Wednesday, 24 May 2017
Areas of Natural Constraint: Statements
I thank the Members of Seanad Éireann for the opportunity to address them today on the future of the areas of natural constraints, ANC, scheme which is administered by my Department. As the House will be aware, the ANC scheme is one which farmers across the country are familiar with and is an important issue for many people.
The areas of natural constraints scheme, as it currently stands, was introduced under the 2014-2020 rural development programme as a replacement for the previous disadvantaged areas and less favoured areas schemes which had been in place since 1975. Payments under the ANC scheme are an important support for farmers across the country in addressing cash flow issues and contributing to the continued growth and development of the agrifood sector.
The scheme was originally introduced in 1975 in recognition of the fact that farmers in particular areas were faced with challenges relating to lower productivity and higher production costs compared with farmers in other areas where levels of disadvantage were not as pronounced. Given that the scheme in various guises has been in place for over 40 years, it is no surprise that the farming community is interested in how the scheme will develop in the coming years.
The original scheme was based on addressing issues, such as rural depopulation, threats to the conservation of the countryside, lower income levels and the presence of lands which were more difficult to efficiently farm. Since its introduction, the scheme has been subject to a number of reviews at EU level, and Ireland has been very successful over the course of those reviews in ensuring that areas facing particular difficulties and additional costs were included as eligible under the scheme.
From the first review of the scheme in 1976 through the fifth review in 1996, the amount of hectares in Ireland included as eligible under the scheme grew from just under 4 million ha to over 5 million ha. At the same time, these reviews also resulted in more land being designated as having higher levels of disadvantage which attract higher levels of payment. Thus, we can see that this scheme has a long history of review and refinement since its introduction in Ireland.
The significant level of financial support delivered through the scheme in the years since 1975, and the changes in eligible land in Ireland as part of the various reviews, show a recognition of the fact that the challenges faced by farmers in certain areas pose a significant threat to the future viability of these farming communities. The specific objectives of the ANC scheme are thus structured round themes such as ensuring continued agricultural land use, thereby contributing to the maintenance of a viable rural society, maintaining the countryside and maintaining and promoting sustainable farming systems which take environmental protection into account.
I am very aware of the importance of this scheme to the more than 95,000 farmers who receive the payment annually. With this in mind, I have prioritised the efficient payment of the ANC scheme in my Department in recent years. At present, the ANC scheme is structured around a tiered payment structure. Those farming on so-called mountain-type land receive €109.71 on their first 10 forage hectares, and €95.99 on remaining hectares up to a maximum of 34 ha. Farmers with land categorised as more severely handicapped lowland are paid €95.99 per forage hectare up to a maximum of 30 ha. Finally, those with less severely handicapped lowland are paid €82.27 per forage hectare up to a maximum of 30 ha.
As part of the negotiations of the new rural development programme, a new category was added to the scheme in 2015. In recognition of the particular barriers and costs that island farmers face, a new category of payment was introduced for off-shore island farmers. Farmers on off-shore island now qualify for payments of €250 per hectare on the first 20 ha, €170 per hectare on 20 ha to 34 ha, inclusive, and €70 per hectare on 34 ha to 40 ha, inclusive.
In 2016, payments under the scheme began in mid-September, and to date over €201 million has been paid to over 94,000 farmers. Along with the payment of €1.18 billion to some 124,000 farmers to date under the 2016 basic payment scheme, this is a very important financial support for the agrifood sector and for families in rural Ireland.
Under the new Common Agricultural Policy finalised in 2013, the new rural development regulation introduced a change in how eligible areas under the ANC scheme were to be defined. The designation of eligible areas under these schemes to date had been based on a range of socioeconomic factors. These factors included: particular stocking density levels, family farm income levels, population density and the percentage to the total working population engaged in agriculture. The change introduced in the new rural development regulation required that, from 2018, eligible areas must instead be designated using a set list of biophysical criteria. In cases where a member state does not introduce this new system for payment, the regulation sets out that the old scheme remains in place but payments must phase out on a digressive basis. The purpose of this change in approach is linked to a concern at EU level that areas were not being designated as disadvantaged in a consistent manner across the various member states. The biophysical criteria set out in the legislation to underpin the new system of designation are low temperature, dryness, excess soil moisture, limited soil drainage, unfavourable texture and stoniness, shallow rooting depth, poor chemical properties and steep slope.
My Department has commenced work on this project and relevant technical experts are currently working on sourcing and analysing the data regarding the new criteria.Department officials have been in contact with the Joint Research Centre and Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development in the EU Commission in regard to technical issues arising. The ongoing analysis will identify areas deemed to be facing natural constraints, which will, in parallel, be subjected to a refinement process.
A number of the criteria I have listed will not have an impact on the new designation in Ireland, while others will have a small impact. In effect, the Irish process will be mostly affected by soil drainage and soil moisture excess. As outlined previously, in the original rural development regulations, the new ANC designation was scheduled to be in place for payment in the 2018 scheme year. This is the timeline towards which my Department has been working. However, as part of the ongoing discussion on amendments to regulations at EU level, Austria raised the possibility of extending the deadline on an optional basis. Ireland supported this proposal, along with Latvia, Slovenia, Poland, Luxembourg, France, Germany and Slovakia. The proposal is currently passing through the relevant approval process at EU level, along with a number of other regulatory changes in what is referred to as the "omnibus proposal". The technical work is ongoing, thus it is not currently possible to set out the final set of areas to be eligible for payment. However, given the importance of the ANC scheme in the Irish context, officials in my Department are continuing to engage with our colleagues at EU level in order to ensure the best possible outcome of the review is secured.
