The Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister, Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew, and the Chairman of the Assembly Agriculture Committee, the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jnr, teamed up today on the Stormont Live sofa to defend farmers – an aging and confused group, apparently – and to criticise media coverage of the £60 million fines imposed by the EU Commission for the department’s mal-administration of EU farming subsidies.
Although, they weren’t entirely on the same page…
What they did agree on was that the £60 million is a penalty imposed by the EU Commission. It’s not the amount over-claimed by farmers.
According to the Minister the amount over-claimed was just under £2 million.
And since 2005 the department has been building a fund to pay the penalty fines imposed, and that fund now amounts to £11 million.
But whereas the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jnr seems to think that the fines will be taken out of the funds allocated to the NI Agriculture Department by the EU Commission [at source?], the Agriculture Minister was emphasising her belief that it would be drawn from the “central government pot”.
One other point to note is that the £4.8 million the Agriculture Minister secured from the Finance Minister is to be spent on improving the mapping system used in assessing future claims.
Inaccurate maps, apparently, are one of the few things to be blamed for the mal-administration by the department.
But, as Mark Devenport pointed out yesterday, we’ve been here before…
Seamus pointed out that some of the over payments are being blamed by the authorities on poor mapping of land, and that the Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew had said nobody was to blame. But he reminded me that way back in 2001 the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee investigated allegations of fraud in farm payments.
Their report contained the following paragraph (and this is where Yogi Berra’s malapropism came to mind) “we were astounded to hear that maps as old as 1938 and 1963 were still being used by the Department and that this contributed to the ridiculous outcome that grants were being claimed on the basis of land at Clement Wilson Park, Barnett’s Demesne (including car park area), Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon Park and Dunmurry Golf Club and included large areas of recreational land, a wildlife reserve and rosebeds. It is equally surprising that staff in the Lisburn Office handling these claims did not recognise their fraudulent nature. We welcome the assurances by the Accounting Officer that they are moving very quickly towards a much more sophisticated mapping system and that site inspections are now undertaken of all new land registered by farmers.”
Good we sorted out those mapping problems so promptly.