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.

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  • Casual Observer

    “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.”

    And yet one wonders how, in a Department where allegedly there is one civil servant for every farm in Northern Ireland?

  • Ulick

    The scaming farmers who stole the money in the first place should be made to pay back every penny.

  • Pete Baker

    Ulick

    But responsibility for the administration of the subsidy lies with the NI Department of Agriculture.

  • Drumlin Rock

    A department that has more staff than there are farmers to administer.
    The first thing the minister needs to make sure is that those farmers who followed the rules to the letter or made genuine minor mistakes are not made to pay for the departments mistakes, the second thing is any farmers who knowingly submitted a grossly dishonest claim should be brought to book and stripped of any further subsidy. Going by previous reports of invisible sheep etc. I get the sneaky suspicion a disproportionate number of such claims will be traced to south Armagh, making the chance of the minister ordering a proper investigation quite remote.

  • Ulick

    Pete, its fraud pure and simple and has been rampant on both sides of the border for years, at least it was when I worked in GIS in the late 90s. The farmers make the claims and the department dishes out the cash, just like the dole, only you can be sure unemployment benefit fraud would be prosecuted at every opportunity.

  • Dev

    The cost of recovering this money will run into millions and the story now explains why several farmer friends have been plagued with officials, for instance under one scheme ‘countryside management’ maps had to be submitted by the farmer, these were cross checked via satellite, and three farm visits. Obviously checks need to be made, but then came the checks for a different scheme, more visits and more maps but this time not satellite as that was another office (inside the same department), the official maps were out of date and my friend offered to make photocopies of the revised maps but the civil servant said it was not possible and assessed things with old maps!

  • Pete Baker

    In which case the Department has responsibility to recover that money from those farmers involved.

    Which is not what the Department, or the Minister, is doing.

  • Casual Observer

    This Minister has been rather lucky in terms of some of the major gaffes made by her Department over the years. I think – in fact, no, I know – there will be one or two others coming up in the next few months, again allied to EU money, that I trust our comrades in the press will pick up and report on fully.

  • Cynic

    So will she resign or be fired….nope

  • Cynic

    and we the voters are powerless to deal with this gormless incompetence that has cost all of us who work about £120 each

  • txomin

    Another show of the incompetency of this woman who previously had farmers queueing for days cause she was offering first-come-first-served type grants to farmers…

    And she says: “I’m not sure anybody’s really to blame…” Ridiculous, it´s time to ask this banana republic type minister to resign !!

  • Drumlin Rock

    There should be a targeting of the biggest offenders, ie. look at the top 20% of claims, and if any of them are more than 20% questionable investigate those farmers, what more likely is the department will come down heavy on a small number of farmers who make genuine mistakes.

  • Cynic

    I truly sometimes find Slugger amazing. One of the roles of the blogosphere is to expose and hold to account. Yet here we will spend days debating issues of flags and the rights and wrongs of Gaga but ignore the monstrous carbuncle of inefficiency under our noses. Why?

  • Cushy Glenn

    …because we’re fed a stream of lies from a media so hooked in to the process that we can’t get at the truth!
    This story ought to have been a bomb thrown into the great hall at Stormont, but already the hacks are moving on
    Look at the quality of investigative journalism in NI
    the beeb’s biggest scoop in years was about dogfighting!
    But noone’s gonna look too closely at the Stormont farce because they’re desperate not to bring it down

    whatever happened to “let right be done though the heavens fall?”

  • sdlp Man

    This story is a major one and I smell the stench of a cover up on many levels. That Michelle Gildernew could say in a wink-wink sleeveenish sort of way that “I’m not sure anyone’s to blame” is absolutely breath-taking. It’s her way of saying “Sure, we’re opposed to the EU anyway, ripping them off, as with the UK Exchequer, or the Delors money, is a patriotic act anyway. Work away lads”.

    Anybody remember a few years back that unspeakable clown Barry McElduff berating EU Director General Carlo Trojan for not knowing and understanding Irish?

    This sordid, corrupt little place has all the hallmarks of Louisiana or Mississippi in the 1920s and 1930s. Yes, a kind of democracy all right, but an awful lot of people in high places with no integrity. And, as Diarmaid Ferriter’s brilliant programme on RTE showed last night, a “republican” (and their mirror image) obsession with flags, emblems, oaths and other symbolism.

