Minister sets out her priorities for the year ahead

Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill and Rural Support chair Marion McCracken at the Rural Support evening at Stormont. Picture: Cliff Donaldson
Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill and Rural Support chair Marion McCracken at the Rural Support evening at Stormont. Picture: Cliff Donaldson
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Improved services in rural communities and continued work between the Department of Agriculture and stakeholders are just two of the highlights of Farm Minister Michelle O’Neill’s New Year message.

In setting out her priorities for the year ahead, Mrs O’Neill has said that 2015 will be challenging – not least with budget cuts of close to £30 million coming into play.

Minister O’Neill reflected on a successful end to 2014 which saw a record number of farmers receive their Single Farm Payments in December.

The minister said: “It was fitting to note that we ended 2014 with a record performance of 95% of approx 30,000 farmers receiving their Single Farm Payment (SFP) in December. These are the best results the department has delivered since the introduction of SFP in 2005. However, my officials will continue to process remaining claims as quickly as possible and I would appeal to the farming community to work with us to ensure any outstanding claims are settled quickly.

“2015 will herald significant changes in payments to farmers. The eligibility rules will change so my department currently has a major focus on communicating these new rules to farmers. The new payments for 2015 are the Basic Payment, the Greening Payment and the Young Farmer Payment.

“One of the biggest changes here is that the payments are not designed for landowners who let their land in conacre. The eligible claimant is the active farmer using the land. It is not sufficient simply to be the owner of the land. The department will put new controls in place to identify claimants who are not themselves the active farmer.

“The Greening Payment will have particular implications for farmers who have larger areas of arable land and the Young Farmer Payment is intended for younger farmers with a qualification who are taking control of the farm.

“The detailed rules and requirements are largely in place now and a considerable amount of information is available on the department’s website (www.dardni.gov.uk). I have also committed to invest in the information and communications technology to comply with Europe’s requirements and help farmers avoid penalties. My message to claimants in 2015 is simple: make sure you claim online rather than on paper, make sure your maps are accurate and make sure you meet the eligibility rules to ensure faster payment.”

Turning to her department’s budget spending plans for 2015 the minister identified frontline services, tackling rural isolation and harnessing the ‘Going for Growth Strategy’ as key priorities.

She said: “The Executive’s draft budget for 2015/16 has been a focus of debate over the last number of months, particularly given the scale of Tory cuts. My share of the cuts equates to £29.9m. This will be very difficult for my department to deliver within one year, particularly as over half of my costs relate to staff.

“We have set a target to reduce staffing by about 10%. I know staff are concerned, not just about their own futures, but also to continue to deliver front line services. We have already put a hold on recruitment and promotion, so we are filling priority vacancies by moving existing staff. Shortly we will be offering a voluntary exit scheme. I believe these measures will allow us to meet our target.

“I do, however, recognise the need to balance my budget. I launched my Draft Budget 2015-16 proposals in late November and over 250 consultation responses have been received so far. My department is currently working through the responses and will be providing me with a summary of the key themes later this month for consideration. I will also use this summary to inform the Executive’s consultation on the Draft Budget.

“Despite the obvious challenges the reduction in budget presents, I will not be deterred from delivering my policy priorities and my department’s commitments in the Programme for Government. These include continuing progress on animal health and Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Isolation (TRPSI) which remains a key priority for me. I will ensure funding is provided for the TRPSI Programme in 2015-16. I am currently working with my Executive colleagues to identify new and challenging actions for inclusion in a refreshed Rural White Paper Action Plan which I hope to publish during 2015.

“I also intend to bolster rural economies through the department’s programme of relocation which I have already announced and I have allocated the necessary capital funding (£4.2m) in my budget proposals. I also look forward to opening a new DARD Direct office in Strabane.

“I will also allocate £3m of funding to initiate some of the actions identified in the ‘Going for Growth’ strategy. A key feature of this investment will be the delivery of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme (FBIS). This represents an initial step towards delivering longer term investment.

“In addition to the FBIS I am also committed to delivering a range of other measures within the new Rural Development Programme. This includes establishing the new Local Action Groups under the LEADER programme, and delivering payments to farmers through the new Areas of National Constraints scheme.

“Cuts are being imposed across the Executive and my department is not exempt. I will have to take difficult decisions. In doing so, I intend to remain true to commitments I have made and priorities I have set.

“I will welcome views from stakeholders on the measures to take in balancing the budget and how to mitigate their impact,” she added.