€1.4m in fines issued to 4,800 farmers

* Overpayment fines issued

* 3 per cent interest if not paid by August

* Average €290

* If not paid, fine will be debited from any future payments

* Appeals will not hold up this year’s payment, IFA

* Penalties have increased fivefold over a four-year period, IFA

Up to 4,800 farmers across Ireland were issued letters by the Department of Agriculture this week seeking €1.4m in reimbursements of their Single Farm Payments (SFP). This is because of changes to the eligible area on which farmers have claimed their payment, it said.

The Department informed thousands of farmers that the areas claimed on for the SFP in the years from 2008 to 2010 did not tally with later applications and that millions had been “over-claimed”. The Irish Farmers Association (IFA) has called for the Minister for Agriculture to intervene and resolve this issue as a matter of urgency.

‘Over-payments’

A letter, seen by AgriLand stated:

“I wish to refer to your application under the Single Farm Payment Scheme and the payments that issued to you in 2009 and to the covering letter and maps forwarded to you by this Department detailing land parcels that were deemed to be over-claimed following a review of the area declared with the 2009 aerial photography available to this Department. A re-examination of your payment in the year concerned the Department has established that an over-payment of €xxx was made to you in respect of the 2009 scheme.”

The letter continued:

“Over-payments may also have risen in respect of the 2008, 2009 and/or 2010 scheme years. If this is found to be the case, separate letters (for accounting purposes) will issue in respect of each of the years that you were overpaid.

“The Department must now recoup the overpayment set out above. This total amount should be repaid to the Department without delay…You should be aware that the above amount, if not recouped directly from you, will be debited from any future payments that are due to you from the department.”

One-month deadline

The letter also stated that if full payment is not made within one month, interest at the rate of three per cent per annum will be charged on the amount owned.

According to the Department, it needs to “protect the integrity of the payments system as it is necessary to ensure that payments are directed to farmers claiming eligible land”.

In a statement to AgriLand the Department has outlined its case: “Under EU Regulations, the re-claiming of money on ineligible land is an ongoing process … direct payments are of critical importance to farmers and the entire Irish economy. Annually these payments amount to some €1.bn of which €1.2bn is accounted for by the Single Payment Scheme. Under that scheme alone, total payments since 2005 have been in excess of €10 billion. They have given farmers a stable guaranteed level of income during very challenging economic times.

“To protect the integrity of the payments system, it is necessary to ensure that payments are directed to farmers claiming eligible land. Under EU Regulations, the re-claiming of money on ineligible land is an ongoing process.”

‘Average overpayment €150’

According to the Department, the average over-payment is less than €290 per year. “This amount also represents a 1.5 per cent reimbursement on the average annual SFP. The rules must be applied evenly under the scheme to ensure that Ireland can draw down all funds available under the SFP scheme from Brussels. As with all decisions made by the Department in relation to payments, farmers are entitled to appeal this decision if they are dissatisfied with the outcome.”

‘Unfair and severe penalties’

Irish Farmers Association (IFA) Deputy President Eddie Downey has called on the Minister of Agriculture Simon Coveney TD to immediately instruct his department to stop the imposition of “unfair and severe penalties” on farmers as a result of adjustments to land areas. Downey pointed out the Department of Agriculture has confirmed to IFA that where farmers made adjustments to their land area in 2010 there will be no retrospective penalties for 2008 and 2009.

“This is in line with the concession that was made at that time to IFA.  Farmers who made their adjustments to the land area at that time in line with this concession, should not be subject to retrospective penalties now,” he said in a statement to AgriLand today.

Downey said the IFA is encouraging farmers to appeal the imposition of unfair penalties and have secured a commitment that appeals will not hold up this year’s payment.

The IFA Deputy President said farmers have become very frustrated with the constant changing of their map and land areas by the Department of Agriculture. “It is unacceptable that penalties are being imposed for issues which in many cases are very minor and are outside the farmers’ control,” he said.

Downey has claimed Minister Coveney has shown himself to be totally indifferent to the plight of how the Department are penalising farmers. “The recent revelation that penalties have increased fivefold over a four-year period is a further illustration of the draconian inspection and penalty regime now in place,” he said.

“Farmers expect Minister Coveney to immediately intervene and resolve this issue. He said a fair and more transparent system of inspections and tolerances must be put in place,” he concluded.

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