Remote Sensing Inspections

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:30 pm on 17th February 2014.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 4:30 pm, 17th February 2014

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate.  The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech.  All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses dissatisfaction with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for its failure to effectively inform the 1,139 farm businesses that received a remote sensing inspection in 2013; notes that the farmers only received notification days before they were expecting their single farm payment and recognises that this will place many farm businesses under incredible pressure in the coming months; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to explain how this happened and give assurances that she has put in place measures that will prevent it happening again.

To do the subject of this DUP motion justice, you have to go back to the start and to the crux of remote sensing.  I suggest that remote sensing is, indeed, a good idea.  It should speed up the inspection process and should mean that more farm businesses will be paid their single farm payments more quickly.  So, in a general sense, remote sensing is a good thing.  However, the issue here is that it seems that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development was not fit for purpose to advance remote sensing inspections to the level that it took on.  By that I mean that 1,139 farms were inspected by remote sensing this year and 250 farms were inspected in that way last year.  That was a massive increase in remote sensing at a time when DARD did not have the technology or the system in place to cater for it. 

In the last week of November, I started to receive phone calls about the issue from farmers who were concerned about their single farm payments.  When they rang their local DARD office to enquire about their payments, they were told that they had, indeed, been part of an inspection process.  The majority of those farmers had no idea that they were involved in an inspection.  It is not as though people and feet were on their grounds; these inspections are done by aerial photographs and can be done remotely, as the name suggests.  So, those farmers had no concept or no idea that there was going to be a delay in their single farm payments, some ranging from thousands to tens of thousands of pounds.  Those farmers were expecting that money a week later.  Now, you can imagine how any business could cope with that information at that time, a week before they were expecting thousands of pounds to come into their bank account. 

When they then phoned Orchard House, which is the main DARD HQ for processing single farm payments, they were told the same thing.  They were told that they were involved in a remote sensing inspection and that their local offices would be writing to them soon to confirm that.  When the local offices were contacted again, farmers were told that Orchard House would be issuing the letters.  So, one part of DARD did not know what the other part of DARD was doing.  The question that I will pose to the Minister is this:  who was actually responsible?  Why did it go on for so long?  Those aerial photographs were taken in April, May, June and July, and it took DARD until December to inform people.

The Department and the Minister have spoken on this matter.  I asked the Minister an urgent question for written answer on 6 December 2013.  I wrote to the Minister at the same time and received a response on 23 December.  I also met DARD officials on 31 January 2014 along with Diane Dodds MEP and farmers from north Antrim and Clogher valley.  On most of those occasions, if not all, I was given the excuse that a farming community cannot be told that they have been inspected because, at that point, they could not change their claims.  Well, I am sorry:  that is weak.

If you were to receive an ordinary inspection, you would see the inspectors on the ground.  You would see that you were involved in an inspection process.  You would know that you were not going to be paid in December and that it would be many weeks or months later.  DARD should have been able to tell these farmers somehow that they were involved in an inspection process; that they should not expect their single farm payment cheque in December; and that they should try to plan ahead in their business plans and purchasing so that they would not hit this hard wall come December.

This has had a massive impact on the farming community.  The areas picked — or plucked out of the air — for remote sensing were two concentrated areas:  one in North Antrim and one in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.  They were chosen basically because aerial photography would be easier there.  I can understand the logic of that.  What I cannot understand is why they chose so many — 1,139 — and why they concentrated on two areas when they knew fine rightly that they did not have the IT systems in place to process and deal with those applications.

They knew months before December that all these farmers would be left out of the payment scheme in December.  That brought much hardship not only for the farmers in the concentrated areas in North Antrim and Fermanagh and South Tyrone but for the merchants, suppliers and local grocery stores, which were relying on the farmers getting that money and paying out.  It got to the point where merchants and suppliers were having to bankroll those large areas and many farmers while they waited for their single farm payments.

It is not good enough that DARD was able to simply leave those 1,139 applications to one side.  They knew that they could not cope with them.  They knew that they could not process them.  They could then ignore them and go and achieve a target of 90%.  The Minister will quote that she has achieved the target set by the EU; that is fine and dandy.  However, in other years when we have had so many people inspected in this process, they have been scattered around the Province.  This year, two concentrated areas have not got their money.  It has had a devastating effect in my constituency and in the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

I pose these questions to the Department and the Minister.  If the Department could not cope, why did it increase the number of cases of remote sensing by so many?  Why could it not cope?  Why could it not have had a system in place earlier to cope with the increase in remote sensing?  Why could the Department not have communicated with the farmers involved much earlier?  The excuse that they would not be able to change their claim is very weak.  When farmers apply for their single farm payment, they have applied and that is it done.  To say that we have saved them because they will be able to change their application is incorrect.  That is not the case.  As soon as you have DARD officials on your farm and are inspected by feet on the ground, you lose that opportunity anyway.

Minister, that is a very weak excuse for not notifying these farmers.  They should have been notified somehow.  Somehow your people should have been able to go to the farmers and say, "By the way, you have been inspected by remote sensing.  Do not expect your money in December."  We are talking about businesses with massive amounts of debt, cash flow and turnover.  They have been disabled over the past number of weeks because their cash flow has been hurt dramatically.

Does the Minister realise the impact that that has not only on those farm businesses but on those concentrated areas of North Antrim and Fermanagh and South Tyrone?  Why, then, when she knew that all those problems were going to come about, did she pick North Antrim and Fermanagh and South Tyrone?  Would she like to tell the House what areas she is going to pick for next year?  They may face the same problems as my constituents in North Antrim and constituents in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.  Why, Minister, have we bitten off more than we can chew?  Why is the Department not fit for purpose for remote sensing when other countries in Europe, including the Republic of Ireland, can do that and do it well?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 5:15 pm, 17th February 2014

The Member should bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Why, Minister, have you failed the farming community and my constituents of North Antrim once more?

Photo of Ian Milne Ian Milne Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion.  We must not underestimate the importance of the single farm payment to farmers and the rural community.  However, it is also important that the payment is accurate as well as timely and that it falls within the regulations set down by Europe.

When the targets and requirements for all three aspects have been met, we will have a perfect system.  It makes no sense to focus on speedy payments if they are to be followed by an overpayment notice or penalties from Europe.  Farmers and DARD have upped their game when it comes to how claims are submitted through to when they are paid out.  We have seen steady improvements over the past two years, but there is still some way to go.

I can appreciate that the Department is undergoing a lot of changes to its systems and processes.  I can accept that, when difficulties have been identified, they have been addressed in the short term and, just as importantly, rectified for the long term.  However, I have no doubt that that brings little comfort to the individual farm families who have been affected, and their concerns and anxieties need to be addressed.

Remote sensing has undoubtedly speeded up the payments process.  With all that we have heard throughout the debate, it would be easy to forget that more farmers were paid last December than ever before and that the targets that were set for February are expected to be met.  However, improvements can still be made, particularly in the communication and planning of the inspection process, which would help those who are selected for the process to plan for the months ahead, and those improvements need to be put in place.

Although there are advantages to centralising inspections to specific areas, that has to be weighed against the potential knock-on effect on local suppliers and the local economy as a whole.  Early notification will also be an issue, because the rules surrounding it are governed by Europe and are there to protect the integrity of the inspections.

