Connaughton urges farmers to appeal cross-compliance issues

PaulConnaughton-2-150x150

Deputy Paul Connaughton is this week urging farmers who have been penalised under cross compliance inspections to appeal each and every element of the findings that they believe to be unfair, especially where the penalties result from mapping issues beyond the control of the farmers involved.

The issue of farmers being penalised for cross compliance issues beyond their control was raised by Deputy Paul Connaughton in a Topical Issues debate in the Dáil this week. During the debate Deputy Connaughton outlined how he has been contacted by a large number of farmers throughout the country in recent weeks who have been contacted by the Department of Agriculture in relation to so-called over-claims in their area aid applications.

‘They are incensed that they may be retrospectively billed for past years. These farmers applied on the area of land that appeared on maps supplied by the Department and in some cases on the area of land as measured by the Department’s own inspectors following farm inspections. I was contacted by one farmer who had an area aid inspection about five years ago and when he received the new altered maps he believed he had his duty done. However, he found that the new aerial photograph has resulted in him being penalised by another 0.5 of a hectare for the smallest of deductions ranging from 0.01 to 0.2 of a hectare spread out over the farm, including the lawn in front of his house. This farmer is under the 3% penalty clause, or two hectares, but is now dreading another letter in the post in a few weeks demanding payment of whatever the so-called recovery of the single farm payment might be.

‘All the farmers who spoke to me said they only wished to claim on eligible land and if there were some adjustments to be made following the aerial surveillance, they would accept this. However, there should be no retrospection for past years, given that it was the Department’s maps that were used in this process. It is important that this message is conveyed to Europe. A strong message should be sent that this is an unfair penalty on farmers who, at all times, were only supplying the information that was supplied to them by the Department.

‘Much of this problem is emanating from Europe and it is at European level that it must be tackled. Individual farmers cannot effect massive change within the system and for that reason I believe the Government must take this issue up at the highest levels in Europe and press for a fair resolution for Irish farmers. Penalising farmers retrospectively for something that is beyond their control, because they placed their faith in the figures supplied by the Department, will simply crush all credibility in the current system and will have a severely negative impact on the attitude of farmers to farm schemes in the future.

‘Another issue which is related to the issue under discussion is the length of time that the review process is taking. For a start, many farmers will not appeal the over-claim as they should, believing they are taking on the might of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I will be urging all farmers to appeal all aspects of the over-claim that they feel are unfair. Second, for those who do appeal, the process is taking far too long. The timeframe for decisions must be made clearer and every effort must be made to ensure that the appeals are processed without delay.’

Concluding, he urged the Minister to take up this issue at the highest level in Europe and to make the strongest case possible for the farmers of Ireland, who he said are being treated in a most unfair way and who fear incurring penalties for something that is beyond their control at a time when they, like all people in the community, are under huge financial pressure.

In reply, the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Tom Hayes T.D. said that the Department carries out a range of inspections on farms under the single payment scheme and other area-related schemes, covering such issues as the eligibility of land and cross compliance.

‘In carrying out these responsibilities, which must be done to a standard which meets EU audit requirements to protect the draw-down of the significant funding involved, every effort is made to take account of the realities of farming and particularly of the effects of the bad weather experienced in recent years.’

The Minister outlined the importance of direct payments to farmers as these payments amount to €1.7 billion annually. In relation to cross compliance inspections, Minister Hayes said, ‘The rate of inspections for cross-compliance is 1% of applicants to whom the SMRs and good agricultural environmental condition, GAEC, apply. However, 3% of farmers must be inspected under the bovine identification and registration requirements, while 3% of sheep and/or goat farmers must be inspected covering 5% of the flock.

‘EU regulations governing the cross-compliance regime prescribe a range of penalties to be applied where non-compliance with the relevant legislative provisions has been identified. Where the non-compliance is due to negligence, the penalty is 3%, which can be reduced to 1% or increased to 5% depending on the extent, severity and permanence of the non-compliance. Where the non-compliance is determined as intentional, the standard reduction is 20%, but this can be reduced to 15% or increased to 100% depending on extent, severity and permanence. Where a non-compliance is deemed to be minor in nature, tolerance may be applied with the applicant advised to remedy the problem. Where the minor non-compliance is not remedied within a certain period, a penalty of at least 1% is applied. There are also penalty provisions where repeated non-compliance is determined.

‘Inspections under the 2013 single payment scheme are on-going. Therefore, I am not in a position to identify penalty levels for this scheme year. However, under the 2012 scheme, a total of 2,472 cross-compliance penalties were applied in respect of non-compliances identified as a result of all categories of inspections undertaken by my Department and from cross-reports received therein. The value of these penalties was €2.4 million, equating to 0.2% of the total €1.2 billion paid under the 2012 scheme.

‘Appropriate appeal mechanisms are in place to protect the interests of farmers who have difficulties with decisions made in respect of their single farm payment applications. Under this process, a farmer may initially seek to have a cross-compliance penalty decision reviewed internally by a more senior officer. Where the farmer remains dissatisfied, the decision can then be appealed to the independent agriculture appeal office and, ultimately, to the Office of the Ombudsman, which brings an entirely external and visibly independent dimension to the process.

‘In closing, let me emphasise that, in implementing the requirements of the cross-compliance regime, including the required inspection programme, my Department takes the maximum possible account of the realities of farming. Inspecting officers are regularly trained on how to conduct these inspections. Each inspected case will, therefore, have all factors, including poor weather, taken into account when any decision on the outcome of an inspection is reached.

Replying to the Minister, Deputy Connaughton said, ‘I have no issue with farm inspections. They play a role in the Irish brand and we want to maintain current levels, which farmers understand. More than any other issue, I wish to raise that of payments being sought in respect of 2008 to 2011, inclusive. I understand that a new mapping service is being used, one that is extremely detailed and only became available to the Department this year. Any farmer with whom I have spoken or dealt wants to apply for the eligible land only. That is not an issue. Rather, those farmers have an issue with the retrospective fines that are being applied, given the fact that they used the maps that were available at the time. The information was also supplied by the Department.

‘In terms of audits, I understand that Europe wants to ensure that the money is spent exactly as it is supposed to be and that fines and penalties can arise. However, Europe is being slightly unfair, in that backdating these payments now is difficult when farmers used all of the information available to them at the time to submit their applications for the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, or the single farm payment. Will the Minister of State or the Minister, Deputy Coveney, have an opportunity within the coming weeks to take a message to Europe to the effect that every Irish farmer wants to stay within the law and only get paid for what he or she is able to do? It is unfair that backdating is being applied to payments when farmers had no hand, act or part in the making of this situation, given that they were only using the Department’s information.’

Following the debate, Deputy Connaughton said, ‘I believe that each and every farmer who has been penalised in relation to new mapping should seek a review from a higher officer in the first instance, explaining that this is a change that is beyond his or her control. Following that, if the matter is not resolved at that stage, they should institute an appeal and I will provide assistance to anyone wishing to follow that process as I believe that natural justice dictates that people should not be penalised for something that is beyond their control.’