‘We are working hard in your interests’ – O’Neill

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle O'Neill, addresses farmers at public meeting in Draperstown.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle O'Neill, addresses farmers at public meeting in Draperstown.

Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill this week told farmers that her department was working tirelessly to support farmers through the changes brought about by CAP reform.

And the minister also reaffirmed her commitment to relocating public sector jobs in rural areas and told those gathered that the project to move jobs to rural areas was on course.

At a public meeting in Co Londonderry, she said: “I remain committed to taking all reasonable steps to ensure the transition of the Belfast-based headquarters to Ballykelly, the relocation of fisheries to south Down, forestry to Enniskillen and the Rivers Agency to Loughry campus in Cookstown. My department is leading the way on addressing the redistribution of public sector jobs across the north, which will help share the wealth across the economy and contribute to better-balanced economic growth. We are on target to deliver on this.”

Turning to CAP reform, the minister said: “My Department is working hard to make the new schemes as easy as possible to understand, to provide you with the support that you need, to continue to reduce the risk of disallowance, and to build on the level of online claims achieved in 2014.”

Urging those gathered at St Colm’s High School, Draperstown, to prepare themselves and their business for the new schemes, she said: “While, firstly I want to ensure that the important monies that CAP reform provides (approximately £255 million per year) are more targeted, more equitable and easily accessible, it is also important to make clear that despite my desire for a simpler CAP regime, the new schemes are greater in number and more complex. Therefore, I want to ensure that you have all the information and tools available to help you make informed decisions about your businesses.”

Hundreds of people turned out for the information evening on CAP reform which is one of a number of events being held across Northern Ireland. After the minister spoke, a senior official from DARD delivered a presentation which took those attending through the new reforms step by step.

Minister O’Neill said that under the Basic Payment Scheme a set of new payment entitlements will be allocated to farmers who apply and meet the eligibility conditions of the scheme. One of the key conditions is that entitlements will be allocated to the person having decision making power in relation to the agricultural activity. This is referred to as the active farmer requirement.

And she said her department has undertaken a review of all farm businesses which submitted a Single Farm Application form in 2014 to identify businesses which will not meet the active farmer requirement and therefore would not be allocated entitlements this year. The meeting was told that where it is found that individuals have artificially created conditions to attempt to meet the criteria to access support from the CAP, they will not only be excluded from benefitting from this support but also most likely face penalties.

She said: “It is important that all farmers are prepared as the new eligibility requirements are operational.

“To help farm businesses prepare and make an accurate claim for payment for the new schemes my department has recently sent farmers the most up-to-date mapping information which we hold about their business.

“It is in your interest to ensure that your map is up-to-date and that all ineligible areas are removed.”

Turning to the issue of young farmers, the minister said that a Level 2 qualification in agriculture is required in order to qualify for a payment under the Young Farmers’ payment.

The minister added: “An educational qualification provides both an incentive and a reward for young farmers and will assist in the development of a well skilled and professional industry.”

Minister O’Neill told farmers that she has Executive agreement to a budget of up to £623 million for the next Rural Development Plan – an increase in funding of almost 16%.

“This will provide additional funding of up to £250 million to fund the proposed ‘Farm Business Improvement Scheme’.”

The minister said: “This will allow us to deliver a broad range of measures to improve the competitiveness of our farm and agri-food businesses, protect and enhance our environment and improve the quality of life in our rural communities.”