After publishing our investigation into the Red Tape preventing Young Farmers from receiving entitlements, we asked the Department of Agriculture to respond directly to our concerns.
Although we did get a few paragraphs from the Minister for Agriculture’s office, not everything was clearly answered, and here at That’s Farming we feel that responsibility has not necessarily been taken by the government. Instead, the onus has been moved from being solely on the EU, to being quite strongly on the Direct Payment Advisory committee.
Answers to Investigation 1
We asked Creed the following four questions in relation to the Specific Disadvantage funding claim, which you can read about fully in our article here:
- Has the Minister for Agriculture submitted a request to the EU Commission for permission to draw down funding in the National Reserve for Forgotten Farmers, as he has admitted to doing during an IFA annual general meeting on Tuesday 17th January 2017?
- If so, when was this request submitted?
- What was the response by the EU; ie, what reasons were given in opposition/support of the request, and when was this response from the EU received?
- What is the Department’s plan now that they have received feedback from the EU, since action on the Forgotten Farmer issue was identified in the Programme for Government as a commitment by your Department?
Creed’s office responded with the same initial answer that was given to Neilus O’Connor last year, stating that the two mandatory categories of Young and New Entrant farmers need to be catered to.
It also adds, however, that ‘in the context of negotiations with the EU Commission in relation to the ‘Old Young Farmer’ specific disadvantage category, Ireland notified the Commission that there were other categories of farmers who may also require consideration as suffering from a specific disadvantage’.
‘The Commission notified Ireland that any application for a specific disadvantage category of the National Reserve may only be made to the EU Commission in the context of the operation of the National Reserve for that year.’
An answer is not clearly given as to what this means for ‘specific disadvantage’ farmers of today, nor does the following answer address what the government’s plan is to take action on these struggling farmers, which they say the EU is dismissing:
‘Decisions relating to the availability of a 2017 National Reserve can only be made following determination of available funding and following the conclusion of the consultation process with the Direct Payment Advisory Committee which comprises of [sic] members of the main farming organisations and farm advisory and education bodies’.
Answers to Investigation 2
We asked Minister Creed the following three questions about the origins of the Green Cert, for which the government has previously blamed the EU for its inflexible rules. We covered this in full here:
- Why has the Green Cert been identified as an EU requirement by the Department of Agriculture when we know it to be otherwise?
- What notification on the Young Farmers Scheme was received by the Department of Agriculture from the EU Commission in September 2015?
- Why has Minister Creed told Éamon Ó Cuív that any applications received after the Green Cert deadline cannot, under EU regulation, be considered for eligibility in to the Young Farmers scheme, when we know this is at the discretion of Member States?
The Department’s response once again lays responsibility at the feet of the Direct Payment Advisory Committee, which is made up of main farming body representatives:
‘Decisions in relation to the inclusion of additional educational criteria for the 2015 National Reserve and Young Farmers scheme were taken in consultation with the Direct Payment Advisory Committee, which comprises members of the main farming bodies and advisory services.’
‘Since the introduction of the Single Payments Scheme in 2005, Ireland has applied a requirement that successful applicants under the National Reserve must have an appropriate agricultural educational qualification. This requirement is in place to ensure that National Reserve and Young Farmer scheme funding is targeted at bona fide young farmers. Otherwise the funding could be allocated to non-farming landowners.’
The department’s answer also claims that ‘young farmers receive significant benefits in terms of preferential access to the National Reserve’, which no one had disputed. However, the answer doesn’t address the fact that thousands of young farmers are locked out of this ‘preferential’ treatment.
Speaking of the reasoning behind having a Green Cert once again, (which was not something we were asking the department to explain, but rather why it was labelled an EU requirement in the Dáil) the answer continues:
‘This requirement has always been endorsed by the Direct Payments Advisory Committee and receives wide support as it ensures that payments from the National Reserve, which are in effect funded by cuts to the entitlements of other farmers, are targeted at bona fide young farmers and new entrants to farming.’
Creed’s office then goes on to explain how the influx of interest in the Green Cert was to blame for so many farmers being frozen out of entitlements, failing to address the fact that they had no choice:
‘The requirement in respect of a FETAC Level 6 agricultural educational qualification, when combined with the high demand for places on agricultural courses, gave rise to a significant demand and created a challenge for the agricultural educational sector in 2015.
‘The Department were [sic] aware of many prospective applicants who had an interest in pursuing such an agricultural course but may have experienced difficulty in achieving the completed educational qualifications in time to qualify for the 2015 Young Farmer and National Reserve schemes.’
