84 complaints were about the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine with the Ombudsman upholding ten of the complaints, new figures from the Ombudsman show.
Overall, complaints to Ombudsman Peter Tyndall rose by 9pc to 3,664 in 2019. It is the highest number of complaints received by the Ombudsman since 2010.
One upheld complaint against the Department of Agriculture involved a farmer from Sligo whose payment under the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS) was stopped.
As part of the scheme the farmer had set aside a strip of land for 20 years to encourage wildlife habitat. The farmer had invested considerable resources in planting trees along the river and believed he would receive payments for 20 years.
The man took part in a number of REPS schemes involving different conditions and varying completion dates. He was unable to enter the final REPS scheme and took part in a different scheme. However, the Department stopped the 20-year payments as he was not in a REPS scheme.
The Ombudsman upheld the complaint as the farmer was in full compliance with all the conditions of the scheme, and it was reasonable for the man to believe he would continue to receive payment as the scheme clearly provided for payment for 20 years. The Department revised its decision and awarded the man €12,500. The Department also identified 109 similar cases involving a possible liability of €855,000.
In another case, the Department agreed to review its decision not to allow a 40-year-old farmer to apply for the Young Farmers Capital Investment Scheme (YFCIS). The Ombudsman clarified with the European Commission that the interpretation of ‘young farmer’ in the scheme included someone who applied before their 41st birthday.
According to the Ombudsman, the European Commission confirmed that a ‘young farmer’ is someone who is not more than 40 years of age at the moment of submitting an application and that the application has to be submitted, at the latest, on the day before the 41st birthday.
The Department said that the clarification applied to Measure 6 only and that payments are not made under Measure 6 in Ireland. However, the Ombudsman pointed out that the same definition applied to all Measures and that the farmer was adversely affected by the decision to exclude her from applying. The Department reviewed its decision and confirmed that the farmer was eligible.
In another case, a student from Clare contacted the Ombudsman after Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) refused her application for an education grant at the ‘special rate’.
The ‘special rate’ is a higher grant aimed at people on low incomes and she had discovered that SUSI had double-counted some of her income which brought her above the threshold for the ‘special rate’ grant. The studenthad applied to SUSI for a grant for the academic year 2018/19 and was awarded a grant. However, she was not awarded the higher ‘special rate’. Her household income had been miscalculated as farm grants were added to the income.
These grants had already been included in the farming accounts and should not have been added to the income. She appealed the decision to SUSI and she was awarded the ‘special rate’ for the academic year 2018/19. She discovered that this error had occurred in two other years.
She appealed these earlier decisions, but her appeal was turned down as she was outside the time limit for making an appeal. The time limit for making an appeal to SUSI is 30 days. However, the error came to light only during Karen’s 2018/19 application and therefore she had no reason to appeal the decision at the time. Following discussions with the Ombudsman SUSI reviewed the award of her previous grants. She was awarded the ‘special rate’ of grant for 2016/17 receiving an additional payment of €2,890.
The Ombudsman examines complaints about public services, such as those provided by government departments, local authorities and the HSE. In his annual report for 2019, the Ombudsman said his Office saw increases in complaints about almost all sectors it deals with.
Before complainants bring their complaints to the Ombudsman Office they must first take reasonable steps to resolve their complaint with the public service provider concerned.