Single Farm Payments

Agriculture and Rural Development – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 15 March 2011.

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Photo of Stephen Moutray Stephen Moutray DUP 2:15, 15 March 2011

8. asked the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development how many single farm payments are outstanding in relation to applications that were submitted in 2010.          (AQO 1289/11)

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

As of 10 March 2011, my Department had finalised 94·7% of 2010 claims and paid out over £250 million to farmers. That means that 36,150 claims have been paid and that 1,915 claims have not yet been finalised. There are a variety of reasons for that, including queries on the claim that need to be completed, the processing of on-farm inspection reports, challenges by others of the right to claim the land and the need to await probate. It should be noted that, because of the application of penalties under scheme rules, not all remaining claims will necessarily be due a payment.

We have met our 2010 published targets, but I appreciate the difficulties that are experienced by many of those claimants who have not yet been paid. Although my Department is working to clear those cases, they tend to be more complex and, by necessity, take longer to work through. In recognition of that, I have arranged for additional staff to move to the single farm payment branch to accelerate the payment of the remaining claims.

Looking ahead, I hope that the remapping exercise will reduce many of the errors that are currently being found in on-farm inspections. That exercise will speed up the inspection process. Over and above that, I have asked officials to begin the process of a review of the entire inspection and payment procedure to see how it can be improved.

Photo of Stephen Moutray Stephen Moutray DUP

I thank the Minister for her response. It is encouraging to hear that approximately 95% of single farm payment claims have been sorted out. However, that still leaves 5%. Will the Minister give an assurance that the outstanding single farm payments will be dealt with expediently and that there will be no delay on behalf of her Department? Many farm families are suffering financial hardship as a result of the delay.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Absolutely. In common with the Committee Chairman, I have pointed out that 1,915 claims are still outstanding. It is great to get 95% of claims paid, but we need to concentrate now on getting that 5% over the line.

One reason for our not being able to process farmers’ money is that we have moved to a system whereby all transactions are done under BACS, that is, automatic account transaction, and some farmers have still not shared their account details with us. We would like everybody to give us that information. Their accounts do not have to be in a bank; they could be in a credit union. We encourage farmers to give us that information. I want to pay out that money as quickly as I possibly can. The review will be very important, in that we can look at all the issues on the timing of inspections, the use of satellite imagery and everything else to try to pay those people quicker.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I understand that some other EU countries provide advance part-payment. Will the Minister indicate why that has not happened here? If there are delays attributable to her departmental officials, will she indicate whether an interest repayment will accompany the final payment? That will ensure clear accountability where undue delays have been caused by departmental officials.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Again, I assure the House that, as part of the review, I will look at the fact that some other member states make 50:50 payments and consider that as a mechanism for the future. If we decide to go down that route, we will have to follow all the rest of the inspection procedures and everything else. That is why a review of the process is important. We must try to build in the ability to allow us to be flexible. The vast majority of farmers were paid before Christmas. However, we are now into the spring, and some have still not been paid. We want to pay those farmers as quickly as possible. Everything is on the table to ensure that the process is as painless as possible for farmers.

Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Minister referred to the fact that a number of inspections are outstanding. Will she elaborate on that and outline whether those inspections have to be completed before payments are made?

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Yes; unfortunately, that is one of the difficulties. In line with EU legislation, we have to finalise all verification checks, including land eligibility inspections, before we can make payments.

Photo of P J Bradley P J Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

We have often heard that delays in payments can be caused by the farming community omitting information, giving incorrect information or making errors. Will the Minister give an assurance that no mistakes in her Department, including Orchard House, led to any delays in payments being made?

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

A dedicated team works out of Orchard House and has a great deal of experience in this matter. I commend those people for the way in which they process the claims. However, the Member raises a welcome point. Mistakes can occur when the forms are completed on paper, and it can take more time to iron out those mistakes. We encourage the use of online application forms and, in fact, online application forms will be mandatory by 2015. The reason for that is that the online forms are self-correcting. If someone makes a mistake on an online application, that person is told that that is not the answer that should have been given.

We want to reduce the amount of mistakes, and we want to pay farmers. I would love to be able to pay 100% of farmers as soon as that payment window opens. The more farmers who work online, the better it will be for them, as it will reduce the number of mistakes.