NI Agriculture Minister: “I’m not sure anybody’s really to blame…”

BBC NI’s rural affairs correspondent, Martin Cassidy, reports on the £60 million repayment sought from the Northern Ireland Executive by the EU Commission for the maladministration, by the NI Department of Agriculture, of the annual individual subsidy claims made by farmers here.

In total Europe provides 300m euros to farmers here annually while the individual subsidy claims are administered locally by the Department of Agriculture.

But when the European Commission sent in its team of auditors, they discovered many of the maps farmers had sent in were not accurate.

In some cases, fields had been built on but the maps which had been submitted showed the areas as prime agricultural land for which farmers were still claiming.

Another problem was that areas which farmers were declaring as grazing land were found to be covered in scrub, bracken and rushes.

But the straw which broke the camel’s back was that in some instances, more than one farmer was claiming subsidies on the same piece of land.

At that point the European inspectors had seen enough and imposed heavy fines amounting to £60m on the Department for three years starting in 2005.

From the BBC NI video reports it’s not clear when those fines were introduced.  The NI Agriculture Minister, Sinn Féin’s Michele Gildernew, refers to a 5% disallowance for 2005 “accumulating” to the £60 million figure mentioned in the report.

There’s also mention of money being put into a fund to pay back that disallowance to the EU Commission.  But the Minister isn’t asked, and doesn’t offer to say, how much is in that fund to off-set the £60 million required.

Apparently, the NI Department of Finance has provided £4.8 million to help the Department of Agriculture improve its administration of the subsidy claims.

But it sounds like the problem has been that there has been little or no assessment made, by the NI Department of Agriculture, of those individual subsidy claims made by farmers to date.