It has been proposed that the current category of mountain-type land be maintained in any new ANC scheme and that the rate of payment attaching to this land be increased to a rate more in line with the current rate payable to offshore island farmers. The redesignation project will entail a new ANC scheme to be inserted into the rural development programme by way of a formal amendment. This will entail categories of payments being agreed with the EU Commission. Any such categories of payment must be based on the level of constraint identified by the redesignation process and based on the income forgone and costs incurred by farmers in farming such lands. These are fundamental principles that the EU Commission will insist on being the basis for payment rates. Thus, while it is likely that there will be differentiated rates of payment, as in the current scheme, it is not possible at this stage to say how many categories there will be and what rates will be payable. It will, however, remain a key priority to ensure the payments under the ANC scheme continue to be focused on achieving the best possible value for money by targeting those areas faced with significant constraints. I am aware that many farmers will have a direct interest in the outcome of this process. Accordingly, I expect there will be consultation with key stakeholders as this process develops further.
I thank the Members of the Seanad again for the opportunity to outline to them the most recent developments in what is a very important scheme for the farming community.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I thank him for the promptness with which he arrived here to discuss this important issue on the back of some shenanigans we had here over recent weeks given the proposals to amend the Order of Business to take a motion on this. At all times in opposing the amendment to the Order of Business, we have requested that the Minister come to the House. There are a number of facts we would like to hear before we put our full deck of cards on the table. I will proceed to address some of these issues for the Minister.
The Minister referred to the importance of the scheme to rural areas. I will address this. From 1975, it has been designed to help the smallholder on the family farm in the most restricted rural areas where the quality of land is very poor, owing to gradient or soil drainage. If the disadvantaged areas scheme, as it was known, had not been introduced, many smallholdings would have been abandoned and it would not have been feasible for the farming families to maintain them. It was in the interest not only of ensuring farm family income but also of biodiversity. Bearing in mind the maintenance of these plots of rural land with serious constraints, farming, including moderate farming, is what harnesses and maintains biodiversity and the nature of the area. This is the most important contribution of this scheme, along with providing badly needed income for the farm family.
I will not rehearse the figures in the Minister’s report but the scheme is worth €200 million to rural communities, which is no small sum in rural areas, including the most rural areas. We in Fianna Fáil have always maintained that the most disadvantaged must receive the greatest payment. The most disadvantaged areas and the areas of most constraint are the hill and mountain farms. As I have put on record on more than one occasion, we agreed with the Sinn Féin motion in this regard. We want the money to go to the most constrained. That is basically what it says on the tin. The money is not something we want to spread out like butter all over the country just to make sure everybody gets a little. It is a subsistence payment for those who are most constrained. It is on them that we want the money spent.
Before we could support the motion that was tabled last week, we would need to know a few different facts about the scheme. The first concerns money. If we were to give the mountain and hill farmers a payment equivalent to that paid on the islands, where would it come from? How much is in the kitty? Does the Minister propose to include in the ANC budget the under-expenditure in the other parts of the rural development programme? There is money for other schemes that is not being spent. It is sitting on the shelf and we feel it would be very advantageous and result in most value if it were diverted to the ANC scheme and put in as part of that pool.
There is a commitment in the programme for Government to an increase of €25 million in this area. We would like to hear about where the Minister is thinking of spending that money. As I stated, our emphasis is on the concept of giving the most money to the most constrained.
When and where will we see the new biophysical maps? With that it mind, why has the review been kicked down the line until 2019? The Minister was saying his Department was on target, would have all its ducks in a line, would have all its maps processed and would have its consultation process in place for the 2018 review but now we believe Ireland is supporting a proposal to push the review down the line to 2019? That said, it may not be the worst thing ever if it gives us more time to analyse the proposed maps that are to be submitted from the Irish side. I hope it would allow for an appeals process for people aggrieved over the new application procedure. This is if there are those who will be left out who were included previously. It is vital that they be given an opportunity to appeal.
I propose to the Minister that the maps and submission from the Irish side be sent, prior to their submission, to the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine for review. This is vital to such an important sector. Reviewing the proposal of the Irish side is the purpose of the committee.
In any proposal under the rural development regulation, I would like to see addressed the issues faced by people with SACs and SPAs in low-lying areas. It was not mentioned in any way in the Sinn Féin motion that such people were getting absolutely no recognition or compensation for the associated inconvenience and constraint.
As part of the review, we have the fine-tuning section. My reading of it is that it will involve the elimination of areas that had a constraint but which no longer have one due to the diligence of the farmer, or other individual, on foot of investing money. Owing to the hard work of the farmer, his spending of a lot of money on drainage and his diligence and efficiency, land with a poor drainage history might be transformed and, therefore, be taken out of the relevant category and not included as an area of constraint.I would have serious reservations in that area, in particular, with regard to drainage as in the example I cited. The Minister, as a farmer, knows the position. He comes from a far drier and better quality part of the country than that from which I come.
Land drainage, especially in my area and in many parts near that area, is a continuous activity. If one did it this year and brought in an inspector next year, the inspector would say one has a lovely field, but if one were to bring the inspector back in two years, rushes would be growing back and the work would need to be done again. I would be fearful of this fine-tuning element where people who, in essence, still have the constraint of disadvantaged land from a drainage point of view, would be eliminated, as it were.
When we get down to the final application, I hope, as in the case of lands situated on offshore island that are designated as areas of specific constraint, that we will make the maximum use of the 10% designation.
Before I call the next speaker, I welcome the pupils of Dripsey primary school in the Gallery. Senator Colm Burke is a past pupil of that school. The pupils are all very welcome and maybe in the fullness of time some of them may also end up in this House.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Having been raised on a farm, there are two big elements in agricultural life on which farmers are dependent. One is an adequate income and the other is the weather. The dry, sunny conditions this week have given farmers a guarantee of sorts about what they can do on their farm, but prevailing financial climates are more precarious. Question marks surrounding the areas of natural constraint, ANC, scheme are feeding into that latter issue because of the degree of uncertainty about the new classification system and its eventual completion. The new system of designation is to be based on robust, empirical biophysical data that indicate the suitability of land for disadvantaged status subvention.
