North Antrim MLA Robin Swann has hit out at delays in the processing of applications to the Young Farmers Scheme.
He has challenged the DUP Farming Minister “to get her Stormont Department’s act in gear and speed up the processing of Young Farmers Scheme applications, otherwise the much-need agricultural sector will be plunged into an even deeper crisis than currently exists”.
Mr Swann, who is himself Chair of the Stormont Public Accounts Committee, is also a member of the Stormont Agriculture Committee and a Past President of the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster.
He issued his challenge to the Minister following a recent meeting of the Agriculture Committee.
Mr Swann said: “The Farming Minister’s words of supposed support for young farmers are not ringing true when compared with the deplorable slowness in processing of Young Farmers Scheme applications.
“At this week’s Agriculture Committee, I publicly pushed officials to speed up the need for urgent processing of outstanding applications.
“In 2016, there were 773 applications, of which only 415 have been fully assessed equivalent to 54%, and a more worrying statistic is that of those 415 applications which have been assessed, 189 have been rejected – this is just under half.
“The two main reasons given for the slowness are partnership agreements and applicant qualifications.
“These are both issues which could be resolved if only the Department would adopt a less dogmatic approach.
“In some instances, I believe that applicants have been turned down with qualifications that far exceed the level 2 specified in the application, which does directly contrast with the Minister’s statements when she has said she wanted ‘to ensure that we invest in the next generation of farmers.
“Therefore, in order to encourage generational renewal, to recognise educational achievement ...’
“The partnership agreements are a legal requirement, but in some cases the Department is over integrating the agreements, whereas in some instances it is accepting far simpler contracts that don’t carry the same level of detail.
“So rather than encouraging young farmers, the department’s handling of this current scheme is turning young farmers off remaining in this much-needed sector, as this is their first introduction to a department which is crippled by paperwork rather than support field work and animal husbandry,” said Assemblyman Swann.