As the necessary IT systems are now up and running, delays in beginning the remote sensing inspections, which have led to the debate and the difficulties that we are discussing, should not have the same effect next year; I ask the Minister for her assurance on that.  A number of applications will always be delayed because of matters that are outside DARD's control such as probate or missing information, but when the Department can make improvements, it has a responsibility to do so.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate, and I thank Mr Frew and his colleagues for tabling the motion.

On 13 January 2014, a Member of the House queried the numbers of people who were subject to remote sensing inspections.  The Minister answered that any people who were inspected would be paid by the end of February.  If that is the case, perhaps she will enlighten us as to how many of the 1,139 farmers have been paid since the first week of December.  The delay that those farmers have endured in receiving farm payments over the past period of time has been intolerable for some.

Remote sensing inspections were introduced as a means of checking the eligibility of land for single farm payment (SFP) claims and of making the process more efficient.

DARD, as we know, completes about 2,000 random single farm payment inspections, as per its obligations under EU legislation.  In the past, these were carried out by on-the-ground visits.  Increasingly, inspections take place using remote sensing.  This involves looking at a satellite image or aerial photograph and comparing that with the area declared on the single farm payment application form. 

When remote sensing inspections were introduced, DARD committed itself to completing checks and informing claimants as soon as they were processed.  This was designed to assist the speed and accuracy of the single farm payment assessment.  The purpose of removing the number of on-the-ground inspections should be to help to reduce the administrative burden that is placed on farm businesses, not, as the case has been, to add to farmers' stresses.  Unfortunately, many farmers were not notified that a remote sensing inspection of their land would be taking place.  This has led to unnecessary distress and anxiety, as Mr Frew outlined.  Given the number of difficult years that farmers have faced with inclement weather and the fodder shortage, it is imperative that the processing of SFP claims is as easy as possible.

The Minister must recognise that the failure to notify farmers in writing or otherwise about inspections of their land must never happen again.  In some instances, farmers received notification but only a few days before they were expecting their single farm payment.  DARD has defended its decision, saying that farmers were not informed of inspections because, if they were informed and then made changes, it could leave them subject to penalties.  All these farmers are suffering from the delay in payment, even if no discrepancies are revealed.  Up to 38,000 farm businesses in Northern Ireland receive the SFP.  It is an essential payment, which helps farmers to pay suppliers for a variety of items such as meal and fuel bills and, in many cases, to pay the banks.  Many farmers have been told to wait for their single farm payment while inspections are ongoing.  Farmers should have at least been forewarned that payment would be delayed because, at least, they would then have been in a position to inform their bank and, indeed, their suppliers.

Remote sensing has the potential to speed up the inspection and payment process if it is implemented effectively.  The majority of farmers affected appear to be in the same geographical locations, the Lower Bann and the Clogher valley, comprising mainly the constituency of North Antrim, parts of Mid Ulster, parts of Fermanagh and South Tyrone and parts of West Tyrone in the Fintona area.  Some of the farming communities that have experienced this difficulty are suffering cash flow problems.  We recognise that this is a new process and that there are bound to be some teething problems, however we wish to ensure that the issues are addressed fully by the Minister so that they do not recur.  DARD must put forward a plan for such inspections and make farmers aware that their land will be subject to remote sensing inspection.  I think that it is only a courtesy that the farmer should know that an inspection is taking place. 

Questions need to be addressed by DARD on why the equipment and scheduling have resulted in another unfortunate development that led to farmers being hit once again.  Inspections took place last May, but it was December before said farmers were informed, and that was when they were expecting their single farm payment cheque.  The Minister needs to explain fully why another administrative fiasco by DARD has again been exposed and why only farmers in the Lower Bann and Clogher valley areas who have suffered through the delayed SFP.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

The questions are these:  were drones or satellite images used; what was the equipment fault; and what administrative bottlenecks are resulting in these problems?

Photo of Jo-Anne Dobson Jo-Anne Dobson UUP

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion, although I was disappointed that the Ulster Unionist amendment was not selected, as I believe that it would have added to it.  Nevertheless, even without it, we can have as many take-note debates as we like; we can challenge the Minister as much as we like at Question Time; and we can issue as many press releases as we like expressing concern at her handling of remote sensing.  However, if she and her Department remain as stubborn as they currently are, there is little chance that anything will be done. 

Year on year, the Department and the Minister walk themselves into holes, which, very often, are dug entirely by them.  We should have known that the Department would not have been able properly to administer remote sensing.  It is continually unable to carry out even the most basic tasks without demonstrating its usual level of ineptitude.  I do not doubt that the Minister, in her response, will give an explanation for how remote sensing has been carried out, but I ask her to go and try to explain that to the many farm businesses that have found themselves the guinea pigs to the Department's efforts to play catch-up to avoid further EU disallowance.  That includes the 150 farmers who joined Robin Swann and me at an open meeting organised by Robin in Glarryford Young Farmers' hall at the end of last month. 

I and my party recognise that remote sensing should have helped the Department to make faster payments.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I thank the Member for giving way.  Does she agree that one of the major problems was that when we, as elected representatives, or the farmers got a response from the Department, it was inadequate and insufficient because it did not tell them why there was a delay and why they were not going to get their single farm payment until February?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Jo-Anne Dobson Jo-Anne Dobson UUP 5:30 pm, 17th February 2014

I thank my colleague for that intervention.  He is quite right:  that further added to the exasperation and frustration felt by the farmers. 

The situation was so ridiculous over recent years that it could do nothing but improve.  My issue is not with remote sensing.  In the right hands, it should be a quick and efficient system, but with the Department's handling of it, it has been little more than 'Carry on Mapping'.  By treating farmers with its usual level of suspicion, the Department has only further soured relations with many.  It is increasingly adopting a policing as opposed to a supporting role.  That message was delivered to DARD officials loud and clear by the farmers at Glarryford.  Minister, it is a two-way street.  If you and your Department want to hold the respect of farmers in the wider industry, you need to earn it. 

There are many actions that the Department could take to improve relations.  Take the issue of tackling red tape, which is a matter of failure for the Minister, yet not once has the Department held its hand up and apologised.  Another issue is the continued blight of TB, where forced action continues at a snail's pace, leaving farms at the mercy of a disease that thrives under a regime of departmental foot-dragging. 

The Department continues to fail, and fail scornfully.  I understand that a level of inspection is required under remote sensing, but refusing to inform the affected farmers until the very last moment that their payments would be delayed was simply out of order.  Those are businesses too, remember, with costs and a constant eye on outgoings and incomes like any other.  The single farm payment is, of course, public money, so it needs a high degree of transparency at every step of the way, but the Department has used that requirement to put up additional barriers. 

I tabled an amendment to the motion raising, once again, the issue of advance payments.  Our farms remain at a distinct disadvantage, not least compared with those in the Republic.  It is an issue that has been widely talked about in the past by the Assembly, even as recently as last June through another amendment that I proposed , but the fact that —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I remind the Member that the debate is on the motion in front of us today.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Jo-Anne Dobson Jo-Anne Dobson UUP

No, I want to make my points.  I gave way to Tom, and I have an extra minute.  The fact that the Department remains as flippant on an almost unanimous request just goes to show the level of contempt in which it holds the thoughts of not only this Assembly but the wider industry. 

In conclusion, I do not expect that the debate will be anything other than 90 minutes of venting or justifying.  I expect the Minister to make excuses, such as the need to avoid disallowance, problems of lining up the payment system and the mapping system, but it will do little to reassure farmers who find themselves at the mercy of DARD inspectors.  So, I call on the Minister to reassure us that the same problems will not occur next year, but even if she does so, can we have the confidence to believe it?

