The average length of time it took to resolve a complaint to the Agriculture Appeals Office in 2021 was 185 days – more than twice the target set by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for closing appeal cases.

That’s according to Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy, who cited data showing significant delays in the agricultural appeals system.

Sinn Féin is calling for “a comprehensive reform” of the system, arguing that the current set-up “is not fit for purpose”.

“The current process is not delivering an efficient outcome for farmers. In 2021, the average time from receipt of a complaint to closure was 185 days. This is double the department’s three-month closure target.”

However, Carthy highlighted that this is an average figure, saying he was aware of cases where farmers with specific issues – particularly around land eligibility – “are waiting years for an oral hearing and resolution”.

The Cavan-Monaghan TD claimed that part of the reason for these delays is “the department’s failure to provide the documents requested by the Agriculture Appeals Office in a timely manner”.

Carthy noted the time it took (according to 2020 figures) for the Agriculture Appeals Office to receive relevant documentation from the department.

In 2020, these timeframes were 65 days for the Areas of Natural Constraint (ANC) Scheme; 33 days for the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS); and 92 days for the Organic Farming Scheme (OFS).

“These delays severely interfere with the work of the Appeals Office,” Carthy argued.

This information was provided to Carthy though a parliamentary question response from Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue earlier this month, who said that delays so far this year have been reduced.

The minister also cited the Covid-19 pandemic as a cause for the delays in oral hearings being held.

Notwithstanding this, Carthy today highlighted the impact that these delays have on farmers who make appeals.

“It must be recognised that we are talking about disputes over often large sums of money. That could mean the difference between a small farmer hanging on in the sector or not. Dragging the process out for six months is unacceptable and could be having a severe impact on people’s mental health.”

Sinn Féin also noted that apparent issues in the agricultural appeals system here may have implications at an EU level.

Chris MacManus, a Sinn Féin MEP for the Midlands-North West constituency, argued that these issues “undermine the implementation” of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

“A key part of the CAP is managing the relationship between farmers and the national authorities. Farmers are doing their job by producing high-quality food and being the custodians of our landscapes, and it is the department’s job to manage the programme and swiftly resolve any issues,” MacManus said.

The MEP said he has written to the European Commission to ask whether Ireland has failed to “properly implement a functioning CAP”.

“The result of having an inefficient process is farmers losing faith in the system and foregoing any disputed funds,” he added.

According to Sinn Féin, changes to the system should include: an increase in the number of case officers working on agricultural appeals (currently 13); setting a one-month deadline for the department to provide requested information; a commitment to hold an oral hearing within 60 days of the initial complaint; and a “strict enforcement” of the 90-day closure target.