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I speak today as Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and will represent the views of that Committee. The Committee has had only a very short preliminary briefing from Department of Agriculture and Rural Development officials prior to Christmas. At that stage, the Budget details had not been agreed, so we were presented with a best case scenario by the officials. Our next briefing on the details of the DARD budget is not until Tuesday 26 January, so I am limited in what I can say today.
I begin by pointing out a few concerns around procedures. The timescales and the opportunity for real influence by the Committee are very limited, which may be of concern to some members. I understand that the Finance and Personnel Committee raised this as an issue at one of its recent meetings and was informed by DFP officials that there would be scope in the June monitoring round for the new Ministers to take account of Committee representations.
The budget that the Agriculture Committee will consider next week is that which is being presented for the new Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. However, the Committee as it is today does not have a scrutiny remit for the environmental aspects. I understand that DARD officials will not cover the detail of that part of the budget. Although aspects of that budget area were covered by the Environment Committee in its recent consideration of the budget, I am concerned that there is a gap. Scrutiny of the budget is falling between two stools, and that can mean that details will be missed. However, that aside, the concerns of the Committee with regard to the budget and the departmental finances are as they were last year. The Committee's view is that the number one priority for DARD and the new Department should be the payment of grants to farmers and rural communities.
First and most important, the Committee has always been adamant that front-line services to farmers and the wider rural community should not be affected by cuts. This is with particular but not exclusive reference to the new basic payment under CAP reform. There should be, at least, a continuation of the current level of service for payments to farmers as the main priority. The Committee noted that 95% of eligible farm businesses received their basic payments in December 2015 and that more than 1,700 cases that had been inspected were included in that number. I cannot emphasise enough how important those payments are to the farming and rural communities. Members will be aware that all sectors face hardships from falling farm gate prices, but dairy farmers and fresh produce farmers are being particularly badly hit. The payments are essential and are much needed by all farmers.
While I cannot speak for any incoming Minister or Committee, I can say that I firmly believe that this needs to be the number-one priority for the new Department in the new mandate.
The next point that I want to raise is how DARD and the new Department deal with the challenges of staff reductions, and the loss of their expertise, yet ensure that essential business continues as normal. This is with particular reference to the added challenge of bringing together two very distinct work areas: agriculture and environment. These have very distinctive cultures and viewpoints, and we have to make sure that they are integrated and work together. For example, the process of inspections that happens in both sectors will provide an opportunity for joint working and cooperation. Farm inspections are an important aspect of the work of DARD and other agencies to ensure compliance with EU legislation. The Committee is of the opinion that further work could be done to drive efficiencies in this area. We would like to see inspecting officials coordinate their efforts to create, where possible, a scenario whereby the farmer has one visit in which all his inspections are done.
The Committee has also heard on a number of occasions that DARD intends to put more of its services and interactions with consumers online to release staff posts in the future. We have heard about how this work uses a single application form. We have now heard how the big issue this year with the single application forms was a lot of duplicate fields and that, in the future, it is hoped that online applications will help to identify and assess duplicate fields early, thus giving farmers a chance to rectify that.
Finally, the Committee has always expressed an interest in the budget allocation to the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), as the Committee is aware of the pressures that AFBI is under, both in its resources and in coping with an ageing estate. It has buildings and equipment that urgently need repairs and replacement and has had to reduce its staff complement and either stop or reduce research. The Committee is fully supportive of the need to retain adequate research and development bases in Northern Ireland, and we will be examining the AFBI budget in some detail.