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

At the outset, I declare an interest as a farmer and someone who is in receipt of a single farm payment.  Here we are again discussing an issue of importance and concern within the farming community regarding the administering of single farm payments in the Province.

Farmers are increasingly concerned, as, year after year, the Minister makes promises that the system will be improved with investment in various aspects of the single farm payment processing wing, yet, year on year, the complications continue.  Unfortunately, with the complications come unacceptable delays for the farmer.  That is certainly the case with remote sensing and the debacle that has left hundreds of farmers still waiting for their single farm payment some nine months later.  Those farmers were expecting a relatively trouble-free payment process.  Therefore, to find, a few days before they were to receive their eagerly anticipated payment, that their farm was now subject to remote sensing was absolutely infuriating. 

Earlier this month, the Minister tried to give her version of events at Question Time, and I was less than impressed by her attempt to justify yet more delay and complication for farmers.  Indeed, my colleague Sammy Wilson MLA was right to press her on the description of Members who were raising the issue as losing the run of themselves.  It is clear that the Minister does not have irate farmers contacting her directly to vent their anger and frustration at the Department over the mishandling of the remote sensing debacle.  Indeed, her attempt to divert attention through the use of percentages is no comfort to the hundreds of farmers across Northern Ireland who remain without their payment. 

In case it has slipped the mind of the Minister, farmers rely heavily on their single farm payments, especially with the latest beef price crash and the various other pressures being brought to bear on the industry.  We have increasing concerns about the persistent wet weather and the possible ramifications that that will have in the spring for getting animals back out to grass and trying to ease those pressures.  Energy costs continue to burden the farmer, as do ongoing price battles with the large supermarkets.  All those issues combine to put a massive strain on cash flow for the farmer.  The Minister has the power to do something about the issues that she is responsible for.  She cannot control the weather.  However, she can control her resources and her team, and it is high time that the farmer was treated with some respect.

Northern Ireland farmers cannot sustain year-on-year single farm payment problems, yet, year on year, that is what farmers get from the Department.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for giving way.  Earlier he mentioned the Minister stating that we should not lose the run of ourselves.  It was, at that time, a flippant comment by the Minister.  I know that the hustle and bustle of this place can bring out the best of us in debates.  I have no problems with that.  I am thick-skinned enough to take it, and it is healthy to have it, but there is a seriousness to it.  Those areas of North Antrim, Fermanagh and South Tyrone and the surrounding areas — Mid Ulster included, of course; we cannot be remiss — were left to one side while the Department targeted a target, knowing fine rightly that they would not even be processed by December.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

I thank the Member for his intervention, and I certainly agree with him.  I respectfully ask that the situation change.  When will we see a fit-for-purpose payment system that does not starve farmers of vital payments?

The issue of early payments and part payments was raised earlier by the Member for Upper Bann, and I know that that is an issue for farmers.  However, I believe that, in the Republic of Ireland and other farming areas that have advance single farm payments, if there is an inspection they do not make advance payments to those farmers.  That is a problem.  Maybe the Minister could update us on that, but I think that that is a problem with advance payments.

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat.  Today's motion explains in detail how the Minister is using modern technology to speed up single farm payments.  Let us put some of that in context, for it has been very emotive so far.  I cannot understand why some things have been left out. 

Remote sensing was first used in 2012, and 250 claims were selected for inspection, which allowed 83% of the 2012 claims to be paid, amounting to £184 million.  In 2013, Commission regulations required a minimum of 5% inspections or on-the-spot checks to be carried out, which meant that, of 2,129 claims, 999 were farm inspections, which left 1,130 that were selected for inspection in 2013.  That was from a total of 37,500 claims for single farm payment.  It resulted in 90% of 2013 single farm payments being finalised in December 2013, totalling £232 million.  It means that the payment target of 95% by February 2014 may be met, with the remaining cases to be paid by the end of April at the latest.  Those targets — this is something that we have not had today — are two months ahead of the 2012 payment timeline and four months better than 2011 figures. 

It is vital —

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin

Hold on; I am trying to get my point across. 

It is vital that we all work with the Minister in helping promote the technology.  We can all agree that we have to get the money out to the farmers, and quickly.  We are all working towards that.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for giving way.  He is very gracious. 

The motion is clear.  It is not about the failure to hit a target.  DARD has hit a target.  It has improved on the year before, and there are many reasons for that.  One reason is this:  those 1,139 applications were simply left on a pile to one side because they could not be progressed as the Department did not have the technology.  Some of those are still to get a rapid field inspection.  As far as I know, none of them had a rapid field inspection before December.  That is the issue.  You simply set those aside to meet a target, and that has hurt those areas where remote sensing was used.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his intervention.  We are not going to fall out over whether what you are saying is true or untrue.  We are all trying to get to the point where we get over all the inspections.  However, we must allow more time for the technologies to work in.  We cannot expect to get them all right in the first year.

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin

Remote sensing technology involves the careful examination of satellite images or aerial photographs and comparing them to an area declared in a single farm payment application form.  Rapid field visits may be required if an image of an eligible area within a field cannot be made; which could be because of tree coverage or fog or mist on the day.  Once remote sensing was completed, the information was further checked by staff using DARD's control management systems.    Do not forget that one thing Members from both sides of the House attacked the Minister on before was the cost of making those farm visits to look at the inspections.  Here we are now, getting 95% of them out, and we are still complaining. 

The purpose of the control has not in any way changed up to now.  The timing of the remote sensing checks has meant that it has not been possible to notify farm businesses that they have been selected for remote sensing checks.  That is in line with the accompanying guidance, something that none of you has even touched on today.  Under guidance set out on the 2013 single farm payment application form, applicants did not receive notification of a remote sensing check unless a field visit was required.  That is EU regulation, not the Minister's regulation, and that is something that should be brought out.  We are sending out the wrong message to farmers. 

The Member to my left talked about the meeting he organised in Ballymena with 150 people at it.  I organised one in Ballymena and had nearly 500 people at it, and there was not one word of this.  They knew that there were going to be delays, but it was understood that the new technology was bedding in.  Those things were understood.  We understand —

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin

No, you have had one bite of the cherry. 

You cannot afford to be complaining all the time.  We know that the Department will have to improve in ways.  None of us here is denying that.  However, at least give this a chance to bed in.  You would nearly be forgiven for thinking that there is an election on, the way you are going here.  Get the facts out there:  it is EU regulation, nothing else.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close? [Laughter.]

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

The Minister talked about new technology.  Surely DARD has email and text messaging facilities.  It should use that new technology to get the message through to farmers.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Time is up.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is up. [Interruption.] Order.  Time is up.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

It is regrettable that the debate has to take place.  In fact, the matter should never have had to come to the House.  Had the Minister done her duty and shown that she was concerned about the issue, she would have come to the House with a statement.  Instead, she chose not to do that.  What has annoyed many farmers and Members is the detached stance that she has taken.  She and some of her colleagues have come to the House and tried to make light of the fact that there is just £25 million still outstanding for distribution.  In my books and by my calculation, that is no small amount of money.  Knowing the way in which it operates, I suspect that it is a small amount of money to Sinn Féin.  The Minister has taken a hands-off approach:  "It is not really my problem"; "I am not too concerned".  That is how she comes across.  I say this today:  the situation is bordering on crisis.  If the House and her Department do not take the issues seriously, the Minister has to consider her position.

