CAP transfer funding decision will be legally challenged

Following a decision by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development‘s Minister to transfer seven per cent of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) from Pillar I to Pillar II, MEP Diane Dodds has confirmed to AgriLand that the matter will be challenged in the courts as early as next Monday.

Yesterday, Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Michelle O’Neill announced the rates of transfer from Pillar I to Pillar II of the CAP within the north of Ireland.

She announced a seven per cent rate of transfer from Pillar I to Pillar II of the CAP for the years 2014 – 2019. This will result in a total transfer of approximately €137.5m from Pillar I to Pillar II.

The minister said: “I have considered carefully the range of opinions from stakeholders on whether funds should be transferred between Pillars I and II of the CAP. Along with my officials, I have looked closely at how any transfer would affect the budget available to both Pillar I and Pillar II, and the sources of funding that could be available to a future rural development programme.”

The Minister explained that she had consulted widely before making her decision, adding: “The issue of a transfer between Pillars I and II of the CAP was part of the consultation on the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020, which was out for public consultation for 16 weeks from 1 July to 21 October 2013. In addition, my officials gave presentations on these proposals at a series of consultation events across the North, and held several meetings with stakeholders and other interested parties to provide more detail on our proposals, and listen to their views.”

The Minister added: “I consider the Rural Development Programme to be a key mechanism in delivering positive change in our rural areas and it is important that it is adequately funded. Similarly, I know how important direct payments are to our farm businesses. It will benefit our farmers through ensuring funding for a Farm Capital Investment Scheme and other farming facing measures, it will allow me to continue to protect our natural environment through a well funded agri environment scheme, and continue to provide support to our rural businesses and voluntary organisations, which are so vital to our rural communities.”

Speaking to AgriLand on the Minister’s statement, MEP Diane Dodds said: “This is a foolish and outrageous decision by the DARD Minister on a matter that affects a number of departments and is clearly cross cutting. Before setting the level, the minister should have brought this matter to the Executive. I have argued for some time that the minister is directing too much money towards aspects of Pillar II.

“I am glad that the First Minister and Executive colleagues will be challenging the legality of the DARD minister’s decision making process. Ultimately, I trust we will arrive at a decision where more money is kept in Pillar I with farmers. This would make farm businesses more sustainable, productive and competitive. In so doing we would grow our economy and enhance rural communities.”

Responding to these comments, O’Neill said: “I firmly believe that I have acted appropriately and have authority to make this decision and I will be robustly defending my position. I have dealt with all aspects of CAP reform for more than 2½ years. As Agriculture Minister, I am best placed to balance the numerous issues which play into the decision on funding.”

Meanwhile, the Ulster Farmers’ Union has said that whether Northern Ireland ends up with a seven per cent transfer of funds between CAP pillars or no transfer at all, Northern Ireland’s farmers will still be better off than our counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales.

However, clarity is also still needed as to how the next Northern Ireland Rural Development Programme (NIRDP) budget is to be allocated.

UFU president Harry Sinclair said: “The UFU’s historic position was for no transfer of funds between Pillar I and Pillar II. However, at our recent Executive meeting it was agreed that some funds may need to be transferred in order to support specific targeted schemes, such as an Area of Natural Constraint scheme and a scheme to support Northern Ireland’s vulnerable suckler cow industry. The UFU Executive felt that other funding options for these schemes, such as additional funds which could be made available from the NI Executive via commitments to NI Agri-Food Strategy Board recommendations or the next Rural Development Programme, should however be maximised.

“The inclusion of a ‘greening’ requirement within direct support is also likely to greatly reduce the need for a separate sizeable agri-environment scheme in the Rural Development programme and therefore we would expect that the level of direct support money transferred from Pillar I to Pillar II would be less than nine per cent, which up to this year had been transferred via voluntary modulation. We also see the provision of match-funding by the Government for any transfer as absolutely essential.

“In terms of the overall NI Rural Development Budget, clarity is still needed as to how funding is to be allocated between the six priorities. DARD’s consultation on our future Rural Development Plan closed in October, and the union was clear in our response that Pillar II should focus on providing meaningful support to grow the agri-food industry, as per the message of the NI Agri-Food Strategy Board, and that the allocation of funds to the wider rural priority (priority six) should be kept at an absolute minimum. The union has raised concerns in the past that rural development funding was being diverted away from its intended purpose and instead used to substitute funding that should have come from elsewhere.

“It was our clear understanding that the NI Executive’s Rural White Paper was created to ensure that existing funding was used to provide services in rural areas. Rather than allowing rural development plan funds to be diverted away from rural businesses and farmers in order to fund strategic projects, the minister has a responsibility to ensure that NI executive departments and local councils are in fact fulfilling their obligations under the Rural White Paper.

“It appears however that this has now become a legal matter, which will ultimately be decided by the courts and politicians and we await the outcome of this.”

Additional reporting Ciaran Moran and Lisa Deeney