Department writes off £5 million of farm overpayments

Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture has written off almost £5 million in overpayments made to farmers, a BBC investigation has found.

One of the overpayments made in error as part of the Less Favoured Area Compensatory Allowance Scheme totalled as much as £70,000 (€79,117).

The overpayments were made to more than 11,494 farms over a six-year period.

Up to £70,000

Many of the overpayments – which were made between 2007 and 2013 – were at the lower end of the scale. The investigation found that in more than half the cases, the overpayment came to around £50.

However, according to the broadcaster, around 40 farmers got to keep more than £10,000 (€11,300) and in one case, the overpayment ran to more than £70,000.

Map issues

The issue is understood to have come about because satellite maps were not detailed enough to show whether the ground was eligible or not.

When a farm inspection identified an ineligible claim, the IT system was not set up to allow officials to check if there had been an issue with claims from previous years.

£160 million scheme

The Less Favoured Area Compensatory Allowance Scheme is part of the Northern Ireland Rural Development Programme (NIRDP) 2014-2020.

The £160 million scheme (€180,800) supports farmers – for example, on hill farms – in Northern Ireland’s Less Favoured Areas (LFA).

The BBC claimed the department had now decided that the money would not be recovered as it would cost more than £5 million to recover, with legal challenges likely to add to this.

Challenges

A spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) said the issue arose from “the challenges both of developing and maintaining highly accurate maps of eligible agricultural land”.

“Clearly, this is regrettable. However, it did not obstruct the successful completion of the scheme or prevent it from meeting its objectives.

“DAERA recognises the significance of the overpayments which arose during the operation of this scheme,” he added.

‘Staffing constraints’

“In addition to the audits undertaken by the European Commission and the Northern Ireland Audit Office, the department commissioned a review of the processes and controls of the LFA compensation allowance scheme.

This review confirmed that land inspection findings were not applied retrospectively due to IT and staffing constraints.

“As a result of this review and a resulting ‘lessons learned’ exercise, DAERA implemented improved processes on risk management, IT functionality and debt recovery across the department to ensure better services for its customers and that an error of this nature cannot happen again.”

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