In my constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, particularly in the south Tyrone part of it, farmers are standing waiting and pleading, "Why can we not get our payments?"  The only answer that the Minister can give is that the Department has got the payment out to over 90% of farmers.  It is 92% or 93%, I think.  That is fine for those farmers who have received it.  However, if you are one of the 7% or 8% of farmers who has not received it, you are in diffs.  That is something that the Department and the Minster just do not get.  They just do not get the message.

In chastising a Member who asked about it, the Minister said, "I think that you are losing the run of yourself".  That has become the catchphrase since Martin McGuinness first used it when he challenged Margaret Ritchie, the then Minister for Social Development.  He used the phrase, "You're losing the run of yourself, Margaret".  Sinn Féin Ministers have now adopted that as their catchphrase.  When anybody challenges what Sinn Fein does, or, in this instance, is not doing, it says, "Don't lose the run of yourself".  In other words, it is not an important issue.

Let me make this very clear to the House:  the issue is very important.  The Minister needs to take on board that some farmers, who, at the end of the day, are running businesses, are struggling to keep going.  The weather has not been good to them.  The rising prices have not been favourable to them.  They were budgeting to have received their single farm payment.  The Minister was not able to deliver.  I hope that, when she responds in the House, she will be able to give a specific date when everybody will receive their payment.  Dates have been bandied about.  There has been talk about the end of February.  I see that April is sometimes mentioned.  Indeed, some farmers have now become so despondent that they are beginning to think that it could be June, July or August.

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for giving way.  Does he not agree that the number of farmers who are now getting paid has gone up, that the percentage has gone up and that we are reaching out to more farmers?  We are working with a figure for the number of farmers who have not been paid.  We accept that.  However, does the Member not agree that the Minister, since the new technology was introduced, has improved the payment scheme from 2011-12 right up until now?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.  I have already said that over 90% of farmers have got payment.  That is fine if you are one of the over 90%.  What if you are one of the 7% who has not been paid?

The figure that is in front of me is that — this was in the Minister's press release from 20 December — £232·5 million worth of payments had been made to farmers.  If that figure is right, and if it represents nine tenths of the total budget, it seems to me that £25·83 million has still to be distributed.  The Member who asked that question —

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I will in a moment.  Does the Member who asked that question see the importance of that £25-plus million getting out to the farmers who are standing waiting for it? 

I will give way to Mr Frew.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank Lord Morrow for giving way.

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin

Can the Member justify —

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.  Again, some people are losing the run of themselves.  Lord Morrow, given that we just heard from Sinn Féin personnel across the way that this was new technology, maybe the Department lost the run of itself when it decided —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is almost up.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

— to pick 1,139 for remote sensing inspections?

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

Yes, I think that it did. 

I know that my time is up, and the Deputy Speaker is going to remind me of that.  If we can do anything here today, maybe we can get the message to the Minister

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

— about the seriousness of the situation, which she has failed to grasp to date.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  To start off, I acknowledge that the DUP has admitted that the Minister cannot control the weather; it has tried to blame her for everything else.

I want to make a couple of points here today.  Despite what Lord Morrow said a while ago, we are not making light of the situation.  We know exactly what it is like for farmers.  We are from farming communities, and we know exactly how it affects people in local areas.  We are not detached from local communities.  I have been here for many of the agriculture debates, and I have not seen Mr Morrow speaking up in too many of them.  Maybe that is because you spend most of your time over in the Lords; I do not know.  You called us "detached", but I suspect that you are more detached from farmers in the Clogher valley than we are.

I will move on.  Paul Frew made the point that farmers cannot change their applications.  That is factually incorrect.  Field data can be changed in single application forms but not after a farmer has been told about an inspection.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I take that for granted; I am not disputing that.  What I am disputing is that, once you get an inspection on the ground, you lose the ability to change your claim.  So, why are on-the-ground inspections different from remote sensing inspections?  Why is there a difference?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat. 

I want to get back to the fact of the matter.  Again, I reiterate that we support farmers and acknowledge the difficulties.  We met the UFU earlier today, and it told us about those difficulties and the importance of single farm payments to the farming community. 

During the year, we have had many motions about farming and single farm payments and the importance of getting them moved on.  Two of the key vehicles for moving them on were online applications and a move towards remote sensing inspection.  There is widespread support across —

Photo of Rosaleen McCorley Rosaleen McCorley Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat.  I thank the Member for giving way.  First of all, I declare an interest as someone who is in receipt of a single farm payment and lives in the Clogher valley area.  A large number of my constituents have been subject to the inspection.  They are asking questions, and rightly so.  Will the Member explain the rationale for remote sensing inspection, as opposed to the traditional method of on-farm inspection?

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

That sort of links into the point that I was making.  The idea behind moving to remote sensing inspections was to make the system more efficient; it is one of the key control mechanisms. 

We got some information from the South of Ireland, where remote inspections are used.  The cost of such inspections is drastically different and is much cheaper than the classic method.  Indeed, in the information that we got from the South of Ireland, we found that the cost is in and around €1,800 for a classic inspection, whereas it is around €60 to €70 for a remote sensing inspection.  That is much better value for money. 

In the case of remote sensing inspections, we welcome that the Department has met very challenging targets this year.  We have already seen over 90% being paid out.  Going back to notification, although we empathise with farmers and see the importance and relevance of them being notified in due course, it is very important to point out that — this is in the staff application guidance notes — when you submit your application, you agree to permit the Department to carry out a land eligibility check, with or without prior notice.  The check may go ahead if contact cannot be made.  When farmers submit their forms, they have the guidance notes.  Despite that, the Department went beyond the guidance notes and issued letters to farmers in mid-December notifying them of an inspection.  The point that I am making is this:  they were notified.

Mr Morrow made the point about getting the payments out.  Would you rather breach the EU regulations around this and face infraction and penalties from Europe where everybody loses out?  Is that what you would prefer?

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I thank the Member for giving way.  Given that £25 million is still waiting to be distributed, does he not see the importance of getting that money out?  Those are the issues that his Minister should be dwelling on.  Instead of clapping her on the back for inefficiency, he should be saying, "Look, step up to the plate here".

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

It is important to put this in context.  The single farm payment is worth £0·25 billion a year.  Rather than risk breaching EU rules and risk that £0·25 billion, is it not better to get it right and do it within the rules?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Will the Member give way.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I take the Member's point entirely, and I understand the EU rules.  However, why were the rapid field inspections not done before December, because that would have given an early indication to those farmers that they were involved in an inspection process?

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I accept your point.  However, I go back to my point that they were notified in mid-December of the inspection.  So they did know.  I accept that, where it is possible and if it is possible to notify them earlier and more effectively, that would be fair enough.  Quite a number of the farmers that we met through our constituency offices made that point to us and that, had they know earlier, they could have planned ahead much more easily.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

In conclusion, we empathise with the farmers.  We are confident that the Minister will listen to today's debate and that measures will be put in place to deal with the issue ahead of the applications going into next year.

Photo of Seán Rogers Seán Rogers Social Democratic and Labour Party

I apologise for my bit of technology going off earlier.

With regard to the Member's point, the improvement in statistics is fine, and it is fine for the farmers who got their money.  However, in my constituency, 89 farmers did not get their money by the end of January.  If you were to try to tell them that the statistics were better, you would need to have your escape planned from their farmyard.