Debate in rural Ireland on the ANC qualification criteria is ongoing and nobody wants to lose out on money for their farms. I believe that the main consensus that should emerge from the recent discourse on the ANC scheme is that all payments made under it are equitable and that those who qualify do so based on geographical merit. People who need it most should benefit most for farming flooded land, steep land, land with very poor soil, vegetation or low temperatures. In short, a topography in a subterranean structure where farmers are really struggling to get a return for their investment.
It is essential that the new mapping exercise accurately adjudicates which locations are naturally disadvantaged, ones that impose major limitations on farmers to do their job and that it will continue to do so. People who work on improving disadvantaged areas should be rewarded for doing so, for responding to the environmental challenges that face them in generating an income for their family and for the perseverance involved in such an undertaking.
Some farmers in marginal areas are fighting battles on different fronts, as witnessed by the recent spate of wildfires on the hills around the country. These farmers have literally mountains to climb every day and should be compensated for their productivity on difficult land for the service they provide to the environment and to their local community. In addition, farmers who have made improvements to their disadvantaged land should not be punished for doing so by being excluded from the new scheme. Their efforts ought to be recognised in this regard. The Government clearly does not want regressive decline in areas where farmers have gone the extra mile to improve the acres that they farm.
The new designated areas for consideration in the scheme based on biophysical parameters only have caused some controversy. The Minister will have his work cut out to facilitate farmers who will feel that they have been wrongly excluded. However, the new eligibility typology is a fairer way than the current socio-economic and biophysical model and has the potential to distribute the subsidy in a more balanced way than has been the case hitherto.
At present, it is estimated that some three quarters of the country is designated as being a disadvantaged area, which might be a surprise to many outside the agricultural community, and almost 100,000 farmers are receiving a modest share of the total €205 million allocation for the scheme. The biophysical criteria should be able to make a scientifically compelling case for farmers who need some form of compensation to sustain a viable livelihood in places where there is an existing natural handicap. In addition, farmers who are deemed ineligible should be able to appeal any decision in an open and transparent way when the nationwide location maps are released in draft form. The new mapping exercise of land is a very detailed undertaking on the part of the Department, one that requires rigorous analysis in determining which areas can be classified as needing the support. It would be helpful if the Minister could provide a specific date for completion of his Department's mapping project so that farmers can see if they qualify based on the indices that have been applied.
Crucially at this stage, farmers and their representatives need regular and concise information on how the ANC review is developing and when it will be finalised. Disadvantaged area payments are a crucial source of income for many farmers and they need assurances on this very sensitive issue.
I urge the Minister to send the completed new maps to the European Commission by next year. The Department can still provide farmers with regular updates and opportunities for consultation regarding the publication of the draft maps in the coming months. The dissemination of information is a sure way of ameliorating the sense of uncertainty, apprehension and even dread that some farmers feel regarding the confirmation of the national distribution of the ANC subsidies.
I thank the Minister for hearing what we have to say in the Seanad. I hope he does not mind my briefly raising an issue I have raised with him previously, namely, the plight of Cavan poultry farmer, Alo Mohan, who as a result of his dispute with Carton Brothers finds himself unable to earn a livelihood. I would ask-----
I accept that and I thank the Acting Chairman for that reminder. I raised this issue in the past and the Minister has the power and the influence, through his Department, to see if there could be some kind of mediation-----
-----to enable a quality farmer to get back to making a livelihood in a market that is very concentrated. Falling out with a big player puts a farmer in a very vulnerable economic situation. I would be very grateful if the Minister and his Department would continue to have an interest in that issue and examine if some fair mediation would be possible that would enable a good farmer to continue to earn a livelihood.
I welcome the Minister to the House to discuss this important issue. It is an emotive one for many farmers. It is obvious why that is the case. Owing to European designation, farmers have to deal with the issue of the designation of lands as special areas of conservation or special protection areas, which limits what they can do with the land and, invariably, that land is naturally constrained, meaning it is less productive. In many ways farmers can perceive that they are caught on all sides. Therefore, to compensate or assist farmers in those circumstances who have poor, marginal land, the payment under the ANC scheme is vital.
We have been considering something in the vein of this payment, which has been ongoing since 1975, and now we are considering a change to the criteria. With the move from socio-economic to biophysical criteria, naturally farmer are nervous about what that will mean for them on their farms and for their families and farm income. The 2015 Teagasc national farm survey, which highlights the low incomes of farmers in general but particularly hill farmers who have been mentioned, indicates that farmers have an average income of only €283 per week, which is well below the industrial wage. That puts into context the challenges facing farmers.
I welcome the support from the Minister and Government that the review would be extended because of the new criteria. I also welcome that there may be a more full discussion of what is a fair distribution of the payment to farmers, bearing in mind some are more constrained, or have their hands tied, more than others in that some land is much poorer than other land, and that we might arrive at a fairer distribution of the payment. It also gives certainty to farmers for 2018.At the IFA health farming forum yesterday in Connemara, its president, Mr. Joe Healy, had the same request, which I would support. On the €25 million increase in the ANC payments which has been identified in the programme for Government, can we - notwithstanding and assuming that this review is extended and that the deadline would be extended to 2019 - in effect see this payment being rolled out to farmers even in advance of the conclusion of the review so that that money can actually be spent? It is much needed.
I have a question for when the review takes place if additional land is included, which it looks like there will be, and I know there is a grading of land and payments. At this juncture I would like to welcome the significant work of the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Simon Coveney, and the work he did in negotiating an additional category of payment under the rural development plan which rightly saw offshore islands benefit from a more significant rate than less constrained and less disadvantaged farmers. I think that was a positive step forward, and we need that nuanced approach for fairness.
