In total €99.5 million was spent by the government on the Farm Assist Scheme last year according to Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton.

The Minister outlined in response to a parliamentary question this week, that there were just over 10,300 recipients of farm assist at end December last.

The farm assist scheme is based on jobseeker’s allowance. It was introduced in 1999 and farm assist recipients retain all the advantages of the jobseeker’s allowance scheme such as retention of secondary benefits and access to activation programmes.

In budget 2013 the minister made a number of significant changes to the scheme particularly in how applicants are means tested. According to the minister: “The recent changes to the scheme have brought it into closer alignment with the jobseeker’s allowance scheme’s treatment of self-employed persons.”

She commented: “Farm assist is a flexible payment and any farmer experiencing lower levels of income or cash-flow issues can ask his or her local social welfare/Intreo office to review the level of means applying to their claim.

The assessment of means for the purpose of qualifying for farm assist is designed to reflect the actual net income from farming. In addition, account is taken of any exceptional circumstances so as to ensure that the assessment accurately reflects the current situation.”

The minister concluded: “As part of the normal budget process, all potential budget measures, including any changes to the farm assist scheme are assessed in terms of the impact they would have if introduced. Since the introduction of the changes to the farm assist scheme over recent budgets, the scheme is kept under ongoing review by my officials. Last year I met with representatives from the Irish Farmers Association to discuss a number of issues including the farm assist scheme. There are no plans to change the current scheme criteria.”

Fianna Fáil spokesperson on agriculture, Éamon Ó Cuív was heavily critical of the changes made in the Budget last year.

Deputy Ó Cuív said at the time it is now clear that the number of farmers in receipt of Farm Assist has been reduced by 10 per cent due to the change in the means testing in the past two budgets.

He added: “During the term of the previous Government, an arrangement had been arrived at, whereby only 70 per cent of a farmer’s income was assessed as means under the Farm Assist Scheme, with a special allowance being available for any child dependants.

“In the last two budgets, Minister Joan Burton has changed the system of means testing farmers in receipt of Farm Assist and now 100 per cent of the farm income is assessed, meaning that it is not worth a farmer’s while continuing to farm if they need the payment.”

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