Tuesday 12 December 2017

We face €180m fine over failure to police farm payments

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney
Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

IRELAND may face fines of up to €180m from EU Commission chiefs over the failure to police the €1.5bn farm payment schemes.

The potentially massive fines follow an audit by the Commission of over 900,000 land parcels that farmers use to claim subsidies each year.

New hi-tech satellite imaging have helped auditors to probe the schemes administered by the Department of Agriculture.

The images have shown thousands of farmers had overstated the area of land that they were basing their payments on for schemes such as the Single Farm Payment, REPS and the Disadvantaged Area scheme.

They found many instances of farmers claiming substantial payments on land that was predominantly rock and scrub.

In some cases, they found farmers claiming on areas that were roadways and one-off housing sites that had subsequently been built on.

As a result, the Department of Agriculture initiated a huge review of every parcel, which revealed the scale of the problem.

In some counties such as Kerry, there were discrepancies found in 50pc of the farming applicants to the subsidy schemes.

Over 20,000 notices were issued to farmers by the Department looking to claw back over €10m in overpayments stretching back to 2008.

However, the rearguard action by the department failed to prevent the EU imposing even more severe fines on the country.

The department's press office has confirmed to the Irish Independent that a "flat rate financial correction" on close to €9bn in EU payments for the period 2008-2012 will be imposed on Ireland by the commission.

While the exact rate of the fine was not disclosed by the department, commission fines usually range between 1pc and 2pc. This would equate to a massive clawback of between €90m and €180m.

The EU has already imposed huge fines on France, Britain and Italy for infringements of direct payments regulations. France was fined €260m, Britain €100m and Italy €180m.

However, Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney has challenged the imposition of the correction and insisted that the commission's finding will be appealed.

How Ireland would pay the fines, if the appeals are unsuccessful, will be hugely divisive and problematic for Mr Coveney and the Government.

With the coalition parties already preparing the public for another austerity Budget, the likelihood of the Exchequer picking up the tab is negligible.

However, farm organisations will also oppose any attempt to foist the bill on either the farmers who over-claimed or on the rest of the 130,000 Single Farm Payment (SFP) applicants.

"Most of those farmers . . . are on marginal land and would not be able to carry the level of clawbacks that this fine could entail," one representative said.

Irish Independent

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