Going back to my question, if we have additional land, will there be some recognition of that in the form of an increase of budget to allow for the fact that some people who are operating with difficult land, who should rightfully be within the ANC scheme, might also be included? One of the previous speakers also mentioned this. On the issue of land reclamation and farmers who have done much to improve their lands and make them more productive, how might they be dealt with going forward? People who are proactive and do what they can do should not necessarily be penalised compared with somebody who does not. I would like to hear the Minister's thoughts on that.
I thank the Minister for addressing us today and attending to take our questions in the Chamber. I look forward to his response.
Right around the country. The issue that we are talking about today is, in a sense, how hard farmers have to work when they are dealing with areas of natural constraint. Looking at these payments, I suppose it is a bit like saying to a teacher who is working in a school that is run-down that he or she is not going to get quite as much even though that teacher does the same hours as somebody who is in a bigger or flashier school.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House to address this really important issue. He knows that Sinn Féin has had a motion on the Seanad Order Paper for some time now. That motion is very simple. It calls for the retention of mountain grazing as a separate category under the review of the areas of natural constraint scheme and for the payments going forward to properly reflect the multiple biophysical and specific constraints experienced by farmers who farm mountain-type land and for those payments to be at similar rates to the current offshore island rates. It also calls for the new map of ANC areas to be published in time for proper consultation before the draft is sent in to the EU. That was pretty simple for us. I cannot understand what was so offensive about that motion such that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have voted against it three times now. In fact, today they voted not to allow a motion after this debate on the very same motion. Where is the democracy in that? I welcome the opportunity here because it is a crucial issue to discuss. Even though it has been referred to by those on my left as "shenanigans", it has brought us here to debate this issue, and I do not think it would have been debated otherwise.
I welcome the review of this scheme. The Minister knows that the ANC scheme provides for a payment to farmers with land in constrained areas to compensate for all or part of the additional costs and the income forgone relating purely to the constraints for agricultural production. The review provides an opportunity to address the inequality that exists in farm incomes and that is the basic crux of the matter. This can be done by front-loading the payments on the first 20 ha to €250 and increasing the rate on the next 14 ha to €170 per hectare as well as allowing €70 for the remaining 6 ha, to a maximum of 40 ha.
The mountain-type category must be designated as an upland-specific category. Mountain grazing land must be recognised a specific constraint first, before any biophysical constraint is added. We do not think there is any technical or legal reason this cannot be done. If there is 10% of a specific constraint built into the review, then this must be on the mountain grazing category. Looking at the overall budget of the €195 million, and the additional €25 million committed by Government - which we in Sinn Féin welcome - we believe that it can be increased to €300 million by using the underspend from the national rural development programme, NRDP, budget. The Minister might ask where that is going to come from, but we have already identified underspends, and we know that GLAS is going to be underspent by between €60 million and €70 million.
We will just continue with this. These are our figures. The Minister is part of the same Government that said that 700 farming jobs a week were created in 2013, which fed into the 62,000 jobs that had been created in that year. Perhaps the Minister will hear me out to identify the sources of income. GLAS underspent by between €60 million and €70 million. There was an underspend on the sheep scheme of around €5 million. There was another possibly €10 million to €15 million underspend in the knowledge transfer scheme as well as an underspend in targeted agriculture modernisation schemes, TAMS. In looking at this issue, we in Sinn Féin have at all times endeavoured to put constructive, solution-based ideas forward to address the inequality in farm incomes. We cannot allow the unfairness to continue. I ask the Minister that, as an immediate measure, the €25 million be allocated to farmers farming mountain grazing land. If the Minister could give us a commitment on that, it would reassure us.
Can the Minister clarify a couple of points for me? What is the legitimate reason for the delay in the ANC review? I know the Minister says it because of Austria and some other countries putting forward proposals. We do not believe that it was necessary to have an extension on that time. We are fearful that within that time the can is being kicked down the road. This review is something that needs to be treated as something positive, where something can be done. It really concerns me when Senator Mulherin refers to additional land being included. I would not see that as the case at all. In fact, I would see it as a restraining of the land. I think 75% comes under this scheme at the moment. For me, it would be a case of lesser lands with higher payments weighted towards the hill farmers and those with more constraints. Perhaps the Minister would clarify that for us. Fine Gael Senators referred twice to additional land being included.
How much of the mapping has been done at this stage? We would have expected all of it to be done. I certainly think that, for the way forward, it would be constructive to have the mapping put before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine for consultation once it is concluded. The farming groups should also be given an opportunity to come in at that stage to input into it as well. Will the Minister give us a timeline here today?
I commend the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association, INHFA, for presenting a scientific analysis to the European Commission that clearly demonstrated how the most disadvantaged land was not receiving equal treatment under the current payment model.Indeed, I commend them for organising the public meetings throughout the country on this very important issue. This is an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and we in Sinn Féin will not let it pass. We saw what happened in the designations that were made and in the changes from REPS 4 where the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, promised an enhanced REPS to resounding applause in Castlebar but we got GLAS instead. GLAS is not REPS 4. We saw what was done to the single farm payment in 2000 and 2001 by colleagues on my left in Fianna Fáil in terms of the entitlements and everything else. Again, it was weighted against farmers in the west and farmers who are marginalised. I make no apology for fighting for farmers in Mayo and those along the western seaboard. The Minister wants to sustain the future viability of farmers. This is an opportunity to do it. We will work with the Minister and other genuinely interested parties to ensure this happens and that the wrongs of the past are righted under the ANC review.
I am delighted the Minister is here to meet us today. The Leader of the House was asked that the Minister come to discuss this issue and he came here. It shows what working with people and having understanding can achieve. That is most important. There is always more to be achieved inside the tent than outside it, which is my way of seeing things.
Talking about people to our left or right or about those we want and do not want in government or will not go into power with is not of interest to us. We are interested in supporting the best thing for the people of Ireland as we have always been and we will certainly not take any lectures from anyone about that.
