Tuesday, 15 May 2012
I welcome the Minister. The issue I raise is the ongoing situation with farm inspections, particularly in Galway East. Indeed, since I raised this matter on the Order of Business last week I have been informed that it occurs in other parts of the country. A practice exists whereby inspectors are arriving on farms to conduct inspections without giving any prior notice to the farmer. Some of the inspectors from the Department are arriving under the guise of the animal feed and hygiene regulations, where no notice period is required under EU law. However, they then carry out tagging inspections on cattle and sheep, even though 48 hours notice is required, and further inspections on land eligibility, where up to 14 days notice should be given.
When they carry out these departmental inspections in this manner it is clear they are in flagrant and utter disregard of the law. In effect, they are acting illegally. As a consequence, the farmers of east Galway dread hearing about departmental inspections. There is a huge element of fear throughout the community. Often farmers are afraid to stand up for their rights for fear of any detrimental action being taken against them, specifically against their single farm payment. It is wrong and an unacceptable reign of terror over the farming community. These people are completely unaware of their rights and EU law. A new charter of rights must be sent to all farmers in Ireland so they can be fully informed of their rights.
Does the Minister agree that there is a problem with this matter? If so, can the Minister outline what steps the Department will take to alleviate this unacceptable situation?
I am replying to this matter on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Shane McEntee.
In the context of delivering the single payment scheme, disadvantaged areas scheme and other area based schemes, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is required to carry out annual inspections covering the eligibility of the land declared to draw down payments and cross-compliance to ensure compliance with EU regulatory requirements in the areas of public, animal and plant health, environment and animal welfare. These inspections are mandatory; there are certain minimum numbers and types of inspections that must take place annually.
Land eligibility checks must be carried out on 5% of applicants. These checks are carried out to verify that the actual area claimed in the application corresponds to the area farmed by the farmer and to ensure that any ineligible land or features are deducted. Up to two-thirds of these inspections are carried out without a farm visit as the information is verified using the technique of remote sensing via satellite.
The rate of inspections for cross-compliance is 1% of applicants to whom the statutory management requirements, SMRs, and good agricultural condition, GAEC, apply. However, 3% of farmers must be inspected under the bovine identification and registration requirements while 3% of sheep and goat farmers must be inspected covering 5% of the flock. It is a regulatory requirement that all land eligibility inspections must be finalised before any payments can issue to any farmer in the country in a given year. On the other hand, cross compliance inspections take place throughout the calendar year and can be carried out after the payment has been made. In 2010, in an effort to minimise duplication of farm inspections between the two Departments, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine agreed to carry out some 1,600 nitrates inspections under the GAP regulations on behalf of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. This arrangement was retained in 2011 and 2012 and is working well.
In so far as advance notice of inspections is concerned, in general, all inspections should be unannounced. However, the regulations allow the Department to give up to 14 days notice for land eligibility and cross-compliance inspections involving statutory management requirements, other than those related to animal identification and registration, food, feed and animal welfare. For checks involving cattle identification and registration the maximum advance notice is 48 hours, provided the purpose of the inspection is not jeopardised. For SMRs dealing with feed, food and animal welfare, no advance notice may be given; these must take place on an unannounced basis.
As a general rule and following requests from the farming organisations, the Department tries to integrate inspections, including all of the cross-compliance inspection elements, with a view to minimising the number of farm visits and avoiding more than one visit to the farm. In respect of those elements of the inspection for which advance notice is possible, the farmer can request a deferral of those particular elements for up to 48 hours in the case of animal identification and up to 14 days in the case of land eligibility. Since all eligibility inspections must be carried out before payment, these inspections are prioritised so that payments under the disadvantaged areas scheme can commence in mid-September and advance payments under the single payments scheme can commence in mid-October. In total 11,900 farmers were inspected under the 2011 schemes, including some 4,500 that were inspected using remote sensing. In other words, some 7,400 inspections involved an actual farm visit while some 130,000 farmers apply annually under these schemes.
Finally, I take this opportunity to stress the annual value of these schemes to Irish farmers. Direct payments are of critical importance to farmers and the entire Irish economy. Annually these payments amount to some €1.8 billion, of which €1.25 billion is accounted for by the single payment scheme alone. Under that scheme, total payments since 2005 have reached almost €9 billion. These payments have, in five of the past six years, commenced in mid-October and have generally been completed by the end of the same year. They have given farmers a stable guaranteed level of income during challenging economic times. Therefore, it is incumbent on the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to ensure the regulatory controls are comprehensively implemented to protect such payments, thereby allowing the payments to be paid quickly and avoiding substantial EU disallowances.
I thank the Minister of State for her succinct and detailed response. I am fully aware of the benefits of such grants to the farming community and am all for efficiency and making savings within the relevant Departments. However, it still remains the position that there is a breach of basic law with regard to the notice period. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine should address this issue. In my opening contribution on this matter, I pointed out the necessity to issue a charter of rights to each member of the farming community in Ireland. I ask the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister to take on board this suggestion arising from this Adjournment matter.