The introduction of new remote sensing technology to monitor the use of land resulted in unforeseen delays in payments despite hopes that the technology would actually streamline operations.  Assurances that all single farm payments would be finalised by the end of February are of little use to the farmers who are faced with managing immediate cash flow problems.  At a recent meeting of Magherafelt District Council, a motion was passed expressing the concern of the farming community. 

The Minister must get to grips with implementing remote sensing inspections.  The opportunity that this technology presents should guarantee that inspections are administered in an efficient and effective manner.  Remote sensing inspections provide a satellite image or aerial photograph and compare that with the farmer's single application form.  This was meant to improve the method of processing single farm payments.  In many cases, it has made the process more cumbersome.  Mr Frew has a relevant point in that, if they had been done much earlier, it would have been better.

Prompt payment of the single farm payment is crucial to support —

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for giving way.  Does he agree that if there were more online applications, the problem would be lessened and that that would also speed up the process?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Seán Rogers Seán Rogers Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member may have a point.  However, with regard to getting online applications right, our farmers need better IT training and so on and they need a lot of help in that area.

Undoubtedly, farmers have faced increased pressures over the past number of years, which has led to the cash flow problems that Lord Morrow talked about.  The Minister must give the House a firm assurance that the delay will be prevented in future.  Inadequate notice was given to the 1,139 farm businesses that were to receive the remote sensing inspection.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

Will the Member take an intervention?

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

The Member referred to the Magherafelt motion.  In that motion, the SDLP called for a three-month notification period.  Does he accept that if that were the case, it would result in an infraction of EU legislation and disallowance?

Photo of Seán Rogers Seán Rogers Social Democratic and Labour Party 6:00 pm, 17th February 2014

There has to be an accommodation for farmers, and we need better notification than a few days on this type of issue.

Although there may be many challenges to implementing a new method of assessment, the Department must recognise the stresses and strains that the farming community has faced over the past number of years.  Central to alleviating that distress is the single farm payment, which must be paid in a timely fashion.

We know the value of the single farm payment to our economy, and the Minister must assure us that nothing will interfere with people’s payments.  Some 38,000 farms avail themselves of this crucial payment for vital farm supplies.  Farmers should have been forewarned about any delay in their payments so that they could make some attempt to balance their finances.

If the technology for remote sensing inspections is utilised effectively, it should result in a more streamlined system of assessment.  Although we accept that there may be some initial difficulties involved in switching from on-the-ground assessments, it is unacceptable that farmers should in any way be penalised by a delay in receiving what is owed to them.  The Department must have an efficient and reliable inspection process in place and keep farmers fully informed about when exactly their land will be subject to remote sensing inspections and how this affects their payment.  I acknowledge that this delay did not affect payments in south Down, but I hope that lessons will be learned so that DARD can get the technology right, and farmers get their single farm payment on time.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.  You are so kind.

We have heard a lot of repetition about the problems, and I commend the Sinn Féin Members who have spoken to date for defending their Minister.  They have quoted the statistics:  93·6% of payments made by 3 February, and the hope is to hit the 95% target.  Those targets are not the problem; the problem is the fact that all the farmers are compressed into two small geographical areas in Northern Ireland.  The first is in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and the other includes my North Antrim constituency, with bits of Mid Ulster and East Londonderry.

I wonder whether Sinn Féin Members would be standing here tonight saying what a great achievement the 95% payment is if those areas were in West Tyrone and the glens, and it was their members, their constituencies, their friends and the farmers in their areas who were suffering so intensely. 

We have heard the figure 1,139 trotted out by a number of Members.  We need to bring into perspective that those are 1,139 families.  I have heard them referred to as 1,139 businesses or farms.  They are not; they are 1,139 families who are sitting, at this minute, with major cash flow problems in their bank accounts.  They are drawing down their personal savings —

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I will, if you are brief.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I take your point, and the Member is making it well.  It is not only the families, because those families may employ farm helpers.  So it will have a knock-on effect on other families.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Thank you very much.  I take the Member's point.  However, I will be honest with him.  The farmers whom I know are still paying their helpers, which is where the frustration comes in.  They are still meeting the suppliers' needs.  They are still meeting their bank payments.  It is their families who are suffering, which is why we need to speed up the processes.  When remote sensing and aerial photography were brought, the Minister said — I will quote her from18 June 2012 — that it was to "help reduce the administrative burden".  They did that and reduced the administrative burden by one letter, the letter that would have informed each of those families that their farms were to be inspected.

As far as I am aware, up to 19 inspections by DARD or its associated bodies can take place on farms, and each one of those can give up to two days' notice.  So they can give notice of the inspections.  I have heard Mr McAleer ask, on a number of occasions, whether we would rather break EU regulations.  The guide on how to complete a 2013 single application and field data sheet states:

"By submitting a Single Application, you agree to permit the Department to carry out an OTS land eligibility check (with or without prior notice at any reasonable time)."

So even the Department, in its guidance notes, says that it has the ability to give notice of an area for remote inspection.  It is within the Minister's gift to do this, and I ask her again to do it.  Remote sensing will not go away.  The frustrations have been mentioned repeatedly by a number of Members, and the debate has to try to improve the situation for next year.  We have to get the payment out to the waiting families and ensure that the process is improved for next year.

Last year's pilot of 250 claims was referred to.  It was June, Mr McMullan, before most of those farmers were paid.  I think that the pilot was in and around the Ballyclare area.  We now find that, because it is such a small geographical area, men meet at the same marts and agricultural suppliers so that information is being passed on.  Families have been promised payment, but when Department officials ring, they say, "The payment will be coming at the end of February".  They also meet farmers who say to them, "I was part of that project last year, and I did not get paid until June".  So the stress on our farm families is increasing.

One thing that I find frustrating is the handling of single farm payments and how we process them.  The Minister outlined this information in a recent answer to me.  The cost to the Department of managing the single farm payment increased from £2 million to £2·63 million from 2010-11 to 2012-13, not including the cost of inspections.  That is a 30% increase in three years.  That is the cost of managing the fiasco to date.  Out of this debate needs to come a better use of resource and learning from what we have seen last year and this year.  I hope that the Department is able to do it. 

My concern now is that I am already receiving communication from members of staff in DARD to the effect that, in the Department, people are being moved about to try to meet the February date.  Other schemes, payment divisions and branches are having personnel removed to try to meet that date and ease the situation.  Although that is commendable, I hope that the —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

— Department puts the resources into place to make sure that this does not happen again next year.  If the same geographical area is selected again, and there is a chance that it will —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

— the same families will be hit for a second year, and they will not survive it.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

The figures that Mr Swann gave on the cost of DARD administering the single farm payment suggest that that end of the public sector is one of the few areas not affected by austerity.

I declare an interest as a recipient of single farm payment, although it is probably a fairly modest one in comparison with Mr Irwin's.

There are many factors in this, and, when you condense it into small geographic areas, that intensifies the difficulties faced, not only by the businesses but, I dare say, even further up the supply chain.  You are affecting cash flow in a limited area.  As pointed out, south Down was not one of the areas affected, but that intensifies the problems that others are facing.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

The Member said that south Down was not affected this time, but I hope that he takes my point that the Department has now divided Northern Ireland into 157 tiles or geographical areas.  So south Down may be a target next year — the word "target" was used by another Member — and that would intensify the problems with the supply of single farm payment in that area.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I am grateful, Deputy Speaker.  My point was more that we had escaped this time, but dear knows whether we will be as fortunate in the future.  That is the worry.  We have been trying to sort out so many inspection issues for so long.  The entire single farm payment process has been difficult.