  • Rules of play for visiting EC auditors

    1 Assign one of your best members of staff to them 24/7
    2 Remember they’ve already analysed the tapes and picked their sample
    3 Give them everything they ask for and more, you cannot be too helpful
    4 Ask for immediate notification of any problems whatsoever
    5Give them further helpful documentation, you cannot be too helpful, recurring
    6 Go into elaborate detail on the claims for the window boxes
    7If necessary offer up the front garden claims
    8 Absolute last throw, incendiary devices in the claims department

    but what have we got? £60m worth of repayments! Remember, bureaucats, you’re playing for the UK. You’re in competition with the rest of europe including Italy for Chrissake. Where’s your professional pride if not patriotism. Shoddy work . Very shoddy. Very,very shoddy.

  • Neil

    Not good enough, when we’re in a position of stripping money from the budget 60m would go a very long way. It tends to be the case that when someone says ‘I’m not sure anyone’s really to blame’ what they mean is ‘I’ve fucked up big time’. Also for legitimate farmers time’s aren’t great, one would hope as DR says above that small farms don’t end up paying the price for this.

  • gets worse by the day.

    Just checking but who was Agri minister in ’05 btw?

  • That would be Bríd Rodgers from the SDLP as I remember. Touted as the “best Minister” in the last Executive.

  • Drumlin Rock

    actually Brid was in charge 2000-2002, then it returned to direct rule until May 2007 when Michelle took over.

  • Frustrated Democrat

    It is obvious that various people were responsible for this farmers, civil servants and politicians.

    An inquiry is needed that allocates blame; where farmers are responsible for deliberately defrauding the department they should be prosecuted, civil servants fired for incompetence and politicians sacked for lack of leadership.

    It is time to start protecting tax payers from this sort of activity, not brushing it under the proverbial carpet.

  • The Raven

    And all before anyone even looks at the Rural Development Fund.

  • sdlp Man

    Unbelievable interview on Radio Ulster just now with a Clarke Black (?) of the Ulster Farmers Union. All the meal-mouthed excuses, forms are complicated, farmers are confused, etc, etc. Aye right.

    It’s like something out of an old episode of ‘Yes Minister’ and Sir Humphrey’s dictum that government departments become advocates for the entities they are supposed to police. For example, Department of Defence for arms manufacturers, Department of Transport for British Airways, etc.

    It’s clear that the farmers lobby are in cahoots with DARD on this one and hoping that they can hunker down together and it will all blow over.

    Let’s be clear, this is a massive case of maladministration: the Minister should be fired, the bureaucrats responsible dismissed, and if they are retired their pensions stopped and the farmers who made the more egregious fraudulent statements prosecuted and made to pay the money back plus their share of the fine.

    This is in part a consequence of the overwhelming view of the people of ‘Norn Irn’, as exemplified by its three anti-EU
    MEPs, that the EU is one big milch cow to be milked for everything.

    The days of the begging bowl mentality and that everyone else in the world owes us a living are, thankfully, coming to an end. But, it’s going to be painful over the next few years, not least to the ordinary hard-working taxpayers as the real miscreants get away scot-free.

    Just watch the DUP Sinn Fein coalition over the next year desperately pushing back all the bad news past the May 2011 Assembly deadline and just wait for the tsunami of spending cuts after 2011. Sure, it’ll do me my day.

  • Agree.

  • Pigeon Toes

    “civil servants fired for incompetence”

    Aye that will happen, and you are pissing in the wind if you think 1. that an inquiry will happen 2. that such an inquiry if id did happen would apportion blame…

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/8523008.stm
    “It is “incredibly difficult” to sack civil servants even if they are grossly incompetent or no longer required, a Stormont minister has claimed”

  • Mark McGregor

    Rooker and Cairns were in charge for the bulk of the period audited.

  • Drumlins Rock

    To be fair the system is overly complicated and confusing, but as usual DARD administration makes it more complicated, often treating genuine simple mistakes as virtually criminal, whilst at the same time “overlooking” much more blatant abuses.
    Currently the system seems to treat the genuine mistakes exactly the same as deliberate frauds, and is interpreting the guidelines to the maximum extent, I just wonder is the same level of scrutiny applied in France, Italy and Greece?

  • Cynic

    Funny how the farmers are all all confused so they over claim and never under claim. Strange isn’t it.

    And Michelle says she hasn’t a clue if anyone is to blame. Well, £60m has gone and she bloody well should know. So do they go or does she?

  • union mack

    yet another ridiculous waste of money due to incompetence and corruption. No wonder she’s popular with the agricultural community. And our toothless press won’t give it much more than a passing interest, afraid of rocking the boat. This is the kind of interrogation we need:

  • ranger1640

    Pete Baker why not make a Freedom of Information Act request. To find out where and by how much the clams were over paid?

    And which fields were paid for several times???

  • Mrazik

    How many of these DARD “officials” are farmers?

