses not being paid. They would normally get the cheque in the afternoon when they are leaving-----
I do not think it is fair to say that about the Department. We are the most efficient of all EU member states in drawing down money. The Deputy might not like to admit that but it is actually the case.
In terms of the IT problem, I must make it clear that there are now three GLAS schemes in operation. There is a myriad of options and permutations, which overwhelmed the IT system. A lot of effort has been made to try to improve the situation.
The Deputy can make flippant comments if he wishes but I am trying to answer the question that was put to me. This time last year, 27,300 farmers had been paid, which was only 72% of the active participants at that time. At the end of this week, 49,700 will have been paid, which is 87% of participants. Improvements have been made although I know that is cold comfort to the people who have been left behind. Deputy Healy-Rae, whose office is located in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, will acknowledge that people are working night and day to try to get all of the claims picked through and sorted out. Some of the applications have had to be done on an individual basis. When the pay button was hit but the applicants were not paid, the applications had to be manually re-examined, as far as I understand it. That is the nearest I can come to defining the IT issue.