THE importance of single farm payments to the farming industry and to the wider rural economy was acknowledged during a special debate in the Assembly on Monday.
During the debate MLAs expressed concern about the issues arising from the inspection and payment system for the 2011 scheme and called on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to ensure that systems for the delivery of the scheme in the future are fit for purpose and that the inspection process is expedited effectively.
Speaking ahead of the debate SDLP South Down MLA Sean Rogers gave his firm support to the practice of single farm payments to the farming industry and emphasised their importance for the wider rural economy.
He said the prompt payment of Single Farm Payment is essential to keeping Northern Ireland’s largest industry buoyant in the present economic circumstances.
“An over cumbersome inspection process, resulting in many late cases and in some instances reduced payments is causing havoc,” the MLA continued.
“When farmers are doing their best to follow DARD guidelines, and year on year they are encountering difficulties someone must take responsibility. Too often the farmer becomes the fall guy for too much bureaucracy and red tape.
“The month of December is typically a big pay-out time in the farmer’s calendar. There are many farmers who I have spoken to who are unable to finish their stock because they could not afford it,” he continued.
“While the weather has contributed to cash flow problems the poorer quality feed has to be supplemented with bought in feedstuff to keep the milk yield up. Farmers have to contend with these difficulties including inspection.
“In 2011 many farmers in this category waited for three months for an inspection report on which they could comment. Many of these farmers needed assistance with interpreting this report. Inspection reports were checked retrospectively against SFP claims back to 2005. Once the report is agreed, it goes to Orchard House to be assessed. A decision is made to either apply a penalty or approve a payment. This process could take up to six months.
“We can only imagine the impact on the farmer and their family when they are unable to meet their banking commitments for an additional six months, but meanwhile life on the farm must continue.
“Late payments are an increasing problem ranging from 450 in 2009 to over 1200 in 2011. These are not just a few weeks late but over six months late which is totally unacceptable. The minister must act to alleviate the delays in payments for farmers.
“There have been many issues with mapping in recent times. The minister and the department place great emphasis on farmers checking their new maps. I recently spoke with a landowner who expressed concerns that a new map from the department completely removed part of his holding and transferred it to an area that is publicly controlled. This begs the question, how the department can get it so wrong with the ready access to modern map technology. Farmers therefore must exercise vigilance to check their maps are completed accurately.
“Another issue of concern is the penalties that farmers may well face. I find it hard to accept that if a farmer makes the slightest error, he can have the book thrown at him and could cost him his SFP for perhaps up to three years, while on the other hand the department tells us “we will continue to make mistakes in this complicated system that we operate” without fear of redress .
“While I welcome the department’s commitment to reduce the regulatory burden in the farming industry they must move beyond paying lip-service to this ideal and turn it into a reality. I would also question why there are different regulations here for RDP than in Scotland.
“Farmers need an advance balanced payment system as farmers in the south of Ireland enjoy. Advance payments would help ameliorate the cash flow crisis being faced by farmers. We need the minister to take this case to DEFRA and Europe because our farmers deserve the same opportunities as those in the Republic.”
Meanwhile DUP East Londonderry MLA George Robinson in supporting the motion, said it addressed one of the key financial essentials of the rural communities.
“It is, without doubt, even more essential in the current economic climate, in which farmers are under severe financial pressure from the retail sector, due to its desire to minimise prices for the consumer,” he added.
“We must remember that fertiliser, feeding and fuel costs have all risen substantially. Therefore, the single farm payment plays a central role in keeping farms financially viable, especially after this year’s bad weather. That is also why the payments must be made on time to ensure that farmers are kept financially solvent. Without those payments, I am sure, some of our farmers could go out of business. I also urge the minister to seek an average interest rate, either annual or monthly, for farmers’ payments, as approximately 8% of the payments were lost due to the fixed-date system used this year.
“The payments, of approximately £300 million, have the wider effect of supporting rural businesses, as farmers spend their money predominantly in the local area. Therefore, the single farm payment supports a rural business network, not just an individual farmer. Due to the vital role that the payments play in the rural economy, it is essential that the delivery system is as efficient as it can be.”