Farm probes unit 'not out of control', says top official
Published 19/06/2015 | 02:30
The Department of Agriculture has denied operating an "out of control" special investigations unit (SIU) following claims by farmers of victimisation and illegal practices.
The unit has been roundly criticised by the Irish Farmers Association for the manner in which it investigated a number of cases.
Costs of €154,000 were awarded against the state in six cases taken following SIU investigations between 2006 and 2014, the Dáil's spending watchdog has heard.
However, the department's secretary general, Aidan O'Driscoll, told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) he did not accept allegations that the unit was "out of control" and "answerable to nobody".
He said: "There is no unit in the Department of Agriculture and the Marine that is out of control."
Mr O'Driscoll was responding to claims made by seven farmers, who briefed TDs on their experiences of being investigated by the SIU in a private meeting of the committee last month.
A report, detailing the allegations made by the farmers, was provided to the department by the committee.
It included claims that a farmer was ordered to kill his own pigs using a lump hammer.
There were also allegations that SIU officials were "heavy handed" when investigating whether farmers were in breach of regulations.
PAC member Mary Lou McDonald said this included complaints that officials were "obnoxious" towards a pregnant woman, could be "very aggressive", and ill treated animals during testing.
She said there were complaints that when investigators entered a premises they could be "dramatic, forceful [and] obnoxious".
However, Mr O'Driscoll disputed the accuracy of the allegations made by the farmers.
"Unfortunately a great deal of the information provided to the committee at that meeting was untrue," said Mr O'Driscoll.
He said "some scandalous stuff" had been alleged about SIU investigators and that a number of the claims related to criminal offences. Mr O'Driscoll queried if these concerns had been raised with the gardaí.
He said he was aware of only one instance where gardaí were contacted, but those concerns "were dismissed".
He flatly denied the lump hammer allegation, saying a department official had actually intervened to stop a farmer from slaughtering pigs with the hammer after their disposal had been ordered.
Mr O'Driscoll said he could not possibly say that the SIU had never made a mistake.
But he pointed out that 90pc of prosecutions based on its investigations had been successful. A new investigations division, incorporating the SIU, was announced last September.