Wednesday, 27 November 2019
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Basic Payment Scheme
39. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his plans to move farm inspections to the months of June and July to ensure that single farm payments can be paid out on time; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48948/19]
All of these questions relate to outstanding basic payments this year. I have been contacted by a number of constituents on this matter. I suppose other Deputies have also been contacted. The advance payment that is normally made on 16 November is delayed. I have contacted the Department on behalf of a number of people to ask when the payment is expected and have been told that remote satellite inspections have not yet been completed. The Minister mentioned dual applications and so on but that is not what is holding these cases up. The delay in the Department completing inspections is holding them up.
I propose to take Questions Nos. 36, 38 and 39 together.
EU regulations governing the administration of the basic payment scheme, the areas of natural constraint scheme and other area-based schemes require that full and comprehensive administrative checks, including ground or remote sensing inspections where applicable, are fully completed to ensure eligibility with the various schemes’ requirements before any payments issue. There are certain minimum numbers of inspections that must take place annually under the various schemes.
The method of selecting cases for inspection is set down in EU regulations and is undertaken by means of a risk analysis process with cases being selected on a risk-based and random basis. All cases to be selected for inspection must be in respect of eligible beneficiaries under the various schemes. Therefore, the selection of cases for inspection, while commencing after the closing date for receipt of applications, 15 May, is an ongoing process so as to ensure this specific regulatory requirement is fulfilled.
This year, late applications were accepted up to 9 June, with a deduction. Furthermore, amendments to applications were accepted up to 9 June and allowing for the preliminary checks process whereby applicants could further amend their application up to 19 June as a result of issues notified to them by my Department the final details of the land to be subject to the inspection process cannot be fully established until these periods have elapsed. Therefore, the inspection process cannot commence any earlier.
The EU regulations further prescribe that the inspection process in each case must be fully completed before any payments can issue. I wish it were otherwise, but that is the case. Some 8,000 applicants were selected for a land eligibility inspection in respect of the various 2019 area-based schemes. Where an application is selected for inspection under any of the area-based schemes, the outcome of that inspection applies to all schemes for which the applicant has applied.
As of 25 November, my Department has received inspections results for over 93% of these inspections, of which 92% have been advanced to payment stage processing. The balance of these cases falls into a number of categories, namely, applicants who have been notified of the inspection outcome where an area over-declaration has been identified and from whom a response is awaited; and applicants who have chosen to submit comments on notified inspection outcomes. These are currently being examined and are subject to final processing. The balance of the outstanding inspection results is currently being finalised and will then be advanced through the final stages of processing promptly.
Some 7,700 of the overall number of inspection cases are eligible applicants under the basic payment scheme. To date, some 6,500 of these cases have received the advance payment. The balance of these cases falls into the various categories that I have already outlined.
I assure the Deputy that my Department continues to finalise cases, including ground and remote sensing cases, on a daily basis to ensure that basic payment scheme payments are issued as quickly as possible.
We accept that the vast bulk of payments have been made but work remains to be done by the Department on a small number. I understand the EU regulations. The payments cannot be made before the middle of October. I understand that but where applications have been made properly, all information supplied, and preliminary inspections carried out but where the Department still has work to do, it is not acceptable that these payments are still held up as we move into December. Changes have been made to the online application system. That was supposed to speed things up. The Minister has said that 97% of applications have been processed. That is good news but the people who are still waiting are caught with regard to cashflow. As the Minister will understand, bills start coming in at the end of the year and must be paid. Not only is the balancing payment due in December looking shaky, but these people have not even got the advance payment everyone else got in October. My three questions all relate to the work to be done by the Department; that is how important this is. Where the Department has work to do and loose ends to tie up, I ask that this be done as soon as possible so that the advance payment and balancing payment can be made to these farmers in the coming weeks. I do not need to tell the Minister that some farmers have huge cashflow problems, particularly this year. We had a very wet harvest. These farmers are going to be strapped for money, which they need to keep the show on the road. I ask the Minister and his senior officials to make every effort to ensure that the small number of outstanding applications are processed as quickly as possible.
In explaining these matters to the farmers who are waiting, I accept that I am losing but I will give the Deputy some information on the number of applicants paid on the preliminary payment date and on how the situation has improved. That is attributable to the Department staff who are working to accelerate the process. In 2015, 100,000 applicants were paid on the first day the payments issued. That figure has been steadily improving. Some 114,000 were paid on the first day in 2019. There has been a steady improvement. As I have said, to date 97.5% of applicants have been paid, that is 119,000 out of 135,000. There is always a residual core of difficult cases. These difficulties arise from many different issues including overclaims, commonages and remote sensing, some of which is contracted out resulting in a wait for stuff to come back in.
To be fair, these cases are being cleared as quickly as possible. There is a whole team effort involved in it. I accept that farmers waiting for that payment will not consider this acceptable but I assure the Deputy that we are doing everything possible. The situation has improved significantly year-on-year.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I accept that the number of applicants being paid early has increased. It is good that is happening but I am trying to draw the Minister's attention to the fact that remote inspections are causing problems for a small number of farmers. They are the ones who are caught. It is important that we make progress in that regard. The Minister outlined the timeline with regard to the dates for completion and then revision or alteration of the application. There is still room to start inspections sooner, in the summer period. That would bring things forward by three, four or five weeks. We could then ensure that everything is up to date and ready to be paid by 16 October, unless a farmer's farm does not meet the required standards. We all accept the need for these standards. We would agree that farm practices have improved. The work being carried out by inspectors shows that standards on farms right across the country have improved over the last ten or 20 years. That is the good side of all of this.
The Deputy's point sounds perfectly rational but I will explain the roadmap. The closing date for applications is 15 May. There is a three-week period afterwards in which applicants have the right to correct their applications. Once that three-week period has elapsed, the Department does its preliminary checks and then communicates with farmers on any issues that arise. It should be borne in mind that we accepted late applications up until 19 June. The roadmap moves on for such late applications on a pro ratabasis. We are processing applications as quickly as we possibly can. We are always looking at how we can improve the service we deliver but we are well within, for example, the targets set out in the farmers' charter. Some 119,500 applications have been paid and there were 122,000 applicants. There is a number still to be cleared and we are doing our best to clear that backlog as quickly as possible.