Should details of the recipients of EU farm subsidies be published?

 

HEAD TO HEAD: Jack Thurstonsays it's only if the payments are open that we can know whether the public is getting good value and if the payments are ending up with the farmers they were designed to assist, while Michael Ringargues Disclosure is a step too far. Farmers' right to privacy is being breached and they are being set up for roaming gangs of thugs and robbers, he writes.

YES:WHEN POLITICIANS argue for secrecy, it is natural to assume there is something to hide. Fortunately, the opponents of transparency are trying to close the door after the horse has bolted. Under new rules agreed by all EU countries, citizens now have a legal right to know how the EU spends €120 billion of public money each year. At €55 billion a year, farm subsidies represent the lion's share but the new transparency rules apply across the board: fisheries subsidies, roads, bridges and tunnels, development aid and all the rest. And they should be welcomed.

For the past four years the farmsubsidy.org network has been lifting the veil on the Common Agricultural Policy (Cap). To date, we have obtained data relating to 12 million payments in 21 countries worth €66 billion. Our first discovery has been that you do not need to be a farmer to get a farm subsidy. We have uncovered hundreds of curious recipients, from airlines to oil rigs, riding stables to railway companies, prisons to property developers. Anyone who owns qualifying land can claim a subsidy - even absentee landlords who don't farm but just rent out their land to another farmer. Sharp practice and fraud are much more likely to go undetected if payment information is kept secret. As the old adage has it, "sunlight is the best of disinfectants".

Opponents of transparency say releasing this information is an invasion of privacy. In Ireland the Government already publishes the payments to barristers and solicitors for legal aid scheme work. It also publishes payments to doctors and pharmacists under the general medical scheme.

The suggestion that transparency will open up farmers to robberies and kidnappings is scaremongering. Farm subsidies have been public in the US since 2002 and it has not sparked a rural crime wave. Nor has it in the handful of European countries that have already opened up their data, including Northern Ireland. If there are criminal gangs roving the countryside they are much more likely to be looking out for the big house with the brand new Range Rover in the driveway than browsing the internet looking for data on farm subsidies! It is sometimes argued that since we don't publish lists of those receiving unemployment benefits or old age pensions, we shouldn't publish lists of those getting farm subsidies. But it is a false analogy.

Farmers will be the first to remind us that subsidies are not welfare but payments that acknowledge the contribution of farming to the economy, to rural life and the countryside landscape. Subsidies embody a kind of contract between society and farmers. But what kind of a contract is it where those paying have no idea how much they're paying, to whom and for what? Irish taxpayers fund the Cap to the tune of €178 per person each year. Only if the payments are public can there be a debate on whether the public is getting good value for its investment in agriculture and if the payments are ending up with the farmers they were designed to assist.

Our most striking discovery has been just how severely the Cap is skewed towards the wealthiest and most competitive farms. Small, hard-pressed, family farms get little more than the crumbs. In Ireland, average subsidies are larger in the south and east of the country, whereas the environmental benefits associated with farming and the social need for government assistance are greater in the north and west. In Ireland, just under half of all farms get less than €5,000 a year. Compare this with the 2005 payouts to Glanbia (€24 million), Kerry Ingredients (€15 million) and Bailie Foods (€10 million).

Access to data on farm subsidies can help us understand their environmental impact. In the US researchers have used farm subsidy data to uncover the link between subsidies to arable farms along the Mississippi river,

heavy applications of chemical fertilisers and the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico that wipes out marine life in an area of up to 22,000 sq m. If farm subsidies are having unintended consequences, such as pollution and soil erosion, we need to know about them.

Earlier this year, the EU began a fundamental review of its budget to see whether it's in shape for the 21st century. If the EU sometimes seems too remote, a healthy dose of budget transparency will help us reconnect with what is being done in our name and with our money. The alternative is that everything is decided for us by politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists in Brussels, behind closed doors, and for their own ends.

• Jack Thurston is a co-founder of www.farmsubsidy.org

NO:THERE IS now to be full disclosure on payments to farmers. I have to ask, is this in the best public interest? We are all in favour of accountability, but where do we draw the line? This year's disclosures are bad enough, but next year all payments will be on the internet for all to see. It simply is not fair on farmers. Farmers will have no privacy. We are encouraging people not to be holding money in their homes. Yet we will now have a situation where people can access the internet and look up the payments, which people are receiving. It will give a clear indication of income of each farming household.

Vulnerable people, such as the elderly, are at risk of robberies because of these disclosures. For safety and security purposes this is going to create an awful lot of upset for people, particularly elderly farmers living alone in isolated areas. It will be common knowledge what these people get as anybody will be able to see exactly what they are paid by the department. Farmers would not have minded a general or total amount of their payments being disclosed on a county-by-county basis.

These farming folk are going to be put more at risk. It is very wrong that payments to each individual farmer will be available online for public viewing. If this constant need for accountability continues, we could end up with a situation where all medical cardholders, pension recipients and all social welfare payment recipients will have to be declared in a similar fashion.

Will this be followed by full disclosure in relation to medical cardholders and the cost for each individual? Will it relate to those who are covered under the Long Term Illness Scheme (eg 200,000 diabetes sufferers) and the cost for each individual? Likewise, will it impact on those who get higher education grants from local county councils and those who qualify for higher education grants from the VEC and will it be disclosed how much each student gets? It could well be extended to those who qualify for special rate ("top up") higher-education grants and will it eventually incorporate how much mortgage interest relief my neighbour gets? Are we to have a full list published of State pensioners and how much each person is getting? Are we to have a full list of widow/widower, jobseeker's allowance, lone parent, payments from social welfare disclosed? The list goes on and on.

I am in favour of accountability, openness and transparency. I have often used parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests to ascertain facts and figures about many issues and situations down through the years.

Facts and figures about my Dáil record, my staff, my office and my expenses appear on a regular basis. This is part and parcel of being a public representative and I have no difficulty with that.

There are many public figures, unlike TDs and now farmers, who work in the public domain about whom we can find very little information concerning their expenses, bonus payments, and travel expenses. Indeed, there is a bonus payment system in place for county managers - which paid out €1.2 million last year - and not only are we excluded from finding out what payments were made to each of these people, but we cannot get access to the information on why these bonus payments were earned. I wonder will bonus payments be paid to county managers where the public water supply is contaminated?

My bone of contention also with this new European directive is that MEPs have actually declined to reveal their expenses, as indeed have Ministers and Junior Ministers who agreed to this disclosure on the EU stage. The same level of transparency does not seem to be imposed on them.

Are we not now at the situation where public disclosure is going into the realms of private matters? I contend very strongly that the release of information on farm payments is a step too far and we must draw a halt to this bureaucracy gone mad.

Roaming gangs of thugs and robbers have long targeted the farming community. We have seen incidents of where elderly farmers have been robbed and tied up and left to die.

The disclosure of their incomes through individual farm payments will make them sitting ducks for further attacks. I was the first to highlight this issue having been lobbied by dozens of my rural constituents.

They feel they are being singled out and once full disclosure comes into force next year they will be targeted, as anyone will be in a position to see what their income is on the department website. It is a step too far.

• Michael Ring is a Fine Gael TD for Mayo