The inclusion of SPAs is most vital. To include only mountain grazing in the two counties mentioned most often here, Galway and Mayo-----
That is biased to say the least. There is €25 million of special money. I cannot see why people would exclude north-west Meath which has always been graded as severely disadvantaged. One is verging on marginal lands. Farmers are trying to keep lands going in areas like that and to keep them fertile and in use. No more than in many of the areas, it is mainly sheep on those lands. There is either a great deal of bog or a great deal of rock in these areas. From my point of view and in my experience as someone with a farming background, I cannot see how places like parts of north-west Meath and south Longford should be cut free and thrown to the wolves. It would be a very biased stance to take.
I welcome the fact the Minister has engaged with us fully. He has certainly jigged things around in relation to our concerns. With the direction of our spokesman on this, Senator Paul Daly, who has excelled in his portfolio so far, we are happy to back the Minister.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. As he has rightly pointed out, almost 100,000 farmers benefit currently from the areas of natural constraint scheme, which is very important. It recognises the difficulties associated with rearing animals on marginal land and attempts to provide a small level of support to ensure that land remains farmed and in a good agricultural condition. It also provides a welcome income support which is enormously important to farmers and their families. As we know, farmers in these areas must invest tremendous additional expense, effort and time to maintain stocking rates on land that is naturally constrained. As the Minister has pointed out, things are based very much now on the biophysical criteria set out in the legislation to underpin the new system of designation around low temperature, dryness, excessive soil, moisture-limited soil drainage and so on. Maintaining a minimum stocking rate can be very difficult with these constraints. With the recent gorse fires, we must understand the importance of the ANC scheme to help farmers to continue to farm these areas for the benefit of our environment and our rural communities.
As other representatives will be aware, many of the farming organisations have expressed concerns over recent months and emphasised the importance of the scheme in recognising issues and being fair. Senator Rose Conway-Walsh emphasised the point that the new scheme should include restrictions. I disagree absolutely with that. It is very important to maintain supports for the almost 100,000 farmers who are currently in receipt of that payment. They receive it for a reason. They have to farm in very difficult conditions and the evidence supports the provision of the scheme in a very fair way. That is what it should be. It should be fair and based on evidence. That is why we have the biophysical criteria now to justify and support it. We should not be restrictive. It should be there to support the almost 100,000 farmers who are in receipt of the payment at the moment.
Excuse me. I did not interrupt the Senator. Many farmers have contacted me, in particular from Roscommon and Galway, and expressed concern about clarity as the Department is publishing maps showing proposed designation and when consultation will take place. The Minister alluded to it in his contribution. It is very important the Minister encourages the Department to invest effort in communicating with the farming community and setting out a clear schedule for the process, starting with the date for the publishing of maps and the commencing of consultation.
As the Minister said in his statement, Ireland supported an Austrian motion requesting that the refinement of EU regulations dealing with the rural development programme be deferred. It is important to do that because the review must be comprehensive, fair and thoroughly communicated to the agricultural community. I am aware that the Minister has said that if the Austrian motion is not accepted by the EU and we are obliged to conclude the process, it is critical that we are able to meet the deadline.
I emphasise the importance of that additional €25 million commitment for the scheme within the programme for Government. The drastic cuts inflicted on farmers by the Fianna Fáil Government in 2009 were an awful blow to people on low incomes. It is really important that as the economy stabilises, every effort is made to restore funding for the scheme. I know the Minister wants to do that but it is important we see those increases for farmers who need them, in particular in the context of Brexit and the challenges to farming. The agricultural community will be the hardest hit as a result of Brexit. I thank the Minister for addressing the Seanad today and look forward to his reply to the debate.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Táimid ag teacht le chéile go minic na laethanta seo. The Minister and I meet fairly regularly these days in Dublin and in Galway. I am delighted that we are having this debate. It is good to have a debate on a specific area rather than a huge and broad one on agriculture or fisheries generally.I think it is good that we are having this debate. Senator Paul Daly said at the start of his contribution that Fianna Fáil wants to hear the full facts before it votes on the motion that is to be proposed by Sinn Féin. That is in stark contrast to what Deputy Ó Cuív has been saying in public meetings. He castigated me on Raidió na Gaeltachta by saying he fully understands this whole issue. He has said that he fully agrees with the motion that has been drawn up with the support of the Irish Natura And Hill Farmers Association and indeed that he would go further. There is certainly a contradiction in the line that is being taken by Fianna Fáil on this issue. It is great that we are having this debate so that members of Fianna Fáil can clarify where they stand on this issue.
Both. I hope that when we introduce our motion on this matter next week, Fianna Fáil will know exactly where it stands and all its members will agree on where to go. We see the motion we have drawn up in relation to the ANCs as a baseline. If Fianna Fáil wants to amend it or to add extra to it, we will certainly be open to that as well.
Senators can propose amendments at any time. This motion has been on the Order Paper for weeks. If the Fianna Fáil Senators knew the business of politics in these Houses at all, they could have tabled amendments at any stage. At least the Fine Gael line on this matter has been consistent. When Mairead McGuinness MEP attended a public meeting on this issue in Maam Cross, she made it quite clear that she would take a similar line to that taken by Senators Mulherin and Hopkins in this House this afternoon. She said she was open to extending the number of farmers to whom this scheme is open. She said she was not in favour of restraining the criteria in any way. That does not surprise us because Fine Gael is known as a party that supports the bigger farmers. At least it is consistent in the line it is taking.
Go raibh míle maith agat. Senator Paul Daly said that the most disadvantaged should get the most. I suggest that the disadvantaged are the only people who should get any payment. No one would suggest that everyone should get a disability payment regardless of his or her level of disability. Some people do not have a disadvantage. We would say that the payments under the scheme as it is presently constituted need to be refocused on those areas with a definite natural constraint. That is what we are proposing in our motion. We are asking for the retention of the mountain sheep grazing land as a separate category after the review of the areas of natural constraint. We also believe that payments should reflect the multiple biophysical and specific constraints experienced by farmers who farm mountain-type land. Those payments should be set at similar rates to the current offshore island rates. Maybe the Minister will share his thoughts on that one. Does he agree that such payments should be set at similar rates to the current offshore island rates?
