‘I have a master’s degree in agriculture and I wouldn’t take up farming’

The complexity of the Green, Low-Carbon, Agri-Environment Scheme (GLAS) and difficulties surrounding payments were discussed recently in the Dail.

Labour TD Willie Penrose questioned the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, on his strategy to overcome “intractable problems faced by thousands of farmers who still have not received GLAS payments”.

He said: “Is it the case that an overly bureaucratic view or assessment is leading to delays over piddly-widdly things, as they say down the country?”

GLAS update

Minister Creed explained that almost €200 million was paid out under GLAS in 2017 and that a further €22.8 million has been paid out since the start of this year.

“As of today, there are 49,700 active participants in the GLAS scheme and 93% of those eligible have received their 2017 advance payment since these payments commenced.

“In addition, GLAS training payments to both participants and approved GLAS trainers have commenced with over €6.3 million issued to date.

Fewer than 6,000 cases continue to be processed of which approximately 2,700 are a matter for the GLAS participants themselves, and there is nothing my department can do to pay those until they complete the necessary steps themselves.

“Payments are continuing as we speak and will continue until the remaining payments are cleared. My department is communicating further with those affected to prevent further delays to payments.

“I expect the 2017 balance payments to commence by the end of May and appeal to all applicants to ensure that required documentation is submitted to facilitate these payments,” the minister said.

Payment difficulties

However, Deputy Penrose asked whether there is someone in the department “trying to identify problems” and he questioned why there couldn’t be a “free-flow system” put in place.

The Labour TD also asked the minister to clarify the position of the remaining 3,000 or so GLAS applicants who have not been paid that he did not reference previously.

“Could the minister indicate whether there is a problem with the famous computer that is in the department?

That computer is famous; it caused many headaches and much heartache. I am unsure whether the department ever got it fixed, but I would be grateful to find out whether it is playing a role again.

But, Minister Creed did not accept that there is a “significant information technology issue in the department”.

He explained that the outstanding payments go through a series of regulatory checks, admitting that the GLAS scheme is “complicated”.

Have farmers walked away from the scheme?

Commenting on the matter, the minister said: “The department is waiting for information from certain people, including information on nutrient management plans, commonage management plans, rare breed actions and low emission slurry spreading.

We suspect a cohort of applicants have disengaged from the process entirely and are no longer active.

“We are in the process of trying to communicate with them directly and through their advisers to see if they are still participating in the scheme or have, in fact, walked away from it.

“In some cases there has been no action or communication on the application for several years since the scheme was introduced in October 2015. We suspect some of them are in that category.”

‘I wouldn’t take up farming’

During the exchange in the Dail, Deputy Penrose highlighted comments made by the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Phil Hogan, who “several months ago said one of his aims was to streamline and minimise the level of bureaucracy and regulation which is strangling people”.

“A farmer would want to have a PhD to get through it, given nutrient plans, the need for cross-compliance and everything else; most of this stuff is absolutely silly.

I have a brother at home who is farming. I would not take it up now and I have a master’s degree in agriculture. Half of it is nonsense and it is time to cut it out.

“If a case does not fit into the nice, seamless system in the department, the officials are on the back of the unfortunate farmer in the middle of somewhere. A farmer in suckler cow country does not have much income at this time of the year and getting a few shillings under this scheme could be critical,” he said.

CAP consultation

In conclusion, Minister Creed again conceded that GLAS is a “complex scheme to administer”.

“One of the objectives the commissioner has set for himself in the context of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) post-2020 is greater simplification. We could all do with revisiting and embracing that objective.

Simplification will be a key objective in the revision of schemes. Payments will have to reflect the outcomes farmers are achieving.

“We are working flat out, as we receive the necessary information from individual farmers, to pay them as quickly as possible. However, there is a cohort from whom we are awaiting information,” he concluded.