Farm Ireland

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Pressure builds on Coveney to sort out eligibility debacle

Department set to clarify eligibility criteria for Basic Payment Scheme

IFA President Eddie Downey called for immediate publication of guidelines
IFA President Eddie Downey called for immediate publication of guidelines

Darragh McCullough and  Martin Ryan

The Department of Agriculture is struggling to deal with the escalating crisis surrounding land eligibility rules.

Amid ongoing negotiations with EU Commission officials yesterday, Department sources confirmed that a new booklet outlining revised definitions of eligible ground would be published over the coming week.

While officials remained tight-lipped on the contents, it is believed that marginal land - the most contentious regarding eligibility - may only need to show that it is 'available' for grazing in order to qualify.

Up to now farms were assessed on the basis of farming activity, which has led to division and even legal challenges between farmers, their representatives and the Department.

The Irish Natura and Hill Farmer Association (INHFA) has called for stakeholder working group to be established to address farmer concerns regarding the land eligibility controversy.

The INHFA have taken issue with the Department's approach to-date on land eligibility.

"Suggestions that farmers can use the five-year period of the Commonage Management Plan to make land eligible again is an unacceptable suggestion," said INHFA spokesman Colm O'Donnell.

"In the vast majority of cases this land is eligible. The problem is the narrow, rigid and inconsistent interpretation of rules based on lowland models."

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Instead, the INHFA wants a menu of indicators to be used. These would include the presence of livestock, evidence of grazing such heather in all stages of its life cycle, or photographic or GPS evidence of livestock.

Delays on getting clear definitions on eligibility are believed to be linked with the Department's attempts to negotiate the €180m fine that was imposed last year on Ireland by the EU for the inclusion of ineligible land in Single Farm Payment claims.

In addition, minimum stocking rates as a measure of eligibility were ruled out because they would link payments with production, which would contravene WTO rules.

However, pressure is mounting on EU officials to make the new Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) more farmer-friendly. Pressure for a resolution of the impasse has ratcheted up as the May 29 deadline for applications approaches.

The Department has already notified farm advisors of a series of information meetings next week to clarify any out-standing issues.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil agriculture spokesman Eamon O Cuív branded the eligibility process a "guessing game", where assessments of eligible ground by professionals varied from 10pc to 90pc on the same land.

"Farmers should not be penalised in a guessing game. The simplest way to ensure this is to request the farmer to include the reference area determined by the Department and he or she would not be subject to any penalty if the Department subsequently found it had made a mistake," he told the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture last week.

IFA president, Eddie Downey, called on Minister Coveney and the Department needed to publish the new land eligibility guidelines immediately.

"Producing [the information] in booklet form for farmers and planners and submitting the applications is simply not enough," Mr Downey said.

At last week's meeting of the Oireachtas Committee the Department's handling of the eligibility issue was roundly criticised.

"It's no wonder that farmers who are affected are going around the bend," said Fine Gael TD Paul Connaughton.

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