Everyone appears to be in agreement that mapping is an issue. There is a need for proper consultation in that regard. This is a very important issue. Many farmers in the areas we are talking about have been confused this week by the mixed messages coming from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine with regard to lands that have been the subject of fire damage payments under the basic payment scheme. I would appreciate it if the Minister could provide some clarification in this respect. What exactly is going to happen to such payments? Will they be affected? Many farmers whose land was burned went out to extinguish the fires themselves. In some cases, they received messages from the Government that they would be docked payments. That would certainly seem to be very unfair.
The simple motion to which I have referred highlights the hypocrisy within Fianna Fáil, which really does not know where it stands on this issue. People like Deputies Ó Cuív and Calleary have said at public meetings that they wholeheartedly and fully support the motion, which has been written with the support of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association. However, when we proposed to bring the motion to the House and to ask for their political support in the place where we are supposed to do this type of work, Fianna Fáil accused us of shenanigans. It is all over the place on the motion. We welcome the clarification that has been received. We hope that when we get to put our motion on this to a vote, possibly next week, we will get the support of Fianna Fáil and possibly of Fine Gael and the Independents.
I join others in welcoming the Minister to the House. I thank him for coming here to facilitate this debate. The commendable commitment and competence he has brought to his Ministry since he assumed office is widely recognised throughout the sector.
I would like to focus on Cavan-Monaghan as a microcosm of the country as a whole and as a great exemplar when we are discussing the ANC scheme. As a result of the designation of both counties in their entirety as areas of natural constraint, payments of almost €9.5 million are made to farmers in County Cavan and payments of approximately €7.5 million are made to farmers in County Monaghan. The multiplier effect of those payments in local communities, in village shops and in the lives of people in these areas is crucial. This is not just about payments to farmers because this vital payment goes straight into the local economy.
The topography of Cavan-Monaghan makes the land difficult. In many instances, the land is very sloped and very difficult to farm. That has to be a consideration. When I looked through the list of biophysical criteria, my humble opinion was that the Cavan-Monaghan area would qualify in each instance. It certainly qualifies under criteria like temperature, dryness, soil, shallow rooting, poor depth, poor chemical properties and steep slopes, etc. It qualifies right across the biophysical criteria. Sadly, it was similarly eligible under the original criteria. In my view, there are no question marks over the justice of all of Cavan-Monaghan being included. I am proud that my party was in government when that initially happened and I would be anxious for it to be maintained.
The type of land we are talking about means it is very expensive to engage in activities like tunnel draining and reseeding. This can involve the reinvestment of almost all the farm income. The nature of the land requires farmers to spend a lot of money and to do a great deal of hard, physical work. When this work is done, it needs regular renewal and extensive upkeep. I emphasise to the Minister that when one engages in tunnel draining on one's land in an area like Cavan-Monaghan - this also applies to many other areas - that work needs to be redone, topped up and upgraded every so often. That is why it is expensive to maintain the land. If it looks well on day one, that does not mean it will look similarly well at a later stage, especially if money is not invested.
In Cavan-Monaghan, climatic conditions and land and soil types make it necessary to store slurry and house cattle for a few weeks longer than in other parts of the country. That is an important consideration. As a general observation, we should not penalise enterprising farmers who do back-breaking work and reinvest all their available income to improve their land. If land appears improved and looks good on a given day, that is not a reason for exclusion. In fact, it is something that should be applauded and supported. The basic underlying condition of such land, as indeed set out in the criteria, should be recognised. These farmers should continue to be supported and their success should be seen as a success for the concept of ANCs. The extra cost of maintaining these improvements should be recognised. It is a reality that a large number of farms in Cavan-Monaghan would not be viable without this additional payment. Food production is supporting the maintenance of rural communities. I do not have to tell the Minister that there is a perennial debate about the drift to the east as part of the demographic shift in this country. We need to maintain our rural communities. I think the maintenance of the ANC scheme, which brings in enormous income, is critical in that regard.
Senator Hopkins made an important point about the Brexit context to this debate. Like Senators Paul Daly and Mulherin, I have the privilege of being a member of the special Seanad committee on Brexit, which meets virtually every Thursday.We had representatives of the agrifood sector in last week. There were people from farming organisations, the food sector and so on and to a man and a woman, every one of them cited the huge difficulty Brexit presents for the sector, so the areas of natural constraint payments are critical in that context.
The areas that are included should be maintained. I have a deep knowledge of Cavan, not Monaghan, and I stress that those areas should be maintained. I have no doubt that the case made for other areas is equally valid. The areas should be maintained because they have the underlying conditions. Insofar as one identifies improvements in spots, that is only a sign of the success of the scheme. Were it otherwise, the scheme would need more questioning than if it was being used for food production, the maintenance of family farms units and the support of our rural towns and communities.
This is a critical scheme, and I am delighted the Minister is here to discuss it. I agree with Senator Ó Clochartaigh that it is welcome that we are focusing on something specific rather than making general remarks about agriculture as an important sector, which it is, but those general remarks are not necessarily as important. What is important is that we hone in on specific realities, and this is one. We must hold and maintain what we have already. I wish the Minister well in his effort to do that, but I could not agree more with the IFA people I met from Cavan-Monaghan, and the people who approach me all the time. That area depends on the payments, and the rural economy depends on it. Were that to be declassified, in addition to Brexit and all the other pressures that are coming on the rural communities, it would be a doomsday scenario that we cannot even contemplate.
I want to first apologise to the Minister for being late. Parents of children with life-limiting illnesses are meeting with leaders of various political parties today and I had to be in attendance at the meeting. The Minister will appreciate why that would have kept me away until now.
