Topical Issue – Single Farm Payment administration

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Deputy Paul J. Connaughton: I thank the Ceann Comhairle’s office for giving me the opportunity to raise this issue. I understand the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is not available today to take the matter in the Chamber due to a busy schedule.
I am concerned about the publishing of the full details of those receiving single farm payments. I accept it has come about from a decision by the European Commission. My concern is not over transparency or accountability in the payments system as this is European taxpayers’ money being spent. We know from the single farm payment we get job security, food security and food quality.
My concern, however, is from the perspective of rural crime. We will be publishing on a set day the names and addresses of individual farmers receiving X amount of money. That is making it a little too easy for a criminal who might want to pick off someone who lives in an isolated rural area. Ministers and the Department always like to announce when the single farm payments will be paid, as it is a good news story and an event for which the farming community waits. Why do the name and the address of the recipient have to be published? Why not the name and just the county or the herd number and the amount? It must be possible to make it more difficult for criminals.
I have no doubt the ministerial reply will explain how this whole process was arrived at. However, we can be very overzealous in how we implement European Commission rules. Did the Department have an opportunity to say it has an issue with this? This process was to be introduced several years ago but three German farmers stopped it at the time. The European Court of Justice deliberated on it for some time and here we go again. Outside of farming, we have very strict and correct data protection laws. One cannot even make a telephone inquiry about a family member’s health appointment or insurance details because of data protection regulations. In this case, however, we are publishing detailed information about the farmers and the amounts they have received. I cannot understand how that does not run against data protection law. The European Court of Justice certainly thought it did several years ago. We need to be very careful how we set this out.
Were the farming organisations consulted on this? I do not know why we have gone the whole hog in publishing all these names and addresses. The Department is only too well aware of the amounts farmers receive from the scheme, as it is very quick to claw it back when it believes it has overspent. There is a very clear and transparent system there already. Will the Minister go back to the European Commissioner, Phil Hogan, to ensure this information is not as detailed when published to ensure the protection and safety of farmers?
Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality (Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin): I thank Deputy Connaughton for raising this very important issue. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is unfortunately not available to take the Topical Issue but I am responding in his place.
Prior to November 2010 member states were obliged under EU legislation to publish information – names, addresses and amounts received – on recipients of amounts paid out of the European Agricultural Guarantee Fund, EAGF, or European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, EAFRD, CAP funds. This information was made available on the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine website and, in line with EU requirements, included a search engine to permit users to search the database using different criteria.
On 9 November 2010, following its judgment in a case taken by German CAP beneficiaries, the European Court of Justice found that aspects of EU legislation requiring the publication of information on beneficiaries of CAP funds, who are natural persons, were invalid. On the day that the judgment was delivered the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine took down the CAP beneficiaries’ database from its website. Following that judgment and pending the adoption of new rules taking account of the objections expressed by the court, the EU Commission adopted amending legislation in order to lay down explicitly that the obligation to publish the information on the beneficiaries does not apply to natural persons. However, they instructed member states to continue to publish information on legal persons and the Department has done so on an annual basis.
Following the extensive analysis and the consultation with the stakeholders, the EU Commission determined that it was critical that any new proposal must observe a balance between the pursued objective of the public control of the use of the money from the EAGF and the EAFRD on the one hand, and the beneficiaries’ right to respect for their private life in general and to protection of their personal data on the other.
In September 2012 the Commission made a proposal on the publication of data on amounts received by all beneficiaries – natural and legal persons – that was intended to take account of the European Court of Justice judgment. The Commission’s basic rationale was that it considered it vital to inform citizens how Union funds are being spent and that the new rules are based on a justification centred on the need for public control over the use of funds. The proposals were the subject of intensive discussion at Council meetings and subsequently in the formal discussions with the EU Commission and the European Parliament which led to the adoption of the new CAP and the legislation which underpins it.
In accordance with EU legislation the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is obliged to ensure annual ex-post publication of all of the beneficiaries of CAP funding including both legal and non-legal persons. In accordance with regulations the Department must publish the name of the beneficiary, unless the amount of payment under CAP funds is less than €1,250 in which case the individual will be identified by a code; the municipality where the beneficiary is resident; the amount of payment corresponding to each measure received by a beneficiary; and the nature and description of each measure. In accordance with the regulation the Department will publish such information by the 31 May 2015 deadline. Work is currently ongoing within the Department on this issue.
Deputy Paul J. Connaughton: I thank the Minister of State for the response. The last line is the bit I am most concerned about, which I think should be reconsidered, is where it states they are going ahead with this by 31 May and that is it.
No one is hiding anything here. The Department is well aware of what each farmer receives. The EU auditors are over here every year making sure every cent of taxpayers’ money is spent properly and, if it was not being spent properly, we would know about it and the whole of Europe would know about it. I am not sure why we are so hell bent on this extra step forward all of the time.
I will always bring it back to the local. I apologise for being parochial but I cannot understand, particularly for those in very rural constituencies who may live a number of miles away from their neighbours, why we have to publish the name, address and amount of money they are about to receive and then we announce when they receive it. If a gang of criminals wants to target a house or farm, we effectively tell them when the money is going to arrive. I really cannot understand this and the matter should be re-examined.
Again, I want to state publicly that this is not about accountability or wanting to prevent transparency. We have that already. The Department should just publish the county and name, for example – County Galway, Paul Connaughton and the number. That does not mean much to anybody but people will know what I received. Why we have to give the address and other details is really beyond me. In some parts of our society, such as health or education, we are very strict on data protection law, and correctly so. All of a sudden, for farming, data protection does not seem to be talked about due to this over-zealousness of the European Union. These proposals were knocked back a few years ago and here they come again. I request that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, go back to the Commission and say we have some concerns. He should ask that we address them and arrive at a fair and feasible solution where we give the Commission the transparency it wants while protecting the identity and addresses of farmers.
Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: The Deputy raises a fair comment about what are effectively security concerns. It is reasonable that he would make his concerns known in the House. I will convey them to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and we will see if we can make some progress.