A significant increase was recorded in 2020 and 2021 in the number of agri-scheme appeals made by farmers dissatisfied with decisions of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM).
The number of such appeals to the Agriculture Appeals Office rose from 570 in 2019 to 760 in 2020, representing a 33% increase.
This figure increased again in 2021 with a total of 809 appeals received by the office.
The Agriculture Appeals Office, an independent entity of the DAFM, was established in 2002 to provide an appeals service to farmers who are dissatisfied with decisions of the DAFM concerning designated schemes operated by them.
The details were revealed recently by Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue, in response to a parliamentary question regarding delays to the appeals process and the need for its streamlining.
Agriculture spokesperson for Sinn Féin, Matt Carthy, detailed the length of time for the Agriculture Appeals Office to receive documentation from the DAFM.
In 2020, he said, it took 65, 33 and 92 days, respectively, for the office to receive documents from the DAFM in relation to the Areas of Natural Constraints scheme, Basic Payment Scheme, and Organic Farming Scheme.
He also asked what progress had been made on this in 2022.
Minister McConalogue said that, in order to tackle delays arising from this increased workload, the Agriculture Appeals Office has engaged with the relevant scheme areas within the DAFM to ensure that processes are streamlined.
“This has resulted in an improvement and delays have reduced,” he said.
Appeals backlog and other challenges
In a further appeals-related question, Deputy Carthy asked the minister if it is necessary to increase the number of appeals officers.
Minister McConalogue said the increased number of appeals and the many challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, resulted in oral hearings not being held for large periods of time.
This resulted in a reduction in the number of agriculture appeals closed and an increase in the time to close them.
In addition, he explained that the Agriculture Appeals Office provides administrative and secretariat support to the Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC) and all appeals officers are also appointed as members of the FAC.
“The number of forestry appeals received in 2020 also increased significantly from 489 appeals in 2019 to 874 appeals in 2020 and had a significant impact on available appeals officer resources and on the administrative section within the appeals office.
“The introduction of new forestry legislation in 2020 resulted in a significant decrease in the number of forestry appeals submitted to the FAC in 2021 and to date in 2022.”
Forestry appeals up to date
He said the forestry appeals are now up to date and this has allowed for additional resources to be made available to agriculture appeals work.
The easing of Covid-19 restrictions in June 2021, which allowed for a return to in-person oral hearings, has also contributed to a reduction in delays in closing agricultural appeals in 2021 when compared to 2020 figures,” he explained.
“I am informed that in 2021 the number of appeals closed was 757 increasing from 358 in 2020. This trend has continued in the first four months of 2022 with 304 appeals closed in comparison to 199 appeals closed in the first four months of 2021.”
The Agriculture Appeals Office has seen an increase in the number of appeals officers assigned to the office since 2020 and the current allocation is 13.