The answer goes on to say that the government announced ‘increased flexibility’ to accommodate these new applicants.
‘It was decided that any person who met the other eligibility criteria for the relevant schemes and who commenced a qualified agricultural course anytime up to and including September 2016 would be accepted under the National Reserve and Young Farmers Scheme in 2015. The increased flexibility would ensure that the benefits of the ‘young farmer’ and ‘new entrant’ categories would be widely available even to those who were unable to complete their agricultural course by 2015.’
The department states to us that they notified the EU of this ‘increased flexibility’, and this was the response they received:
‘The EU Commission subsequently advised Ireland that the flexible arrangements that would allow an applicant to commence their agricultural education after the date of submission of an application under the National Reserve and/or Young Farmers Scheme did not fit with the ‘annual logic of the Direct Payments’ and was a risk of non-compliance with Regulatory requirements.’
The department adds that ‘to ensure that no young farmer would be disadvantaged by this ruling and in order to comply with the notification from the EU Commission thus avoiding the risk of a financial correction for Ireland, extensive efforts were put in place by the Department and Teagasc at the end of 2015’.
The department adds that this ‘resulted in applicants to the 2015 National Reserve and Young Farmers Scheme being provided with a placement on an agricultural education course prior to 31st December 2015’.
In order to ‘ensure compliance’ with the annual logic of the Direct Payments, the Department says it didn’t have the ‘option’ to apply the flexibilities of the 2015 scheme to the 2016 Young Farmers Scheme.
‘The requirement for the 2016 Young farmers Scheme is that new applicants under the scheme must have commenced their agricultural education by the closing date for the scheme.’
This answer, although lengthy, fails to take responsibility for the fact that the government created the eligibility criteria of the Green Cert. Even taking into consideration that it was the EU’s duty to make sure that rule is enforced, the government doesn’t address the fact that it should have known the creation of a Green Cert would render thousands of farmers ineligible.
Answer to Investigation 3
In the third part of our investigation, which you can read here, we spoke about the National Reserve. We asked the Department the following three questions:
- Where has the 90-hectare limit come from, as we know there is flexibility within EU regulations for these limits? How did the Department reach that figure when the average is closer to 30 hectares?
- Why has the current ‘leasing entitlements without land’ claw-back exception been allowed to happen alongside the 50% claw-back conditions of ‘sale of entitlements without land’, when less than €14,000 was drawn from these claw-backs in 2016?
- What is the Department’s response to the suggestion that a 25% claw-back be implemented on both sale and leasing of entitlements without land?
The answers we received on this issue are vague.
The first response, which aims to answer the question ‘where did the 90-hectare limit come from’, simply states that Ireland isn’t doing anything different to the other EU Member States; bear in mind that each EU Member State has varying average farm sizes. An answer that suggests 'they’re doing it, so we are too’ is not an acceptable excuse, and we can imagine farmers aren’t happy with this either:
'Ireland is not aware of any other Member State that has introduced an upper limit of less than 90 on the number of hectares that can be allocated entitlements or a top-up on existing entitlements from the National Reserve. In Ireland under the 2015 National Reserve, the average allocation of new entitlements and top-up’s to existing entitlements was 33.75.'
The response also lists out the three EU regulations the Department claims it’s working from when it comes to replenishing the National Reserve. They say that funding can be drawn from:
- Surrender of entitlements that remain unused by farmers for two consecutive years
- ‘Clawback’ derived following the sale of entitlements without land. This provision applies only to the sale of entitlements without land and was introduced in 2015 to prevent widespread sale of National Reserve entitlements in the years immediately following the allocation of these entitlements.
- The Regulations also provide Member States with the option to impose a linear cut to the value of all farmers’ entitlements to replenish the National Reserve.
On the issue of the capping of farmers’ entitlements, they say they have already capped them as far as EU regulations allow.
In the case of clawback issues, the ‘Direct Payment Advisory Committee’ is held responsible once again. The buck is passed for a third time to the committee, who has apparently commenced their discussions about where to get National Reserve funding:
‘Decisions relating to the financing of the National Reserve are taken in consultation with the Direct Payment Advisory Committee … The consultation process in relation to the 2017 National Reserve has commenced and decisions relating to a 2017 National Reserve will be made following the conclusion of this consultative process and the availability of funding.
If this is the case, then we wait patiently to see if the government steps in to take on board the many points we’ve discovered about the National Reserve system.
After looking at the facts and Creed’s answers, is your government giving you an acceptable response? Have your say, and let us know on Facebook and Twitter.