€1.4m Department clawback demand sent to 4,800 farmers
Average bills of €290 in SFP and DAS payments to be repaid
Published 31/07/2013 | 05:00
Thousands of farmers are facing substantial bills from the Department of Agriculture because of changes to the eligible area on which they claimed their Single Farm Payment (SFP) and Disadvantaged Area Scheme (DAS).
Letters sent out by the Department last week informed 4,800 farmers that the areas claimed on for the SFP and DAS in the years from 2008 to 2010 did not tally with later applications and that €1.4m had been "over-claimed."
The value of the clawback varied from case to case, but averaged close to €300 each. Some farmers were hit with multiple fines, with different letters received for the different years.
The farmers involved were told the Department had now to recoup the "overpayment" and warned that the total amount should be repaid "without delay".
"You should be aware that the above amount, if not recouped directly from you, will be debited from any future payments that fall due to you from this Department," the letters stated.
The problems stem from the digitisation of land parcel maps by the Department in 2011 and 2012. These digitised maps now form the basis for all SFP and DAS applications.
A review of applications from 2009 is now underway in the Department to identify variations between the areas applied for initially and the applications made since digitisation.
A statement from the Department said that the claw-back was necessary to "protect the integrity of the payments system."
"As with all decisions made by the Department in relation to payments, farmers are entitled to appeal this decision if they are dissatisfied," the statement concluded.
The ICMSA and IFA have branded the decision to impose retrospective fines on farmers as totally unacceptable and both organisations called on the Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, to intervene.
"It is quite clear that the Department has improved technology in terms of identifying land and its usage but it is simply unacceptable that farmers are being fined without explanation for area issues five years ago when the farmer was cleared for payment at that time," ICMSA president John Comer said.
Mr Comer said farmers had received letters informing them of retrospective fines due to area issues back in 2009 but with absolutely no explanation as to why this fine was being imposed.
"Farmers rightly assume that once payment has been made, they are compliant and these letters have come as a total shock," he said.
IFA deputy president Eddie Downey said farmers were "incensed".
He said farmers were told by the Department at various meetings to make accurate adjustments to their area, when they were making their SFP application, to avoid penalties.
"It now seems that the Department is hell bent on issuing penalties, despite the fact that farmers have done everything in their power to get their applications as accurate as possible," Mr Downey said.
"The recent revelation that penalties have increased five-fold, over a four-year period, is a further illustration of the draconian inspection and penalty regime now in place," he added.
The practice of retrospectively reviewing area-based grant applications has also become a serious issue for forestry plantation owners.
It is understood that the Forestry Service has sought to recoup up to €40,000 from individual companies and plantation owners for what they describe as "overpayments".
The disputed forestry payments came to light during a mapping system review going back 10 years.