We have had one party in charge of it now for seven years, and I have to say that the very fact that we are debating it again does not suggest that huge progress has been made in that area.  You are intensifying the problems.  You need to look at the various processes that are in place with our inspection model and compare them with those in other parts of Europe.  Why does it seem so difficult to get some of these things right?

Every year, we talk about cutting red tape and making the application process for single farm payments easier.  Quite frankly, as someone who has been in the system and looked at it from that point of view, I have not seen a lot of those changes or advances making it easier or less bureaucratic.  Over the past 20 years, when we had the integrated administration and control system (IACS), which then evolved into single farm payments, we have not seen progress in making it simpler or more user-friendly.  We have increased the levels of inspection and the burden that that represents, the penalties and the time lag for getting something.  Even the businesses that get a clean bill of health on inspection still suffer significant delays to the payment.  That is something that must be addressed.

Given her political background, the Minister obviously looks a lot to our near neighbours in the Republic.  I am sure that she is aware of how they do this business.  Mrs Dobson mentioned that, in the Republic, there are advance payments and staged payments that can help with cash flow problems.  We do not do that and have not even looked at whether it would be desirable.  I think it would be desirable, particularly for the 10% of farms that are affected.  It would have a huge impact on cash flow and help prevent some people going into dire financial hardship.

We must also look at some of the issues around it.  The way they handle this process in the Republic of Ireland seems to be a lot better than what happens here.  So, Minister, I think we will have to —

Photo of Ian Milne Ian Milne Sinn Féin

Does the Member not agree that this is just the second year of this type of inspection?  We are into a new system.  You referred to Sinn Féin's seven-year Ministry.  Does the Member not accept that there are always teething problems when it comes to new systems?

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I am grateful to the Member for that.  I look forward to Sinn Féin Members being so understanding when it comes to things like welfare reform and glitches with that computer system.  I take the point that we have changed the system, but could we not get some of these things in order?  I accept that it is only the second year, but this is causing severe financial hardship in limited, tight geographical areas.  My point is that, when you apply this and look at comparisons from across the border, they suggest that Sinn Féin's goal of an Ireland of equals does not exactly apply to farmers.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

If there is one sector in our economy that is absolutely vital, it has to be the farming agriculture sector.  It produces much of the food that all of us eat, and yet it is the sector that is probably the most regulated of all.  Indeed, it is over-regulated and is constantly burdened with endless inspection and regulation.  This episode is, in itself, an illustration of that.

As I understand the situation, from last May, the Department had the satellite images.  It then embarked on aerial photography during the summer and then what did it do?  What has it been doing since?  We arrive at December with notification, when farmers are expecting their payment, but the Christmas message that they get from the Department — the supposed champion of farming — is very different.  It is this:  you are not getting your payment.

Why did the Department hold off?  It held off quite deliberately and consciously to stem a tide of protest and complaint, including MLAs and others campaigning on behalf of the farmers for the matter to be expedited.  The Department said, in effect, "Don't tell anyone; we'll just bounce them.  Come December, we're not going to make the payment".  It was not because the Department was trying to prevent some cover-up by farmers of what the actuality was on their farms.  It is not that sort of situation.  It is aerial-type inspection.  Quite a cynical hand has been at play in the Department in that regard.

I have a number of questions for the Minister.  As we sit here tonight, how many field inspections that are now being resorted to are still outstanding?  She has told us that she expects the payments to be made mostly in February.  Here we are past the halfway point in February; can she tell us how many field inspections are still outstanding?  That will help us to judge whether the indication that the payments will be made will be met. 

Can she give the House an assurance that the areas selected this year for random aerial inspection will not be selected in the coming year?  Will they be exempt by virtue of the fact that they have been inspected this year, or could we face the scenario in which the same farmers will be subject to the double whammy of another such inspection next year?  There are so many different areas, so there is nothing to be lost by giving an undertaking that those areas will be exempt from future inspections.

This whole episode amounts to another indictment of a failing Department.  Under EU rules, it is allowed to make advance payments as early as October.  However, it has not put in place anything to allow that to happen, so we are still restrained to December.  Then, come December, a large number of families received that Christmas box from the Minister.  The Minister presents herself as a friend of the farming community, but she presides over a Department that seems to excel in placing obstacles in the way of success for the farming community and starving it of funds.  The single farm payment is not a luxury or an extra that farmers happen to get; it is the lifeblood for many of them.  It was how many of them were going to pay their bills in December.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 6:15 pm, 17th February 2014

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Not only was it going to pay for Christmas, it was going to pay their suppliers as well.  What does the Minister do?  With a sweep of her hand she says, "You won't be getting it.  We didn't bother telling you.  Why would you need to know?  You're only the supplier".

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.  I ask you to rule on a comment by the Member for North Antrim.  He implied that there was some kind of cynical move in the Department on the payments method.  I ask for Hansard to reveal what was said and for you to rule on it.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I think that it was all part of the cut and thrust of debate rather than a specific attack on an individual.

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  I welcome the debate on remote sensing, as it is still a relatively new method of inspection for the Department.  However — I will address the reasons why I say this — it has already proved itself a key instrument for the early completion of inspections and a mechanism to speed up payments to farmers.  That is something that the House debates quite regularly.

Right at the outset, I want to register two key points.  First, that the use of control with remote sensing this year has been a success and, secondly, that we are in the process of learning a great deal from its deployment in 2013.  Part of that learning relates to the subject of the motion and, despite the critical tone that some have chosen to take, I do not think that we should lose sight of the fact that remote sensing has improved things and that the context of where we are now has greatly improved compared with two years ago. 

There are those who are talking about crisis.  I do not accept that there is a crisis.  I would have thought that a seasoned politician, such as the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, would have been able to recognise a crisis closer to home, maybe on his own Benches, quicker than he has recognised the crisis in this Department, because there is not one.

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

There is not one.

I want to set the context, and I think that it is very important that we do that.  There have been massive improvements. Even take 2011:  it took until August to complete inspection cases.  In 2012, we brought that back to June and, in 2013, we brought that back to April.  Those are positive improvements, and we should not forget that things are changing and improving all the time. 

Let me, therefore, set the motion in context by listing those benefits so that Members are clear about what has been achieved.  First, as I said, we have paid many more farmers more quickly this year than ever before.  I can confirm that not only did we have a record payment outcome in December but we have achieved a challenging payment target for overall payments in February.  We have also paid inspection cases faster this year than ever before, and I can confirm that the target to pay the majority of inspection cases in February has also been met.  Hundreds of farmers who have been subject to an inspection and who, in other years, would not have had a payment at this point will have a payment in February.  That includes both hundreds of traditional inspections and hundreds of remote sensing inspections.  I will return to the figures in more detail shortly.

Good communication with farmers is most important, including on the issue of inspections, but I must ensure that Members understand that I am constrained somewhat in that communication by the requirement to have an effective control system in place.  So I will turn first to the regulatory context for scheme controls, before turning to the equally important issue of communicating well with farmers. 