  • medillen

    This has been a catchy rumour that is totally bogus there are just sort of 3000 employees (soon to be less no doubt) of the Dept of Agriculture there are 48,000 registered farmers in the north of Ireland.

  • medillen

    Nice to see the Fergal McKinney fan club coming out from under their rocks.

  • Mark McGregor

    I’m still at a loss how failings mostly during the watch of Direct Rule and the staff/systems Gildernew inherited are all her fault.

    Well, beyond people that don’t like SF blaming a shinner for a problem caused, maintained and inherited from two Brits.

  • sdlp Man

    The UFU has form in this area. I seem to recollect that a few years ago they lobbied successfully to prevent details of EU grant monies paid to individual farmers being revealed (“would identify wealthy farmers who would be a prey to criminals, don’t you know”). It’s a nice little racket they have going between them and a bit of sunshine or transparency is the best disinfectant.

  • medillen

    Italian were falsly claiming for olive groves that covered half the country, France is facing billions of disallowance (fines) and Greece, dont ask. This was a Europe wide audit. But because mostly innocent farmers were not hammered enough, Europe is imposing massive fines. I am told by DARD staff that the amount of money paid out and that is in dispute by the EU is a few 100 thousand yet the fine is £60 million. A bit over the top or what. This wouldn’t be to help pay for the EU bail out of Greece by any chance.

  • Michael

    I don’t think it was successfully supressed, i seem to remember looking up how much Campbell Tweed got in subsidies (A brass eye name if there ever was one)

    As well as having fun with an 80k a year in grants figure a co-workers father claimed. Up till then he always fed me the line
    “We are asset rich, cash poor Michael, asset rich, cash poor” whilst putting on an beal bocht.

  • sdlp Man

    Mark McGregor

    I don’t think anyone is saying it’s all Gildernew’s fault. But she has to shoulder her fair share of blame and she has been in place since 2007. What some people may find strange is her remark that she didn’t think anyone was to blame. Did it not cross her mind that it was just as likely that, er, fraud may have been involved and that, as someone has already pointed out, that over-claiming is much more common than under-claiming when it comes to farmers?

    Let’s see how the coming months pan out. I have a feeling that DARD and other departments will be in the news over such irregularities again.

    Oh, and I expect (not) that the Sinn Fein chair of the Public Accounts Committee will be asking for an early investigation of this whole matter.

  • jim

    was there not a nice little racket going in south armagh n helicopters a few yrs back the same horse running into the same fence n killing itself 2r3 times.some vet got nicked never heard no more about it was yer woman rodgers fron d/gall not a british minister then.

  • jim

    whats beal bocht when yer at home

  • Michael

    Forgive the copy/paste Jim, but this explains it better than I could

    “The Irish expression “to put on the poor mouth,” (“an béal bocht a chur ort” in Irish) is mildly pejorative and refers to the practice, often associated with peasant farmers, of exaggerating the direness of one’s situation, particularly financially, in order to evoke sympathy, charity and perhaps the forbearance of creditors and landlords or generosity of customers. ”

    An old phrase popularised by Flann’s novel
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_B%C3%A9al_Bocht

    Not that my workmate would have used that turn of phrase, he was good scots presbyterian stock.

  • Freya

    So she’s only been Minister since 2007 and exactly what systems has she put in place since then to deal with this? You can inherit a problem and that isn’t your fault but to ignore it for 3 more years clearly is.

  • jim

    wat yer sayin is never luk a gift horse in the mouth

  • medillen

    Most welcome, as they will examine all the money paid to the UDA, £1 million I think by the DSD, after Margaret Ritchies supposed defiant stand.

  • Are you talking about a punitive fine, Medillen?

  • UFU is one of organisations representing farmers. Which are the other ones?

  • mediilen

    Last year I think DARD recouped £600,000 from farmers ( according to an Assembly question) who had got money that they shouldn’t have due to errors in their maps. The EU is saying you should have been more strict and taken much more and for that they are proposing to fine the Deppartment £60 million for that. A tad harsh.

  • meagain

    Let’s face it, our Executive is wholly composed of political cowards. They are so terrified of people understanding the economic reality before the next Assembly elections that they will do anything to ensure the electorate doesn’t grasp the economic reality. Latest example is the £60 million agriculultural clawback. Other balatant examples include deferring water charges; failing to figure out what to do with the MAZE/ National Stadium; deferring Treasury cuts; doing nothing about waste from RPA. God, what a bunch of wasters we are paying to ru(i)n the country.

  • The Raven

    Oh hold on – off topic I know, but is it tomorrow or NEXT Friday that the councils are coming back to tell Edwin they don’t have £100m handy….?

  • £100m now and still not sorted. Our very own gusher

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/10581260.stm