We need to be frank in this debate, so I will be frank. These payments were originally in Donegal and Connacht, and they were for the most disadvantaged farmers in the State. They were to be directed to those who most needed assistance to stay on the land. As the years moved on, it was widened out for political reasons and now covers 75% of the land mass of this State.
One could not argue that many people in the areas in receipt were disadvantaged, certainly in comparison to the original areas that had been allocated. It got to the point where it was stretching credulity, and the purpose of the EU assistance, to the point where one could not stand over it. That has been the case for all these years. That is why I am pleased to see the emergence of farmers who are standing up for themselves and calling this out as it is, namely, that there needs to be a fair allocation to farmers who are genuinely in areas of natural constraint and genuinely disadvantaged by the topography and the conditions with which they work.
The Minister can oversee a system that directs resources to those most in need, but he can also protect the interests of those who would be concerned about losing out. There is a way to strike that balance, and the Minister needs to do that in the time ahead. An additional €25 million will be added to the budget soon. He needs to take that opportunity to ensure that that €25 million goes to the most constrained areas. This is his chance to ensure that that additional €25 million, and all future funding, will be dealt with on that basis.
For three weeks in a row we have put a motion before this House. It is based on the campaign of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association, INHFA, which is representative of an emerging group of farmers who are angry about their situation and are standing up for their rights. We salute them and encourage them in their work. Members present here today, and many other Oireachtas Members, have gone to public meetings attended by hundreds of farmers and assured them that they would defend their interests. They have assured the INHFA that they would support the objectives of its members' campaign, so we felt confident in putting the motion on the Order Paper. That motion remained on the Order Paper for an entire month. Everybody could see it. Everybody was aware of the issues. The first week we had to listen to the excuse that it caught people by surprise, that they wanted a debate and that it clashed with the agriculture committee, which was sitting at the same time. We did not believe that.
In the second week we proposed that a debate would take place, that we would debate the motion afterwards and that it would not clash with the agriculture committee. Yet again, that was voted down. This week, we wanted that motion to be taken at the end of this debate when people had a chance to discuss all the issues. They were arguing that that was the only thing preventing them from supporting that motion and backing the campaign of the INHFA, and the new emerging farmers fighting for their rights in those areas. It was voted down again today.
I will make it very clear for the Minister, and I am sure my colleagues have already done so. Now that he has had this debate and heard all the issues from his perspective, we will put the vote again next week. Let there be no doubt where people stand. As Sinn Féin representatives, we will not stand in front of a packed room of farmers concerned about their future, and concerned about fairness, tell them that we care about them and then do something very different when it comes to a vote. Our party is united in our perspective on this issue. We know that we will not please everybody. We know that some people will not want to hear our message, but we believe in fairness and sometimes, in trying to ensure fairness, there has to be an adjustment. In terms of that adjustment, the Minister should try to protect the interests of those who may lose a little, but in the interest of fairness we have to do what has to be done.
I hope the Minister will encourage his colleagues here in the Seanad to support our motion, which will be put for the fourth time next week. We hope he has taken on board the concerns of the farmers the INHFA represents. I note that the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, and other farming organisations are making commitments to move in that direction. I welcome that. It is important that as many farming organisations as possible acknowledge the injustice that so many farmers have faced, the lack of fairness in terms of payments and the fact that those payments did not reflect accurately the constraints and the realities in the way they were supposed to do at European level.
A very wise comment was made at the public meeting in Donegal that sometimes we can be too cute or too smart for our own good in this country. If we are too cute for our own good in the way we interpret and implement the areas of natural constraint scheme, we could lose European funding if the way we allocate it does not achieve its objectives. I hope the Minister will not be too cute or too smart about this issue. He should do what is right and fair. We will put our motion again next week and trust that this fourth time it will finally be passed in this House.
I thank all the Senators who contributed to the debate, which has been informative. It is obvious that the contributions reflect the broad concern about how secure these payments are and an obligation to review the designation under a different set of criteria to those used perviously when lands were categorised.
Reference was made to the fact that over the years we increased the level of lands, as if that was a bad measure. I fundamentally disagree with that. A payment comes with the designation. The fact that under the criteria that applied at the time we were able to convince the European authorities, and I am learning quickly that that is not easily done because they are not easily convinced, of the merit of our case and that that delivered payments for farmers, irrespective of the shape or hue of the Government at the time, is something to be acknowledged as a good development in terms of getting payments to Irish farmers.
The other point worth bearing in mind is that this scheme is co-funded by the European Union.The European Union pays 53% and the Irish Government pays 47%. With a scheme that currently delivers payments in the region of €205 million to farmers this year, please bear in mind that approximately €100 million of Exchequer funding is required.
In respect of making a commitment, people have been unrealistic because they have commented on the scheme without referring to the overall financial constraints faced by the Government.
I take issue with a fairytale view that has been expressed that there has been a significant underspend in the rural development programme. That view is not based on facts. The programme spans a five-year period and it is not neatly book-ended on either side. We are still paying, in respect of this rural development programme, for some of the schemes that people applied for during the last rural development programme. The next rural development programme will pay for some of the GLAS because people who apply today will get five years. It is not a neat 2015 to 2020 arrangement.
My Department has conducted studies on our commitments to a range of schemes that it operates under the rural development programme. Therefore, I know that there is no headroom to say that we can redesignate funds from one area to another to deliver a higher level of payment for any scheme be they the disadvantaged area scheme, areas of natural constraint or any other scheme. It simply is not the case. Plenty of people have said that we should pay €200 for suckler cows and increase the level of payments for different categories of disadvantage. To make serious and credible proposals requires one to address the economic side. There has been no underspend in the rural development programme and there is no crock of gold in my Department that would enable us to fund higher payments for disadvantaged areas. Yes, we have committed to, in our programme for Government, increasing disadvantaged areas payments by €25 million in 2018. I hope to deliver that funding in the context of budget 2018. It is something that will be in the overall melting pot of the negotiation process.
