Taking the stress out of Department inspections
Published 22/04/2015 | 02:30
If you want to raise blood pressure levels in any group of farmers just mention the words 'inspection' and 'Department of Agriculture' in the same sentence and just wait for the faces to redden.
While the Department officials insist that the vast majority of farmers have nothing to fear from on-farm inspections, they remain a cause of deep anxiety for many.
That being the case, and with the new CAP cycle well underway, it is important to outline what expect if you are the subject of a department inspection.
The 2015 Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) terms and conditions state that on applying, the farmer acknowledges that inspections may be announced or unannounced.
While there is nothing in the regulations prohibiting the Department from providing notice provided it does not jeopardise the inspection process, unannounced inspections have been reported regularly around the country.
However, there does appear to be an acceptance that this practice is unfair on farmers. EU Commissioner for Agriculture, Phil Hogan, recently acknowledged the lack of fairness that no-notice inspections create. A number of representatives across the country have called for this practice to end and time will tell whether the Department will heed these calls.
In any event, even where an inspection is unannounced, upon arrival the Department officer should confirm their identity and produce an identity card.
Where the officer is unable to produce a satisfactory form of identification the inspection should not then proceed.
The reason for the officer's presence on your farm should be made clear to you.
The officer should confirm the type of inspection about to take place. Where an eligibility inspection is combined with other inspections (for example cross-compliance) the officer should inform you that you can postpone the eligibility part of the inspection for up to 14 days.
The officer must explain the inspection procedure in full and ensure that you, or your agent, fully understand it.
Where the farmer or their agent is not present on the farm at the time the inspector arrives, he or she will return again. If nobody is present on the second visit the inspector must try to contact the farmer. If contact is not made the inspection should not proceed. The inspector should leave written notice of his or her presence.
Refusing entry to a Department inspector is not an option. Such a move, for whatever reason, may result in a loss of payment.
Farmers are obliged to co-operate with the Department officer at all times during the inspection. Interestingly, the 2015 terms and conditions now state that farmers must co-operate 'fully' at all times with the Department officer.
Exactly why the word 'fully' was introduced in 2015 is unclear but it certainly creates an extra layer of subjectivity in terms of what is or is not co-operation. The best advice is for the farmer to co-operate in accordance with the officer's request.
Farmers should try to reply to all queries raised by the inspector and provide any evidence required.
The use of the word fully in this context is worrying as the terms and conditions do not elaborate as to what queries may be raised and what evidence must be provided.
In this regard, given the current inspection regime, it is strongly advisable to keep copies of all correspondence with the Department, all applications for all schemes, and particularly all guidance provided.
Farmers should also have to hand copies of all proof of ownership documentation both for the lands and animals being claimed.
It may also be advisable to have a witness present during any questioning by an officer. While the officer should ensure that he is possession of all of the facts before issuing a report this may not always be possible. However, be careful as regards requesting to have a witness present as it may be construed as not co-operating fully.
While officers should have checked the applicant's file prior to commencing an inspection and should be aware of all relevant aspects of the farm, it is important that applicants ensure the inspector is aware of particular circumstances that may affect the inspection findings.
For example, if the farmer's lands are designated or subject to a specific management plan, ask the inspector if he has been provided with this information as it may affect his approach.
It is also important to inform the officer if there are stocking restrictions on your land. Always have copies available of any management plans, commonage framework plans or any other restrictions that might be applicable.
John Cuddy is a solicitor based in Loughrea, Co Galway