September 23rd 2014
*Article first published in The Irish Examiner on September 22nd, 2014
10,173. The number of farmers who felt that they had been penalised unfairly for LPIS over-claims. 3,854. The number of those farmers whose cases had been finalised by June 24th. What about the remainder? Three months ago, the Minister stated that a further 3,464 cases had been referred for verification visits, but we still don’t know how many of these visits have actually taken place. Worse again, there is no indication as to when the entire process will be complete.
How can it be right that farmers face the threat of losing a huge portion of their incomes while the Minister drags his heels on dealing with their appeals?
ICSA has asked the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for an up-to-date position on the matter but no information has been forthcoming. No further statements have been made by the Minister in relation to the figures. Is there a stack of files gathering dust in some back office since the Minister and his staff took off on their summer holidays? Or is there a troop of inspectors out around the countryside measuring the percentage of grazing available under each disputed clump of scrub? We don’t know.
There are real farmers and farming families behind these figures. Farmers who had money taken from them, unfairly in their eyes, and are still waiting to find out if they are going to get this money back. These families had no summer break from the uncertainty hanging over them. Those whose appeals are unsuccessful will face severe financial hardship, but how can they plan for this when they don’t know what’s happening? Livelihoods are at stake here, and yet the Minister appears to see no urgency in the situation.
Most of the cases in dispute are genuine, with many of the applications completed by trained advisors and yet still giving rise to over-claims. There was no concerted effort to defraud the EU. For many years, farmers who were in REPS applied good environmental practices on their farms and maintained biodiversity, as required by the scheme. They maintained habitats which are now ineligible or partially ineligible for the Single Farm Payment. These farmers are facing fines for protecting and preserving what they would once have been entitled to a payment for. This is unjustifiable. More than half of the over-claims penalties were returned for review, highlighting the perception amongst farmers that this is an unfair system.
As if the fines were not enough, they are to be backdated. Backdating penalties of up to 100% for five years is going to break some farmers, and is a controversial issue in its own right. There are fears now that the first tranche of repayments could be taken out of the Disadvantaged Area Payment due out later this month.
How can it possibly be acceptable to even consider taking this money from farmers before the appeals process is complete? This cannot happen.
Now that he’s back from his summer break, Minister Coveney must immediately issue an update on the figures, must name the date by which the process will be complete, and must guarantee that no retrospective penalties will be applied until all appeals have been resolved.
Billy Gray, ICSA Rural Development Chairman