“may be penalised for allegedly being too generous or lenient in the administration of EU finances.”

According to the Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister, Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew, she “will fight this on all possible fronts.” This being the European Commission Audit’s disallowance of £28.5million in EU subsidies paid out to Northern Irish farmers during the period 2004-2006. Back to the Minister – “The next step in line with Commission protocol is to take our case to the Conciliation Body and that is what we will do.” If that proves unproductive, as the Irish News report puts it [subs req], “Farmers may be forced to pay back thousands of pounds in subsidies because Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (Dard) officials were too lenient when dealing with claims.” That’s assuming an Agriculture Minister was prepared to face down the farming lobby.. Anyone have any idea how long it would take to exhaust all avenues of appeal?It’s also worth noting the Minister’s statement more fully

The Minister said: “DARD has always taken steps to ensure that all possible aid gets to the farmer and those in the front line in the industry. I and my colleagues in the department are extremely disappointed that effectively the North may be penalised for allegedly being too generous or lenient in the administration of EU finances.”

“If I stand accused of being sympathetic to the farmer I plead guilty. But what I do not want to see is money being disallowed to the North and its farming community. I will fight this on all possible fronts. The next step in line with Commission protocol is to take our case to the Conciliation Body and that is what we will do.”

“I am staggered by the disallowance proposed. We knew that the Commission Auditors were not completely satisfied with certain aspects of the department’s mapping system. During their visit in 2006, they were critical of farmers for not reporting changes to fields and, in particular, that DARD had not been advised of changes to or the presence of ineligible features such as buildings, laneways, trees or scrub. They also criticised our inspectors for accepting land as eligible, when in their view it was not.”

She continued “Once again, I urge farmers to ensure that their maps are correct and to advise us of any changes to their fields. This is vitally important if we are going to be able to convince the Commission that we have a mapping system that reflects the true situation of our fields.”

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  • The Raven

    I see this as no different to any other EU grant. If over-payment has been made, then clawback comes into effect.

    I trust this will not affect the new Rural Development Programme, which is there for the benefit of all rural dwellers – and not just the farming community.

    Actually, having dealt with DARD over many years, I find it hard to believe that anyone could accuse them of being “generous” or “lenient”.

    Can I just add, that this seems to be Michelle’s first departmental f**k-up, and that in general, she has (wo)manly beaten down what was routinely renowned as being the most jobs-worthy department of the lot.

  • AFAIK there is not usually a clawback from the farmers themselves. The government (i.e. DARD) is responsible and takes the hit. The hit is an extrapolation based on a sample of farms. The only way they could pass the full correction on to farmers would be to do a complete audit of each farmer – virtually impossible.

    The actual clawback will be done as an accounting thing, and will probably leave a hole in the funding received for some other programme, but cannot affect the payments that innocent parties are entitled to.

  • The Raven

    Apologies Horseman, I should have made that clear. However, it’s been a while since I was involved directly in this line of work, so don’t be surprised if the rules have changed somewhat.

    Especially if there is a letter of offer or contract in place with the parties directly receiving grant.

  • Rapunsel

    Can’t see that any grant overpayment is Michelle Gildernew’s responsibility as the period referred in 2004-2006 which was a period of direct rule. What her responsibility is to ensure that DARD learms from previous mistakes and implements procedures and systems to ensure it doesn’t happen again. I agree that govt takes the hit unless each case is examined and over/underpayments identified in respect of each farmer’s application and payment.

  • Jer

    Agree with the point that this is hardly Michelle G’s fault as she was not on the job at the time.

    Horseman, you mention that the hit will have to be levelled against DARD and may leave a funding hole in a particular area.
    One way that such a hit might take place is by increasing the rate of modulation on farmer’s payments.
    I would hope thats not the case as the current level of modulation is quite high in order to fund the Rural development Programme.

    Here is a question though. While the period of payment is 2004-2006 the actual reference period for payments is production during 2000-2002. The issue seems to be land that was not productive being included for the purposes of increasing the no. of hectares that receive payment. So we are actually looking at the period 2000-2002 when the average subsidies were determined and when the productive land was assessed and even earlier to that.