The Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister, Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew, was answering questions in the NI Assembly today on the “misunderstanding” with the European Commission over the Farm Modernisation Scheme which opened for applications on 17 February. From the answers given it would appear that although the Department “consult[ed] the [EU’s] rural development programmes monitoring committee on the scheme selection criteria” – but not the European Commission despite the previous response by the Minister to EC criticism that “Brussels knew what we were doing” – they might not have mentioned the initial “first come, first served basis” of the application process. The Minister believes “the difference of opinion or the misunderstanding that arose” can be resolved. Although they haven’t been resolved yet..
The question was whether our scheme was legal or illegal. I do not believe that Michael Mann said that the scheme was illegal, but that is how it was portrayed by the media. I assure the Member that the scheme is not illegal; no moneys have been paid out under the scheme, and, therefore, there is no question of disallowance.
The Commission maintained that additional selection criteria are needed to ensure that we meet the operational objectives and priorities of the measures. We consider that we have a selection process in place that meets those needs, hence the difference of opinion or the misunderstanding that arose. I believe that those issues can be resolved. [added emphasis]
An edited version of the Assembly record
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: As regards whether the Department sought EU clearance on how it proceeded with applications under the farm modernisation scheme, EU rules associated with implementing rural development programmes do not oblige the Department to seek clearance from the European Commission on either selection criteria or operational matters. Consequently, the Department did not seek clearance from the Commission for its system for receiving applications on the basis of first come, first served. The Department is obliged to consult the rural development programmes monitoring committee on the scheme selection criteria, and it has done so. [added emphasis]
Turning to operational issues, I praise the staff concerned for their huge efforts in receipting the applications. Within four hours of the programme opening, more than 5,000 applications had been received and receipted, indicating that the systems in place were well resourced and that staff were effectively trained to deal with the uptake. Although I did not have any personal contact with my DARD offices in relation to the farm modernisation programme before 17 February 2009, I had asked my officials to assure me that all endeavours had been made to ensure that staff were well trained and confident enough to undertake the exercise, and that was certainly borne out by performance on the day.
By close of business on 6 March, more than 9,000 applications had been received, and a total of £15·25 million has been set aside over the lifetime of the farm modernisation programme.
Finally, where do we go from here? My officials have been working closely with the European Commission and will continue to do so until the issue is resolved.
Mr Shannon: I thank the Minister for that response. However, it is clear from the publicity surrounding the issue that many people are unhappy that they were unable to attend the offices to qualify for the money. For that reason, what steps does the Minister intend to take to assist those people who were unable to attend because of work and other commitments? Furthermore, is there any intention to review the criteria for all those people who wish to be considered for grants? The grant amounts to £5,000, which is not a lot, but it enables many farmers to modernise their machinery and deal with other issues on their farm. However, there are concerns about the fact that they were unable to attend, and there are also concerns about the criteria.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: The issue has been well aired in the media in the past few weeks, and, as Members know, I had some concerns about people queuing overnight and what that would look like. I was very keen that farmers did not feel the need to queue. We brought in a number of measures to help people who were unable to queue because they were working or had poor mobility problems. Therefore, each person who queued was allowed to bring three forms to the office that morning, and that enabled them to help out other people. Everyone has friends or neighbours who could have taken the form in for them. Therefore, we tried to look at ways in which we could help the people to whom the Member is referring. A postal application system was also in place to help people with poor mobility problems.
We fully intend to review all the issues for the second and third tranches. Indeed, on the morning of 17 February, I said that I would review the farm modernisation programme and how it would proceed on the next tranche.
We were supposed to open the programme in October 2008, but we put it off until February 2009, with a view to trying to get a better scheme in place. With the best will in the world, that better system did not materialise. Nevertheless, we want to review the system to ensure that the second and third tranches are done in a different way. However, we are dealing with a scheme that is highly popular and vastly oversubscribed. If we had £30 million, we would want to invest it in the programme, because there is a clear indication that, even in these difficult economic times, farmers are willing to put their money into the rural economy.
Mr Poots: I want clarification on why we did not have the scheme cleared by Brussels in the first instance. It is alright to say that we did not need to do that, but, ultimately, our problem is that Brussels has stated that it has real issues with what happened. Will the Minister clear the money so that it can go to farmers without the support of Brussels, as her answer to the initial question seemed to indicate? If not, what assurances has she received that we will be able to proceed with the scheme as it has been set out?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: We worked closely with Brussels in the run-up to the scheme. After the misunderstanding on 17 February, I sought legal advice on whether our scheme met EU legislative requirements. That advice stated that our interpretation of the EU regulation is a reasonable one. In other words, the scheme meets the requirements of the EU legislation.
However, I am mindful of the issues involved with a protracted legal discussion with the European Commission, and I wish to avoid such a situation if possible. My officials continue to work with the Commission; I am hopeful that the issues can be resolved and that we can apply the scheme as planned.
Mr Elliott: Did the Minister or the Department have any indication prior to the development of the farm modernisation programme going live that the application process may not be acceptable or approved by the European authorities?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: In February 2008, there was correspondence with all member states about the need to include selection criteria in rural development schemes in order to ensure that operational objectives and priorities are met. In October 2008, the Department consulted the rural development programme monitoring committee about the selection criteria for the farm modernisation programme in accordance with EU rules. The European Commission did not offer any comments on the criteria throughout that process, and, subsequently, we thought that our scheme was fully compliant.
Up until lunchtime on 17 February, we were working with Commission officials to explain our selection process and to provide whatever reassurances they sought; we were certainly not aware that they had issues. I said on 17 February that the situation was a misunderstanding, and, ultimately, I think that it will be recognised to have been a misunderstanding.
Mrs D Kelly: Is the Minister saying that Michael Mann Mariann Fischer Boels European Commission spokesman on agriculture and rural development is wrong?
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: The question was whether our scheme was legal or illegal. I do not believe that Michael Mann said that the scheme was illegal, but that is how it was portrayed by the media. I assure the Member that the scheme is not illegal; no moneys have been paid out under the scheme, and, therefore, there is no question of disallowance.
The Commission maintained that additional selection criteria are needed to ensure that we meet the operational objectives and priorities of the measures. We consider that we have a selection process in place that meets those needs, hence the difference of opinion or the misunderstanding that arose. I believe that those issues can be resolved.