LAND eligibility problems proved to be a major issue for farmers for much of this year and continue to be a source of frustration, with many farmers confused about the criteria used to exclude land and feeling angry and unfairly penalised when they have been told to repay grants that were claimed in error.
The issue has been raised in the Dail on a number of occasions by South Kerry Independent TD Tom Fleming who has strongly pressed the case for farmers who feel they are getting the wrong end of the stick.
However, Agriculture Minister Siimon Coveney can't be faulted for his efforts to bring clarity to the situation. Whether his department is as 'farmer friendly' as some would like is, however, another matter.
In a recent Dail exchange, Deputy Fleming again pressed the minister on what argument he had put to the EU Commissioner to prevent the imposition of retrospective single farm payment penalties on farmers as a result of the land eligibility issue. Minister Coveney's response offered no hope of a reprieve, but it did spell out in very clear terms why land is excluded and why the Government is determind the impose the rule of EU law.
Minister Coveney made a simple case: "We have a problem we need to deal with". And there need be no doubt that over the coming year the department will be hell bent on dealing with the problem.
Here is Minister Coveney's thinking on the matter:
"Since mid-summer, there has been a change to the way in which mapping is done technically. It allows us to be much more accurate in photographing land parcels across the country. As a consequence of this and the pressure the European Commission is under from external auditors, the Commission is demanding that every country in Europe assess whether payments have been drawn down on land parcels that have been ineligible. Unlike many other countries, Ireland has gone through an extraordinarily detailed process of trying to assess every single land parcel in the country so as to make a judgment on what areas are ineligible for payments. Obviously, we offer farmers an appeals system to test that. We are doing so because we are required to. The alternative is that the Commission would make an assessment of ineligible land in Ireland, multiply its figure probably by five and apply a fine or what is called a disallowance, for which every farmer would have to pay substantially. I cannot and will not allow that.
"We have the capacity technologically to proceed accurately. I have no intention of penalising farmers but simply of asking them not to accept payments on land deemed ineligible in 2013. In some limited cases, we have asked farmers to return payments made over the past four years on ineligible land. That is how we minimise the exposure of Irish farming as a whole to penalties that the European Commission would otherwise supply. In case the Deputy thinks this is a bluff, he should consider the penalties that have applied to other countries. In France recently, there was a penalty of €246 million. I am open to correction on that. The United Kingdom and Italy have also received penalties, despite their economic muscle in the European Union. We are trying to minimise the exposure of farmers and we will work with farmers who have a problem to make sure we can put repayment schedules in place for them.
"We are not asking for any retrospective payments from farmers who have had a big problem. The only payments we decided we would try to reclaim retrospectively this year, in an effort to try to solve the problem, are from some farmers whose ineligible land amounted to less than 3% of their holding. The average farmer in this category has a single farm payment of well over €11,000 and the retrospective payment, in total, is well under €400. Any of the farmers who have a significant problem with ineligible land that comprises more than 3% of their farm will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis next year. If we must put in place longer-term repayment schedules for farmers, we will do so.
"Anybody who believes we will just put our head in the sand and ignore this issue, thus resulting in the imposition of significant fines and disallowances by the Commission, either does not understand the issue or is kidding himself."