Dáil Éireann - Volume 501 - 24 February, 1999

Priority Questions. - Rural Environment Protection Scheme.

34. Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food the number of sheep he will take off the hills under the new REP scheme; the reason his Department knows the number of sheep people had in 1998 but only recognised the number of sheep for which there was quota for REP scheme purposes, that sheep which qualified for headage but had no quota were ignored [5433/99]

Mr. Davern: It is not possible, as yet, to determine the overall level of destocking of commonage areas which will be necessary under the revised REP scheme. My Department, in consultation with the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, is currently in the process of preparing detailed commonage framework plans. These plans will set out the percentage level of destocking, if any, required in individual commonages. Priority is being given to preparing framework plans for those commonages in the six western counties which were the subject of the 1998 ewe supplementary measure.

While it is accepted that in some cases farmers retain sheep in excess of quota and under the existing sheep headage scheme farmers may qualify for payment on up to 200 sheep, the position is that under Agenda 2000 proposals it is proposed to change the existing disadvantaged areas headage schemes from a production linked model to an area based payment. In effect, therefore, from next year onwards, sheep farmers will be entitled to payment under the ewe premium scheme up to the limit of their quota and it is likely that they will also be entitled to an area based payment under the disadvantaged areas headage scheme. Full details of the area based headage scheme have not yet been formally agreed.

Mr. Ring: This is similar to the Government's handling of Objective One status. It has made a mess of granting that status and destroyed the west through playing politics and trying to please Independents representing other areas. The Government has thrown away Objective One status for the west and the Border counties.

With regard to the REP scheme, which was good and which worked well, now that the framework document has appeared, the proposal being put forward by the Department of Agriculture and Food will exclude—

An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy is making a statement. This is Question Time.

Mr. Ring: The Minister of State made a statement.

An Ceann Comhairle: He is entitled to do so. However, the Deputy is the questioner and he must confine himself to questions.

[70] Mr. Ring: We are not obtaining answers. Why will the Department exclude people who did not apply for area aid in 1997? In respect of commonage, how does the Department intend to include in the scheme young farmers – including those returning from England – who take over their fathers' farms? I understand that if a person did not apply for area aid in 1997, they cannot join the new REP scheme if they possess commonage rights. How does the Department intend to resolve that problem?

Mr. Davern: There are approximately 8,000 commonages throughout the country. Many people possess written proof of their entitlement to commonage while others do not. This is a complicated area. Interim arrangements are being made by my Department and the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands to put a national framework in place on completion of the individual commonage framework plans. This will permit farmers with land in natural heritage areas and commonages to participate in the new revised REP scheme and to apply for the new measure in conservation areas.

I do not believe that great problems will arise because if somebody previously claimed commonage rights they will have then passed on that claim. I am not sure what the Deputy is trying to say.

Mr. Ring: What about young farmers taking over commonages who did not apply for area aid in 1997? How will they be included in the REP scheme?

Mr. Davern: Did their predecessors apply?

Mr. Ring: From my understanding of the matter, that will not be taken into consideration.

Mr. Davern: The broadest application possible will be made in order to encourage people to become involved in the scheme and, in the interests of long-term conservation, to depopulate and destock some of the over-grazed areas in the six western counties mentioned. The payments under the scheme are quite generous – £190 per hectare acre for the first 40 hectares; £18.90 per hectare acre for between 40 and 80 hectare acres; and £14.70 per hectare acre for between 81 and 120 hectare acres. Up to a total of £9,800 can be paid directly on commonage areas. It is in everyone's interest that we try to include as many people as possible so they can take part in the scheme and in order that other people can be helped to qualify under a planned organisation of commonages. The Deputy can be assured that the Department's attitude will be to include as many people as possible because the scheme will not work if a person who is not included does not abide by the plans.

Mr. Ring: I am afraid that I must ask my question again. How does the Minister of State propose to include in the REP scheme people who [71] did not apply for area aid in 1997 and who have commonage rights? Is it possible for the Department to brief members of Fine Gael regarding the contents of the framework document?

Mr. Davern: As Deputy Connaughton is aware, the officials in my Department are always available to discuss with Members of the Opposition any proposals about which they are anxious to obtain information.

I am not immediately aware of the problem to which the Deputy referred in the first part of his question. However, the Department will investigate it and communicate with the Deputy about it in the near future. We want to include as many people as possible in the scheme. If someone else worked the land before a new farmer came into possession of it, that person would have applied previously. The new owner would have the right to a continuation of that application, provided they abided by the rules.

Mr. Ring: The Minister of State is aware that there are people in the western counties who possess so much commonage that they did not include it all in their area aid applications but they want it to be included in the REP scheme. These people have stock on their land but they will be expected to destock it. Some of these people are not in the REP scheme but they want to become involved. However, they may not have used their commonage for their area aid applications in 1997 and will not be able to join the REP scheme as a result. How does the Minister of State intend to resolve that problem?

Mr. Creed: What about the sub-division of commonages?

Mr. Davern: If Deputy Creed really wishes to raise that question, the resulting civil war will be on his hands, not mine.

The issue of commonages is extremely complicated. Some people have rights, others allege they have rights while some claim that they do not have rights. There are 43,000 people involved in the REP scheme at present and we are anxious to increase that to over 50,000 by the end of the year because we see the scheme as a way for people to earn an income. The Deputy can be assured of our full support for any new entrants to the scheme. These people will receive only encouragement from the Department.