Seanad debates

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Rural Environment Protection Scheme

 

12:00 pm

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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This motion relates to the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, which is designed to reward farmers for carrying out farming activities in an environmentally friendly manner and to bring about environmental improvements on farms. The scheme has proved to be vital for rural Ireland. REPS is a five-year programme where a farmer enters into a contract with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to farm in accordance with an agri-environmental plan drawn up by an approved agency or REPS planner. The scheme is open to both part-time and full-time farmers who are farming at least three hectares of land. This land can be either owned or leased for a period that encompasses the duration of the plan. There are 11 measures in REPS which are directed towards controlling nitrogen and phosphate use, stocking rate and waste and effluent around the farmyard, and towards protecting water quality, hedges and features of archaeological or historical interest on the farm.

REPS in Ireland has proven to be enormously beneficial to date. At the close of the REPS 3 scheme, more than 53,000 farmers were in the programme. That means approximately 50% of the agricultural land of Ireland was included under REPS and more than €1.9 billion was paid to farmers at the end of 2006 according to the latest figures available. There is 75% funding available from the European Union and 25% from the Exchequer.

Following many contacts I have had with REPS planners and farmers, especially in County Donegal, I understand the closing date for the current REPS 4 scheme is 15 May 2009. This is placing enormous difficulties on REPS planners and on farmers in turn to have their plans and application packs completed and submitted to the Department before the closing date. I am seeking clarification from the Minister of State on the position regarding farmers who are in REPS 3 but whose REPS plans may expire from June to October and whether they will be allowed to re-enter REPS 4 at a later date, after 15 May, or if their applications must be lodged by that date. I do not think it is possible for all the farmers whose REPS 3 are expiring to have new applications made in time, given the workload involved in making such an application. For example, there is a 25 or 30 page application pack to be professionally prepared by a REPS planner, which must be submitted in conjunction with the application form from the Department. In a worst case scenario, an extension may not be obtained from the EU for planners or farmers who are allowed to submit the application form up to 15 May. However, perhaps one or two months could be granted to submit the application pack by the end of June or mid-July. Such a resolution may meet farmers' needs and the workload of REPS planners also.

This matter is a cause of concern to many farmers. As we all know, farming activity across the country has been under significant pressure in recent years. We saw that earlier this week with the issue of prices in some supermarkets. Many farmers depend on the income available from REPS payments to sustain livelihoods in rural areas. I hope therefore that we can have some resolution from the Department on this issue.

I appreciate the excellent work done on the REPS programme, particularly by the former Minister and current Tánaiste, Deputy Mary Coughlan, and the current Minister, Deputy Brendan Smith. The Department allowed a vast number of applications under the programme. However, I wish to see clarification so that farmers can rest easier. They are very anxious at the moment given the closing date is looming - it is a week tomorrow.

Photo of Billy KelleherBilly Kelleher (Minister of State with special responsibility for Trade and Commerce, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill for raising this issue which is urgent in the context of the closing date. REPS is regarded as one of the most successful farming schemes we have ever operated. Since it was first introduced in 1994, it has delivered significant payments to farmers, but it is about much more than money. It is a scheme that has brought many benefits to the environment and to society as a whole. It enables farmers to remain viable while farming in ways that are compatible with protecting and improving the environment, safeguarding biodiversity and contributing to better water quality.

With natural resources under ever increasing pressure, the scheme and in particular the introduction of REPS 4, is more pertinent than ever in meeting the new challenges we face. I am glad so many farmers have seen fit to join the scheme.

The arrangements for joining REPS 4 are derived from Commission regulations that reflect the Commission's objective of integrating and harmonising the operation of the various farm payment schemes, including the single payment scheme, REPS and the disadvantaged areas scheme.

For REPS 4, this means that applications to join the scheme must be submitted by 15 May each year. Any application to join REPS 4 submitted after May 15 cannot be considered for payment in the same calendar year and there is no possibility of providing an extension to this closing date. We have already had indications from the Commission that any such extension would not be granted and that the closing date must be strictly observed. It is important to re-emphasise that the Commission has stated there can be no extension in this context. Therefore we are urging all those who are interested to have their applications in by the deadline.

Given that REPS is an EU co-funded scheme, it is important that Ireland complies with all regulatory requirements, including closing dates, in order that funding is not compromised.

It is open to all farmers to apply to join REPS 4. Existing REPS 3 farmers can either see out their five-year contract and then move over to REPS 4 or, alternatively, they can transform from REPS 3 to REPS 4 at the anniversary date. It is worth noting that Ireland secured a significant transitional arrangement for 2008 for REPS 3 farmers without which they would not have been able to join REPS 4 until 2009.

The latest date for receipt of an application and accompanying REPS plan is Friday, 15 May, just one week away, to qualify for REPS 4 payment in the same calendar year. The situation is very clear and, unfortunately, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has little leeway in this matter.

The Government has provided €330 million for REPS in the current year, despite the economic circumstances and the difficult position in the public finances. There can be no question therefore about the Minister's commitment to the scheme on an ongoing basis. However, the situation remains that applications to join REPS 4 in the current year, whether a transforming REPS 3 farmer or otherwise, must be received by 15 May 2009.

As I said earlier, the Commission has already emphasised there can be no leeway whatsoever in the context of the closing date.