My Department is obliged to carry out inspections because, under EU regulations, a single farm payment cannot be made to a farm business until verification of eligibility conditions has been finalised.  In 2013, my Department received over 37,500 claims for single farm payment.  Commission regulations require a minimum of 5% inspections or on-the-spot checks to be carried out, which meant that 2,129 claims were selected for inspection in 2013.  The data from those inspections is used by the European Commission to make assessments about the overall control framework.  In other words, if significant errors are found in the random inspections in particular, the Commission will come to the conclusion that the same level of error is occurring throughout the entire population of farmers. 

As Members will be aware, in 2012 my Department used remote sensing technology in the North for the first time, and 250 claims were selected for inspection.  In 2013, as we recognised the benefits of that approach, we significantly increased the number of cases examined in this way and began the process of bedding the process into our systems.  This meant that we undertook 1,139 checks using control with remote sensing techniques in 2013, with the remaining 990 cases subject to classic on-farm inspections.

Remote sensing is a tried and tested methodology in the majority of EU member states — I think Members have picked up on that point — and is promoted by the European Commission’s joint research council to provide accurate and reliable land eligibility determinations.  It involves the careful examination of a satellite image or aerial photograph.  That information is compared with the area declared on the single application form.  The satellite imagery and aerial photographs were taken in May 2013 and provided an accurate record of the conditions on the ground.  In a number of cases, an on-farm rapid field visit may be required if an accurate determination of the eligible area cannot be made. 

There are strict regulatory limitations on what the Department can tell farmers about inspection controls in advance and, indeed, the Department is empowered to carry out an on-the-spot land eligibility check, with or without prior notice, at any time.  However, provided that the purpose of the control is not jeopardised, an on-the-spot check may be announced in advance, and I would want that to be so.  The announcement is strictly limited to the minimum period necessary and, according to EU regulations, shall not exceed 14 days.  To avoid the check being compromised, DARD usually advises of an on-farm visit 48 hours in advance.  This applies whether the on-farm visit is part of a remote inspection or a traditional inspection.  

In 2013, farmers who received either a classical field inspection or a remote sensing rapid field visit, where we had to access the farmer’s land, were contacted by an inspector to make arrangements for the visit.  Those farmers were, therefore, aware that their claim had been selected for inspection and, as a result, their payment was likely to be made later in the payment window that runs from December to June.  The control images for remote sensing were recorded in May 2013, but it would not have been possible to inform farmers of that part of the process in advance without compromising the control.  That will remain the case in future years.  If the Department were to inform farmers of that aspect of the control at that stage in the year, the Commission would undoubtedly consider the rapid field visits to have been compromised.

Considerable work was needed to build and refine our protocols and IT systems in 2013 to introduce a new mapping system and make sure that other parts of the system connected effectively to the new control.  The work is now substantially done, many rapid field visits are completed and payments are flowing to those farmers who were affected.

Although the guidance that accompanied the 2013 single application form advised that farmers would not receive notification of a remote sensing check, my Department considered industry feedback from 2012.  In response, we considered that it would be helpful to notify all farmers that their business was selected for a remote sensing check, and letters to that end were issued to them in December.

There has recently been significant criticism of the timing of the letters and assertions that, for example, they should have been issued before the satellite photographs were taken.  I share the concerns that were expressed but cannot contemplate such an early communication about an inspection, as that would not be acceptable to the Commission.

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

Let me finish this point.  Having reviewed carefully the arrangements that were in place, my view is that, although farmers could not have been told at that point that they were subject to an inspection, we could, with hindsight, have aligned a letter to affected farmers with the timing of the determined areas notifications to other farmers.  We are talking about an improvement of possibly 10 days, which would have been the difference.

Although some do not agree, there were advantages for farmers in a late notification.  It meant that in a year in which new LPIS data had to be introduced to the claim forms and there was therefore considerable scope for error, farmers had the maximum time to make amendments to their claims without penalty if they encountered an error later on.  However, it is clear that the impact on cash flow has been the overriding concern in recent weeks, and I want the Assembly to know that the Department has listened to the concerns expressed and understands them.

There is a related issue to do with the impact of using two zones for remote sensing.  The selection process was carried out in accordance with the technical guidelines issued by the Commission.  Although the Commission provides the satellite imagery for remote sensing checks, each member state is responsible for identifying the areas for inspection, known as control zones.  Using random selection, those were identified:  one in the east, mainly in County Antrim; and one in the west, in County Tyrone and the Clogher Valley area.

Although it may seem unfair that there is a concentration of remote sensing checks in two geographical areas, and I recognise the impact that that has on rural communities, I reassure Members that the claims inspected by remote sensing were selected strictly according to EU guidelines.  Nevertheless, there has been learning on the issue of zones.  I am conscious of the significant localised impact that the use of two zones had on the areas affected and am determined to address the issue in 2014.  I envisage even faster payment of inspection cases in 2014, so hopefully the cash-flow challenge and related communication issue will not arise in the way in which it did this year.

I will now deal with the specifics of the progress that we have made through the use of remote sensing and other work to accelerate payments.  I indicated that the use of control with remote sensing has contributed significantly to helping DARD make faster payments in 2013, a scheme year in which there was major change to systems as a result of the introduction of a new mapping control.  In response to the high standard required by the Commission, we used our experience from 2012 to build new, robust systems with increased automation to improve scheme controls.  Given the Commission's requirement that payments could not be released until all controls were finalised, the Department would most certainly not have been able paid so many farmers so quickly had only traditional inspections in the field been used this year.  I cannot imagine that a single Member would argue for a return to a slower inspection process.

A key achievement was that 90% of 2013 single farm payments were finalised in December 2013, totalling £232·5 million.  That was a massive increase on the previous year, when approximately 83% of 2012 claims were paid, amounting to £184·1 million.  As of today, 96·16% of claims have been finalised, including 400 claims from the remote sensing inspection process, totalling £255·92 million.

So, we have absolutely already exceeded our payment target of 95% for February 2014, with 96·16% of cases being paid.

Payment of inspection cases began substantially in January, a few weeks later than non-inspected cases.  The aim was to ensure that remote sensing cases were initiated in January or February at the latest.  That has been achieved.  Every effort is being made to finalise the remaining claims as early as is practicable, but, as I said, we have already achieved the target to have a majority of inspections paid by the end of February.  I remain confident that any remaining cases will be paid by the end of April 2014 at the latest.  That is two months ahead of the 2012 payment timeline and four months ahead of the 2011 timeline.  From the most recent data, made available to me this morning, I can see that 1,340 inspection cases have been paid, 400 of which used remote sensing.

My priority has been to speed up the processing of the tail of inspection cases that occur every year.  That has been substantially achieved.  That is very significant in the context of the massive change programme that I have had to introduce in response to disallowance and in the context of the major work that is under way to prepare for CAP reform.  It has involved a great deal of hard work on the part of staff across a range of disciplines, including IT, inspection services and general administration, and I am grateful to them for making it possible.

Looking ahead, I can say that we are already putting systems in place for the controls on 2014 claims.  Depending on a satisfactory overall delivery of the 2013 programme — as I said, the learning is continuing — I intend to further increase the number of checks that are carried out by remote sensing for 2014 claims. 

We have started working on the random selection of zones so that claims for verifiability checks can be selected at the earliest possible opportunity following the closing date for the single application form.  That will mean that remote sensing, on-the-spot controls will begin earlier, and, as a result, farm businesses will receive earlier notification of the outcome of the check or of the rapid field visit, if one is required.