I accept the bona fides of everybody who has made a contribution. When one stands back from the politics of this matter I think everyone wants to ensure that those who benefit, and those who operate and farm under disadvantage by virtue of the lands they own, rent or whatever, get a payment commensurate with that situation. There is no land anywhere on the island of Ireland that is more disadvantaged than the islands off the coast of Ireland. That is why, specifically in the context of the renegotiation of the rural development programme 2015 to 2020, the islands received special recognition. I challenge anybody to argue to the contrary that no matter how disadvantaged one's lands are elsewhere on the island of Ireland, there is nobody farming under a greater disadvantage than island farmers. Whether they are on Tory Island, Achill Island, Sherkin Island, Lambay Island or any other island off the coast, they operate under specific disadvantages in terms of transporting their product by boat to the market on the mainland or, indeed, transporting inputs by boat from the mainland to their farms. There are specific disadvantages and for that reason the islands were specifically recognised.
A Senator has argued that we should equalise the disadvantage that island farmers face with other categories such as mountain land. That would not be fair. It would not recognise the specific disadvantage encountered by island communities. Such disadvantage should attract a higher rate of payment.
In the context of the biophysical criteria and the fact that we are carrying out the review, consideration must be given to what the process throws up. It is my view that there will be tiered levels of payment but that will depend on the outcome of the assessment that uses biophysical criteria.
I acknowledge and agree with the point made about farmers who, through the sweat of their brow and commitment over many years, improved their land. I personally do not think that such endeavour should work against them now. If one talks about the biophysical criteria, though they may have drained the land they did not change the soil structure, a fact I hope will be reflected in the outcome.
The process was under way in my Department. In terms of our obligation, up to the point where we are now pursuing, along with other members states, an extension of the time involved by which time we must have this matter concluded, my Department worked on the assumption that we had to have this matter concluded by the time farmers applied for their basic payments in May 2018. A situation arose where Austria, at the Council of agriculture Ministers, asked for an extension of the period. The call was supported by a number of states, including Ireland. I believe that was prudent. I do not have a crystal ball that can tell me the outcome of the process. To use the old maxim of a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, I felt it would be better to adopt a policy of what we have we hold for the longest period possible and remove the uncertainty for the period that was within our control. I hope, while it has not been delivered in absolute detail yet, that the extension of time is forthcoming.
We have worked flat out to complete the process and that work will continue. I want to give a commitment that there will be an extensive engagement with the stakeholders who are the landowners and the affected communities, and Oireachtas colleagues. I have no problem in attending an Oireachtas committee meeting on this topic at a later stage.
The scheme is critically important. We should celebrate the fact that 95,000 farmers receive the payment. There are four categories. First, there is the island community. One will not find many people tillage farming on the islands off our coastline. Island farmers are the most disadvantaged and it is right that this fact is recognised by a higher payment. I appreciate that there are many hill farmers all over the country, particularly on the western seaboard and stretching from west Cork to Malin Head and Mizen Head. It is right that they are recognised. The two other categories are more severely handicapped lowland and less severely handicapped lowland. There is a tiered level of payments. Broadly speaking, the categories reflect the types of land in this country.
In terms of the overall budget, if we acceded to the proposal put forward then we would have to take €150 million from the €200 million of total funding and give it to the other categories. I could not be a party to the suggestion that mountainous land should be at the same level of disadvantage as islands. The proposal is unfair because island communities are at a specific disadvantage and that is why the payment is higher than that for anybody else. If one takes €150 million for two categories then one severely limits the amount of payments one can pay to the rest. It is right to have a tiered process, which will be reflected in the final outcome, but it is too early to say what that will be.
There are many farming communities on the western seaboard, along the line from Malin Head to Mizen Head, who do not farm on mountain-type lands. It is not a blanket area of disadvantage, of a uniform nature, because there are variations of disadvantage. It is right that the variations should be reflected in the final outcome and in the level of payment that people receive. That is something that I am committed to.
The payment is very important to farming communities. It is right and proper that we seek to deliver in this process, and this is something that I am committed to, the best possible outcome for the farming communities that reflects the level of disadvantage that each and everyone of them operates under.
The biophysical criteria frightens the farming community. I am reminded of the point that Senator Paul Daly made about his travels and his reference to the land around Macroom. I suggest that the next time he travels to Killarney races he takes more notice of the land around Macroom. Farmers in the region, as in every region, must cope with variations in the quality of land.One passes many furze bushes on one's way from Cork city to Killarney. Many farmers in the area are working marginal land. There are many farmers working fine land as well.
I hope that the process of fine-tuning this scheme and engaging with the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development will reflect accurately the level of disadvantage being experienced by each community. Payments will then be tailored accordingly. I am committed to working with all stakeholders, including all farming organisations, towards that ambition. I believe everybody here aspires to this objective. While I do not want to trespass into the politics of this Chamber, I must say I think it would be unfortunate at this stage, when we do not have information on the specific level of disadvantage, to engage in political grandstanding on this issue. There will be plenty of time for that at a future stage. I take on board all of the points that have been offered in good faith. I will reflect on them and try to deliver the best possible outcome. It would be pointless to have a divisive debate on this issue now. All of our collective endeavours are needed on this issue to get the best result for farmers over the line.
This matter is the subject of a Topical Issues debate in the Dáil, to which the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, is responding. In many of the cases in which farmers' lands were burned, it can be proven that this was not done by the farmers themselves. Nobody here or in my Department should have any truck with anyone who breaks the law. However, there is a burden of proof. It is right that Garda inquiries are ongoing in respect of high-profile cases in which extraordinary damage was done to property, homes, flora and fauna. I hope those inquiries can be concluded. Anyone who breaks the law should face the full rigours of the law. Anyone who is an accidental victim of such illegality should not face sanction in my Department.