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Dept staff doubled to cope with SFP maps

The Department of Agriculture is set to maintain double the number of staff to work on map digitisation in an effort to ensure single farm payments (SFP) arrive on time this year.

The news will come as a relief to the thousands of farmers that were left waiting for months last year for more than €120m of delayed farm payments.

Department officials estimate that more than 37,000 maps will require digitising this year, which is comparable to last year's volumes.

However, Paud Evans, principal officer at the payments section, was keen to assure farmers that the Department has double the number of staff trained to digitise maps compared to this time last year.

"These will be kept on until we get over this period of digitising," he said.

With a sample audit of four individual SFP applications in January revealing problems with three, the review and digitisation of maps process that slowed so many payments last year looks set to continue this year.

In addition, the overhang of payments that were not fully processed until the end of February this year has already put Department staff on the back foot in relation to getting started on this year's applications.

"2009 was an ideal year for us," said Mr Evans. "We had all our digitising finished in October and everyone paid by December. But we dealt with 71,000 applications with maps attached last year. That was nearly three times what we had to cope with in 2009."

The State would have faced fines of up to €80m, similar to many other EU states, if action had not been taken on the re-drawing of the maps that the €1.8bn of farm payments are based on, claimed Mr Evans.

The Department is encouraging farmers who did not send in maps with their applications last year to do so this year, despite a perception among farmers that this could slow down the processing of their application.

"Applications that include maps will be exempt from penalties, and we will eventually catch up on all farmers who are trying to avoiding sending in maps with ineligible areas included," said Mr Evans.

In addition to sending in maps, the Department is encouraging farmers to submit applications online by guaranteeing these priority for processing.

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