The Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton came in for some severe criticism in the Dail this week over recent changes to the Farm Assist Scheme.

Donegal TD, Charlie McConalogue said there are 1,500 farming families in his constituency and 9,500 such families across the country who are in receipt of farm assist.

He said previously only 70% of a farm family’s income in terms of means was taken into account.

“Under the Minister’s stewardship, every euro earned by a farm family is taken into account for the purposes of farm assist payments, which removes the incentive for people to work and be productive.

“As a result of this change, many farm families are now surviving at below subsistence level,” he said.

McConalogue asked the Minister to consider reversing the change to the farm assist scheme with respect to income disregards given the serious affect this change has had on the income of farming families and

The farm assist scheme provides support for farmers on low incomes and is similar to jobseeker’s allowance.

The 2015 Revised Estimates for the Department provide for expenditure of almost €89m on the farm assist scheme.

According to Minister, Burton changes introduced in budgets 2012 and 2013 have brought farm assist into closer alignment with the treatment under the jobseeker’s allowance scheme of self-employed persons.

Farm families with the lowest income were least affected by these changes as the headline rates of farm assist were maintained.

She said last year, the Christmas bonus was reintroduced, payable at 25% of the weekly rate.

“This year, I am in a position to provide a 75% Christmas bonus payment for all long-term welfare recipients, including recipients of farm assist.

All recipients, with children, of farm assist are benefitting from the increase in child benefit of €5 per month per child as announced in budget 2015.

“In addition, farm assist recipients eligible for the fuel allowance will gain from the increase in January of €2.50 per week, from €20 to €22.50 per week, over the fuel season.

“Recipients of farm assist will see a significant improvement in their payments. In particular, the Christmas bonus will constitute a significant payment to such families,” she said.

However, McConalogue said one would think from the Minister’s response that her stewardship of the Department of Social Protection has led to an improvement for farmers in receipt of farm assist.

“Unfortunately, her response bears no reflection on reality.

“When was the last time the Minister set foot on a family farm or the farm of someone who depends on farm assist as weekly income?” he asked.