With the improvement in IT systems and the planned earlier start in inspections, I do not foresee the same concerns about communications arising in 2014.  Farmers who have been subject to an inspection will be made aware of that in advance of their single farm payment.  However, that will be done within the regulatory constraints that surround the advance notification of on-the-spot controls.

Although I welcome Members' comments, I think that you have to keep putting this in context.  I clearly set it out, so I do not need to rehearse it.  However, of 37,500 claims, 96·16% have been paid.  Members cannot have it both ways:  on the one hand, you are asking for things to be speeded up to get payments out, which I have delivered, but, on the other hand, you are quick to come to the Chamber to criticise.  We have to put it in context.

I have always said this, but I absolutely accept the difficulty and stress that there will be if you are in the small percentage of people who are waiting for their claims to be processed.  I assure farmers that I am doing everything that I can.  I think that there is a proven track record in that:  we have improved things year-on-year, and we will continue to do so.  Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP 6:30 pm, 17th February 2014

The single farm payment has been debated on numerous occasions in the House.  That the issue is before the House again is an indictment of the Minister.

The single farm payment, as we all know, is a vital part of the income that is associated with many farm businesses.  Indeed, last year, 87% of the total farm income came from single farm payments.  That is why it is so important that the farming community is kept fully informed of any changes that have the potential to impact on any delays in that payment process.

However, 1,139 farm businesses were subject to remote sensing in 2013 without due notification, which has placed many of them in financial difficulty.  In normal circumstances, a farm business is selected for inspection, and the farmer will be aware of that.  Rather than receiving his payment in December, he will know that it is likely to be delayed for anything up to six months, giving him the opportunity to make financial preparations with his bank and suppliers for the delay.

The Department's failure to notify all the farm businesses that were subject to remote sensing inspections on their land has placed those businesses in crippling financial circumstances.  That happened simply because a number of farm businesses were not notified in due time that they would be part of a remote sensing exercise.  Although we are not here today to hammer remote sensing, if it can do anything to speed up the single farm payment inspection process, then the Department must step up to the mark in processing these inspections.

The Minister, in response to a letter to her last year requesting details of when images for the remote sensing were taken, confirmed, as mentioned today, that they were taken between May and August 2013, yet they were not being processed until six months later, in February.  When I contacted Orchard House again today regarding constituents who were in contact with my office, I was advised that they received the applications only in the past week.  Six months or more have passed since the images were taken and the Department seems to have had real difficulty in assessing the applications.  Such delays are totally unacceptable and cause much frustration and anger among the farming community who have been subject to them.

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for giving way, and I want to correct a point he made:  he said that nothing was happening.  I failed to address it in the debate, but I think that the Chairperson of the Committee raised the fact that the aerial photographs were taken and sat on a desk where nobody touched them or did anything with those cases.  That is absolutely not the fact.  Rapid field visits started immediately after the photographs were completed and that went on, and has done, right through the whole process.  Let us be very clear:  there were no applications sitting on a desk with nothing happening.  Claims were processed continually.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

Despite that, we are standing here today with £25 million outstanding that has not been paid to the farming community.  People are in dire straits; people need that money, and people are waiting for the postman coming every day to see whether the cheque is in the post.  They are still waiting.  Despite all that the Minister might say has been done and all the targets that have been met, we still have this crisis in the farming industry.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

I thank the Member for giving way.  The Minister can say that if she likes, but the fact is that one of the reasons why the remote sensing inspections were not able to be completed was because the technology was not in place to process them.  DARD had no choice but to let applications pile up and sit there.  If the rapid field inspections were completed before December, then why, from 13 February, were only 440 single farm payments given out to the ones who had been the subject of remote sensing inspections?

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

My colleague makes a good point.  Again, that is something that the Minister failed to answer in her response.

To turn to issues raised by Members in the debate, the proposer of the motion spoke of remote sensing and how it should speed up farm inspections.  He said that, despite that, the Department is not fit for purpose when dealing with these inspections, and rightly so.  If the computer system is not in place as it should be, then we have a huge problem where the Department is not up to speed in dealing with the applications.  Farmers were only being notified in late December that they had been the subject of an inspection.  Again, I ask why it has taken so long to assess the images that were taken between May and August?  Of course, it is causing massive financial impact on the farming community and I would like the Minister to take that into account.  She may well quote figures and percentages, but let us remember that there is still £25 million outstanding and that is having a massive impact on the farming community.

Ian Milne said that we were moving towards having a perfect system and that more farmers have been paid than ever before.  Again, he failed to mention that there is still £25 million outstanding and that there are still farmers struggling to survive until they get their single farm payments.

Joe Byrne spoke of the delays faced by those in farming businesses and said that it was intolerable.  When remote sensing was introduced, DARD committed itself to notifying farmers and swiftly assessing applications.

Yet, as we stand here today, we see no evidence that the Department has moved swiftly to bring those assessments to a close.

The Minister must recognise her failure of the farming community in leaving these farmers to suffer financial consequences.  That is the message that must go out from the House today.  The Minister must recognise the financial consequences that this is having for the farming community.  It appears that she is detached from the farming community.  In her speech, she said that she does not accept that there is a crisis in the farming community.  Listen to all the Members around the Chamber who are in touch with the farming community.  Farmers are coming to them and pleading to get the process moved on so that they might get their single farm payment, yet the Minister seems to think that there is no crisis at all in the farming community.  That speaks volumes about how detached the Minister is.

William Irwin highlighted the fact that farmers are continually frustrated, year on year, as complications with the system increase.  Farmers are relying heavily on the single farm payment because of other difficulties associated with the industry, yet they are continually let down.  Let down by whom?  They are being let down by a Department and a Minister who are not able to move the single farm payment forward in time for farmers.

Oliver McMullan quoted figures and percentages of all the single farm payment claims that are being dealt with and paid.  What he failed to point out is that a number of farm businesses are being hung out to dry and placed in crippling circumstances because they cannot get their single farm payment.  He said that we cannot get it all right in one year.  We ask this question:  why not?  In an age of so much computer technology, why can we not get it right in one year?

Lord Morrow spoke about how regrettable it is that the debate had to take place.  He spoke of the Minister's failure to come to the House with a statement to make Members aware of the crisis.  He highlighted that £25 million is still outstanding.  We have to get the message across to the Minister that £25 million is still outstanding.  Those farmers are still waiting for it.  The situation is bordering on a crisis.  Lord Morrow spoke of farmers in his constituency who are —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

— pleading for payments as they struggle to keep going.  I would like to say more, but I trust that the Minister will get the message today that there are farmers out there who are struggling and —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

— waiting for their payment.  I trust that she will take action to ensure that those farmers get their payment.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly expresses dissatisfaction with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for its failure to effectively inform the 1,139 farm businesses that received a remote sensing inspection in 2013; notes that the farmers only received notification days before they were expecting their single farm payment and recognises that this will place many farm businesses under incredible pressure in the coming months; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to explain how this happened and give assurances that she has put in place measures that will prevent it happening again.

Photo of Cathal Ó hOisín Cathal Ó hOisín Sinn Féin

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.  Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  During the debate, Mr Morrow referred to a figure of £25 million; it is actually more likely to be around £10 million or £11 million.  He followed that by saying that he thinks that that is considerable but that Sinn Féin obviously does not think that it is considerable, and we all know:

"the way in which it operates".

Given that Sinn Féin, unlike others, publishes its annual accounts, will you make a ruling on that, a LeasCheann Comhairle?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has made his point.  We will move on.

Adjourned at 6.44 pm.