Farm Ireland

Sunday 17 December 2017

Department were warned on flawed farm inspection reports in 2014

Calls have been made for a full review of the Department’s inspection process.
Calls have been made for a full review of the Department’s inspection process.

Theresa Murphy

INSPECTORS in the Department of Agriculture were warned three years ago that they could face a raft of legal challenges over flawed inspection procedures.

Documents seen by the Farming Independent show field staff were told farmers must be given the opportuni­ty “by regulation” to sign the control report and add their comments where issues are found.

It comes as the Department is seek­ing a court date to appeal last year’s High Court decision that ruled the Department’s inspection procedures were “flawed”.

Calls have been made for a full re­view of the Department’s inspection process.

Last year’s precedent-setting case saw a Co Tipperary farmer take a High Court challenge against the decision of the appeals officer after the rejec­tion of his €147,000 2010 single farm payment application.

The judge ruled the inspec­tion was “procedurally flawed” and a “control report” should have been provided so the farmer could review the details of the checks carried out.

A date for the Department’s appeal of the court case is ex­pected to be sought later this summer.

Vincent Roddy of the IN­HFA said it is an “injustice” to the many farmers whose payments were stopped where no control report was provid­ed, as well as to those who didn’t appeal.

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“It’s incredible to think they are now fighting cases in the courts using taxpayers’ money to defend a position that they know to be wrong,” Mr Roddy said.

“The Minister needs to con­firm for once and for all that any inspection where no con­trol report was provided are null and void and commence a full review with redress for all affected farmers out there, most of whom are smallhold­ers.”

ICSA president Patrick Kent said that the ongoing issues around control reports again highlight the sense that farm­ers do not get fair play or jus­tice when it comes to penalties under EU schemes.

“There is a huge onus on the Director of Public Prose­cutions to take every care that justice is done in the courts. However, it seems that under EU schemes, a much more à la carte approach seems to apply with the result that thousands of farmers get severe penalties every year,” he said.

“We welcome closer scruti­ny of Department procedures which can cause immense hardship and stress for farm­ers. In many cases, farmers are too afraid to challenge penal­ties and take it lying down.”

An ‘eligibility’ presentation for the midlands, west and south regions drawn-up by a senior Agriculture Depart­ment officer points out the FIS form is part of the ‘control report’ and must be given to the applicant where “irregu­larities” are found.

The document dating from 2014 has been available to Department staff on internal files. It states in cases where the farmer is not present, the form must be photocopied and posted out for signing. Inspec­tors have been told it must be recorded on the form where a farmer refuses to sign it.

It states that the Appeals Office and the Department’s legal advisor have “brought it to our attention that this opportunity is not given in all cases”.

The document seen by the Farming Independent states: “We risk losing appeals where we are found wanting on this issue.

“Barristers will demand that where we fail to follow the regulatory procedure that the penalty should be removed,” it states.

A spokesman for the De­partment of Agriculture said it was an archived internal training document.

“The Department carries out training on a regular basis for its staff including field staff. The EU regulations gov­erning the various area-based Direct Payment Schemes and Rural Development measures require the Department to car­ry out on-the-spot inspections annually to ensure compliance with the eligibility require­ments, including land eligi­bility, of the various schemes,” it stated.

“In the case of land eligibil­ity inspections, the require­ment is for 5pc of beneficiaries to be inspected. There has been no change to the inspec­tion requirement as prescribed in the relevant EU legislation.”

The Department said all applicants were provided with a guide to land eligibility in 2015 and they must comply with that to remain eligible for payment.

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