Training courses are axed in budget cuts

UFU annual meeting at Greenmount. Picture: Cliff Donaldson
UFU annual meeting at Greenmount. Picture: Cliff Donaldson

Short farming courses at Greenmount College are the latest casualties as part of Department of Agriculture and Rural Development funding cutbacks.

Sources have suggested that as many as 26 jobs could be under threat as a result of the cuts, after staff were informed earlier this week that their department would be closed from September 2015.

The cuts come as DARD looks to make savings of £30million, which includes approximately 300 redundancies.

Many of the courses offered are a legal requirement and fears are growing that farmers may carry on working without getting the necessary certifications due to the costs involved of finding the training elsewhere.

Ulster Farmers’ Union President Ian Marshall has described the decision to cut the training jobs as ‘disappointing and short-sighted’.

Mr Marshall said: “We all recognise that we are in a time of austerity and that DARD is expected to make significant cuts to its budget.

“Unfortunately this is resulting in job losses but we have always urged DARD to take a strategic and long term view when it comes to these cuts and to ensure that front line services are protected.

“Overall, I think many people will struggle to understand why DARD is cutting frontline service jobs, especially at a time when they are continuing to push ahead with spending at least £75,000 per person to relocate 600 head office jobs to Ballykelly.

“I can’t imagine officials in DARD are taking these cuts and job loss decisions lightly, but this news is particularly disappointing given the nature of these training courses.

“Many of these short courses focus around health and safety issues, and as a member of the Farm Safety Partnership I have serious concerns that by cutting these courses what message is that sending to farmers about DARD’s priorities around health and safety.

“While accessing training through private companies is a potential option, CAFRE has a long standing reputation for delivering high quality training at a reasonable cost and it is regrettable that farmers will no longer have this option available to them.”

The short farming courses offered cover a wide range of key skills with the aim of developing people in the land-based and rural sectors.

Among the courses offered are safe tractor driving, spraying, safe transportation of livestock, safe sheep dipping and the popular bee keeping courses.

Normally completed within one to 10 days, many of the courses once complete lead to validated qualifications or recognised Certificates of Competence.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is currently finalising its Business Plan with a view to discussing it with the ARD Committee of the Assembly on 14 April.

A spokesman for the Department said: “As we indicated in our consultative document, this will be a difficult year for the Department, involving a reduction in our headcount of some 300 staff.

“DARD is required to achieve savings of 15.1% or £29.9m. As over 50% of the DARD budget relates to staff costs, a reduction of around 300 posts is required by September 2015. This would achieve savings of £5.6m in the six remaining months of 2015/16 and £11.2m in future years.”

The reduction will be achieved through two workstreams.

“One workstream focuses on the Voluntary Exit Scheme which is now open for applications. This will permit staff to leave the Department earlier than they otherwise might have done, and should reduce the number of people working in the Department. The number is subject to funding being available and staff would leave the Department between September 2015 and March 2016,” the spokesman said.

“It is likely that a number of the staff selected to leave the Department under the Voluntary Exit Scheme will be working in high priority areas, and it is envisaged that the Department will resource those areas and fill those posts with people currently working in lower priority areas, or other parts of the Department where efficiencies can be achieved. A second workstream is therefore identifying where posts will have to be suppressed.”

The Department is currently liaising with Trade Union Side, and managers are meeting staff to discuss the areas identified as lower priority.

“While we have high level plans, we are working through the detail. We have carved out reductions in back office support areas.

“At this stage, the services most likely to be impacted include Training, Countryside Management, Area Based Schemes and Animal Health and Welfare Inspection. These are difficult decisions, but key priority areas such as the Basic Payment Scheme, the new Areas of Natural Constraint Scheme, LEADER and Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Isolation can then be protected as far as possible from the impact of the budget reductions and job cuts,” he concluded.