Northern Ireland news

Agriculture minister denies suggesting low-income farmers should sign on dole

Could low-income farmers turn to the welfare system for support? 
Connla Young

AGRICULTURE minister Michelle McIlveen has denied suggesting that low-income farmers should turn to the welfare system after she announced plans to end a popular support scheme.

The 'Areas of Natural Constraint' programme, which provides payments to farmers on disadvantaged land and had a budget of £20m last year, was due to be brought to end this year.

Last month Ms McIlveen announced plans to make £8m available to fund a further “one-year transitional scheme”.

The money compensates farmers for additional costs and loss of income due to constraints on production in disadvantaged areas like mountain farms and is part-funded by Europe.

In a letter to Stormont’s agriculture committee, officials explained that an option to fund the doomed scheme from the NI Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 would not “target support accurately to those farmers with low incomes”.

It added: “Nor was there a justifiable reason why this mechanism was needed for a particular sub-section of the rural population given the existence of the broader welfare regime”.

Committee member Oliver McMullan last night described the letter as “extraordinary”.

“Here she is telling farmers to sign on,” he said.

“It’s the most extraordinary statement I have seen.”

Farming organisations have also voiced concerns about plans to end the scheme.

Mr McMullan, a Sinn Féin MLA for East Antrim, said he has raised the issue with agriculture officials.

“I have met with department officials and asked them to explain to me the whole thing about benefits,” he said.

“Was the cuts in benefits by the Tory party taken into consideration?”

However, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs said: “Mr McMullan’s statement that the minister is telling farmers facing crisis to sign on the dole is incorrect.

“Miss McIlveen was advising of the difficulties that would be faced in meeting the requirements of a business case for an income support measure such as the ANC scheme.

“These same difficulties were faced with the current scheme when it was introduced in 2015/2016.”

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