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McHugh - DARD Civil Servants must act or resign

28 August, 2003

Sinn Féin Agriculture and Rural Development Spokesperson, Fermanagh South Tyrone representative Cllr Gerry McHugh has urged the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to take action on the findings of Rural Development Programme Report.

Mr McHugh said:

"The Price Waterhouse Coopers report into DARD's Rural Development Programme highlights key failures and gives clear recommendations for the current programme. The Assembly Public Accounts Committee has previously reported these failings, but this report highlights serious long-term inadequacies.

"DARD cannot sustain a programme that has no way of measuring the cost per job. Indicators show that 1700 jobs were created at a cost of between £17,000 and £93,000 per job. Yet these jobs were cocktail-funded by IFI and other agencies. There were no original baselines, no outputs or targets were set and there were high delivery costs.

"Yet there were some positive things in this report; a large part of the last programme, which dealt with Capacity Building was particularly important for communities with no infrastructure. It also brought traditional DARD advisors into direct working relationships with farmers.

The ABSAG and LEADER II groups worked effectively with local people coming together to effect collective and collaborative actions.

"However I am seriously concerned that with all of this information at hand, that the assurances given by the last Permanent Secretary, Mr Small, to the Assembly PAC in October 2000, that while the concept of rural development was new that there would be 'a sharper focus in the future than we have had in the past' were nothing more than cheap talk.

"Ian Person also told the select committee in May 2003 that he is in a 'battle' with his officials, yet still £15 million of desperately need PEACE II money will be given back to the EU by DARD later this year.

"The agriculture committee, which I was a member of, reported on the RDP for 2000 - 2006 in 2001. After evidence from many officials and the then Minister Brid Rodgers we produced a report with 32 recommendations that focused on delivery. One the key recommendation (point 5) was for a 'dedicated form completion service for farmers, and this assistance is based in locations familiar to farmers'.

"Sinn Féin have met both the Minister and then the head of the Rural Development Programme. Both appeared to listen to what we said and hopefully both read this PWC report, yet still the problems remain. Farmers and their families are not benefiting from this programme, simply because they cannot access the programme.

"However, the problems go much deeper. DARD have stifled this programme with red tape, working at a snails pace to deliver different measures, some of which closed a year ago.

"Upwards of £35 million in the BSP EU programme has to be spent by the end of 2004. While the Rural Development Division (RDD) is delivering most of this money many of farmers don‚t even know what it does or where its offices are.

"DARD must act now to make money available for Capacity building/facilitation; to implement point 5 of the assembly report; and to implement one of the most key PWC report recommendations for 'real time‚ evaluation to inform ongoing programme delivery.

"DARD must act what they are being told. These people are hiding behind civil service unaccountability. The total lack of action and the attitude of farmers to DARD, who see them as a policing not assisting the farming community, leaves me in no doubt of the need for a major overhaul DARD.

"Either DARD officials begin to listen and act in the interest of the farming and rural community or time is fast approaching for individual civil servants to resign. They are responsible for jeopardising millions of pounds and the failure to spend across the whole of the programme." ENDS

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