Farm Ireland

Thursday 22 March 2018

Analysis: A €3k penalty means these will be the last pet sheep I'll ever own


Darragh McCullough with one of his pet sheep.
Darragh McCullough with one of his pet sheep.
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

The reaction to last week's piece about my frustrations dealing with claim after claim by the Department of Agriculture in relation to my farm payments struck a chord.

In fairness, I shouldn't have been so surprised that so many farmers would get in contact to commiserate with me and share their own stories - this is an old chestnut in farming circles at this stage.

It was also interesting to note that after more than six months of zero feedback on my appeal - despite phonecalls and emails - I had the answer within 48 hours of publishing my ordeal in the Farming Independent.

That's where the good news ends - the €3,157 penalty was upheld, and now I have to suck it up or double down and appeal the decision to the Ombudsman.

One farmer who got in touch with me said that it was only when he took his appeal to the Ombudsman and indicated he would go all the way to the EU Court of Justice that an amount exactly equal to the sum he was appealing dropped silently into his bank account one night - no notice, no explanation.

It's tempting, especially when the penalty is so disproportionate - two poxy pet sheep and one of them without a tag.

I can tell you they'll be the last sheep that ever grace these fields in my time!

But I've also seen firsthand how farmers become consumed by their battles with the might of the State apparatus. You are basically the poker player who decides to go all-in since you end up investing all your time and energy into proving your point.

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Meanwhile, the Department wheels out official after official to wear you down, as they probably have on plenty of occasions with others in the past.

The most shocking aspect of the feedback that I got was the stories that I began to hear from within the Department.

I have it on excellent authority that staff are becoming completely demoralised by the nit-picking that they are expected to carry out on every grant inspection.

"We used to be the guys with the good news. Now many are looking for transfers," was the line I heard indirectly from one senior official of many years.

In some grant schemes and areas I was told that less than 10pc of inspected applications are qualifying for the full grant.

Of the 5pc of farmers that are unlucky enough to be selected for an inspection, many say they will never apply for a grant again.

No wonder there is huge amounts of money left behind every year in the likes of TAMS.

I feel the directives coming down from on high are not only discouraging the target recipients of the aid, but also the footsoldiers that are tasked with administering the scheme.

In my own case, I applied for grant aid on a new storage facility. As is usually the case with these projects I spent the full amount and some.

But when the inspector came out he informed me that because the internal space in the unit was approximately 5pc smaller than we had originally projected, that the grant aid would also have to be cut the same amount.

But what do you do? The nature of any of these schemes where the farmer pays up front means that you are gasping for the cash - no matter how diluted - by the time the inspector gets around.

It's a bind that every working farm is familiar with at this stage.

It's probably also the reason that the IFA has set up a dedicated payments 'unit' that has two full-time staff dealing with these kinds of problems from farmers.

It is only going a few weeks but I hear that the client list is already very hefty.

We are now decades into the cycle where ever-more-convoluted schemes and payment regimes have spawned a whole industry in itself.

That's what happens when there's billions at stake I suppose.

But there's got to be way to ensure that a balance is struck between giving the taxpayer value for money and keeping the systems workable for those inside the machine and those depending on the machine.

Now, I've some sheep to round up!

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