Farm Ireland

Saturday 17 March 2018

Penalty system slammed by ACA

Declan O'Brien

Declan O'Brien

The Department of Agriculture has been accused of acting like a "State-funded debt-collection agency" by the Agricultural Consultants Association (ACA).

ACA president Pat Minnock said farmers who penalised following cross-compliance inspections were being treated disgracefully and he called for an overhaul of the cross-compliance penalty system.

Meanwhile, IFA president John Bryan demanded an immediate meeting of the Charter of Farmers' Rights consultative committee to discuss what he described as "the unacceptable increase" in the level of cross-compliance penalties.

Mr Bryan said the latest figures on inspections and penalties showed that the Department was tightening the criteria for inspections and penalising more farmers.

He accused the Department of applying higher levels of penalties and changing the tolerance levels previously negotiated in the Charter of Farmers' Rights.

Mr Minnock said he knew of one farmer who was inspected in December, but only got notice of a penalty being imposed on his single farm payment (SFP) on May 20.

The following day he received another letter from the Department informing him that there had been an overpayment in his SFP and if he did not repay the monies in full within 30 days he would be charged interest.

The Department letter also warned that all outstanding funds and interest would be withheld from future direct payments if the "overpayment" was not repaid.

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"This farmer was not informed that the overpayment cited in the Department letter actually referred to the penalty," said Mr Minnock. "The farmer thought he was being hit on the double."

The fact that the letter, which was computer generated, did not take account of the farmer's right to appeal against the penalty exemplified the manner in which farmers were being treated, Mr Minnock said.

"It took [the Department] six months to send out a letter informing the farmer that an SFP penalty was being imposed, but the debt collection letter was out the next day."

A Department official accepted that the overpayment letters were computer generated, but he said there was an onus on the Department to inform farmers as soon as possible once they discover there was a debt owing.

Mr Minnock said the Department had also refused to tell the farmer or his farm consultant the exact reason why the penalty was imposed.

"They will only tell the farmer the statutory management requirement under which he has failed, but they will not specify the problem.

"This means he could have a penalty imposed for the same reason next year."

The ACA leader said the perception among farmers was that they were seen as "an easy touch" when it came to direct payment penalties.

Irish Independent