Dáil Éireann - Volume 552 - 18 April, 2002

Other Questions. - Rural Environment Protection Scheme.

  5. Mr. Bell asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development the number of farmers who have withdrawn from the REP [685] scheme; the numbers currently joined up; his views on this decrease; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11902/02]

  Éamon Ó Cuív: When the first REP scheme closed to new entrants at the end of 1999, there were some 45,500 active participants. Some comments on the level of participation in the new scheme seem to be based on the mistaken assumption that the figure of 45,500 at the end of 1999 formed a base from which REPS should continue to grow. In reality, however, farmers join REPS for a five-year term and over 27,000 farmers have come to the end of their contracts since December 1999. Some 18,000 farmers are still in the first scheme.

  Since the new REP scheme was launched in November 2000, my Department has already received almost 19,000 applications and most of these are already in payment. I understand that another 7,000 applications are at the planning stage and have not yet reached my Department. Last year, the first full year of the new scheme, saw the highest number of applications ever received and processed in any year since REPS was first launched in 1994. Applications received by the end of this year are expected to overtake that record level again.

  Of the farmers in the first REPS who came to the end of their contracts since 1999, the information available to me indicates that between 80% and 85% nationally have already applied for the new scheme or are in the course of applying for it. Since the new REPS, though identical in most respects to the first one, is legally a separate measure, farmers who participated in the first scheme and wish to continue in REPS must submit a new REPS plan and a new application. This work has to be done by planners approved by my Department, of which there are 750, of whom only 635 have had plans approved under the new scheme to date. Consequently, the level of demand for the new scheme is giving rise to backlogs at the planning stage.

  I am encouraged by the level of uptake for the new scheme, which also includes a proportion of farmers who were not in the first one. There are a number of possible reasons that a comparatively small proportion of the farmers who participated in the first REPS are not applying for the new one. Many, because of age or other considerations, will not want to take on a further five-year undertaking. Others have undischarged financial liabilities from the first scheme and will be eligible to rejoin once they have discharged these. A number will be deterred by the cost of having plans prepared, while others will have decided on economic and other grounds to revert to more intensive farming methods than REPS will allow.

  Mr. Penrose: Why have farmers withdrawn from the scheme? It is because they were driven to distraction by the level of bureaucracy involved? If there was a weed out of place, a big “X” was marked on the form. It was the most [686] bureaucratically administered scheme I have ever encountered. Is that not the real reason there has been a drop-off in the level of participation by farmers? The Minister of State cannot disguise the figures, no matter how he presents them, including the overlap of 18,000. Will he agree there is a slow-down in payment for those farmers who got through to REPS 2? Also, the level of payment is totally inadequate in relation to the level of bureaucracy involved. What is the position with regard to the 2,500 farmers who have submitted forms and what work has been done with regard to processing those forms over the past two weeks?

  Éamon Ó Cuív: While I do not wish to quibble with the wording of the question, the issue is not that people are dropping out of REPS but simply that they are coming to the end of REPS 1. The statistics indicate that some 80% to 85% are rejoining and an approximately equivalent number of people who have not been in REPS are now joining. On the basis of applications currently in the pipeline, the number of participants looks like levelling off at 45,000. This raises a number of issues to which I have alluded in the publication of the commonage framework plans. At the end of that document I said quite clearly that, in the context of the mid term review of the rural development programme, the REP scheme had to be reviewed in various respects, including the issues which Deputy Penrose has mentioned, such as simplification of the scheme, the penalty regime and rates of payment. All those aspects are in the public domain, in the documents we have published and on the website in relation to the commonage framework plans. I accept that all of those issues are inhibiting factors. I am not sure whether the 70,000 target was realistic and I have my doubts about it. The farmers' organisations appeared to concur with me in that belief.

  The level of bureaucracy and paperwork is an inhibiting factor. We, in the Department, are looking at this to see what can be done to simplify it. Marginal land farmers, who have very low stocking rates and, therefore, whose pollution levels are zero and always was, are definitely turned off to a large extent, especially the older ones. I have directed my attention towards this issue.

  Mr. Crawford: Is the Minister of State aware that the limit on the scheme was £5,000 in 1994 and that it is now £4,750? Is he also aware that the cost of applying was approximately £400 to £500 in 1994 and that it is now £1,000? It means that, ten years later, farmers are getting much less. Does he not accept that this, and the level of bureaucracy, is grinding the scheme to a halt? Does he also accept that the administrators are failing to deliver?

  Éamon Ó Cuív: The payment has been static since 1994, but I have publicly signalled that I am addressing the issue. I am also addressing the [687] amount of paperwork involved. It is easy to blame administrators, but the reality is that every amount of money we pay must not only satisfy the auditors here but also EU auditors, who interpret these rules very strictly. They have a slightly different attitude to the meaning of the word “precise”.

  Mr. Crawford: I do not blame the staff. It is a question of insufficient staff numbers to implement the scheme.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: There was a delay in relation to industrial relations matters which have now been resolved. We hope any backlog that fell outside the protocol will be cleared. Until those difficulties arose we were paying everybody within the protocol dates, as agreed with the farming organisations.