A New York resident who has been involved in a lengthy wrangle with DAERA over Single Farm Payments has said he is considering taking the Department to court because he feels he has been ‘robbed.’
Michael Lambe (67) visits Co Armagh every year to stay for weeks at a time on the Silverbridge farm which was left to him by his uncle in 1988.
He first applied for the Single Farm Payment in February 2006 for 14.37ha on the Lurgan Road farm.
Mr Lambe received a number of payments from the Department from 2005-2009 and continued to seek SFP’s until 2015 when, by way of the reform of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) at this time, he did not satisfy the definition of an ‘active farmer.’
The amounts from 2005-2009 were then subsequently recovered from him in full by the Department in 2010. Mr Lambe says this was done without former warning as a result of an ‘on-farm inspection’ of a neighbouring farm, said to be ‘linked’ to Mr Lambe’s farm business by way of an LFACA agreement, which Mr Lambe states never existed.
He was told the inspection revealed land which was illegible for receipt of SFP as there were ‘differences between the claimed and the eligible areas’ resulting in overpayments in his applications between 2005 to 2009.
Documents sent to DAERA by Mr Lambe’s legal representative on May 8th, state that the inspection and subsequent recovery of his 2005-2009 payments received was unlawful.
The document states that at no time did Mr Lambe have any LFACA agreement, no permission was given for DAERA staff to enter his property to inspect the land and neither Mr Lambe nor his agent authorised any control report. In fact to date Mr Lambe, nor his agent, have not ever been in receipt of any control report.
In September 2012 Gerry Lavery responded to Mr Lambe affirming that a false claim for LFACA was recognised and would require investigation. The document submitted to DAERA states that at present the matter remains unresolved and the Department does not appear to have initiated any investigation.
Further applications were submitted, however in August 2013 DAERA formally declared that Mr Lambe did not satisfy the Department’s definition of a ‘farmer’ and had received overpayments with his 2010 and 2011 SFP amounts, totalling £1179.29 which they requested repayment of. Mr Lambe wrote to DAERA pointing out that he had not received any monies from DAERA for SFP in 2010 and 2011 and thus would not be obligated to pay any sum of money.
In August 2013 Mr Lambe submitted an ‘application for review’ seeking a review of the Department’s decision to confiscate his entitlements in respect of the years 2010, 2011 and 2012.
On 23 August 2013 DAERA again wrote to Mr Lambe to inform him they would be confiscating his 2011 SFP Standard Entitlements for failing to claim for two years. He said this was incorrect as he did make SFP for both of these years but did not receive any monies from the department in respect of these applications.
On 26 September 2013 DAERA wrote to Mr Lambe confirming that he had not received SFP in 2010 and 2011 and the request for repayment was also incorrect.
In May 2014 Mr Lambe’s ‘Single Farm Payment Scheme Review of Decisions’ procedure was concluded as being unsuccessful. The case report stated that he did not meet the definition of a farmer for the scheme years 2010, 2011 and 2012 and considered his SFP to be invalid for these years. The department, in the case report, concluded that Mr Lambe had been overpaid in 2010 and 2011. Additionally, as these payments were invalid, Mr Lambe had not, therefore, claimed entitlements for two consecutive years, allowing the Department, as they believed, to confiscate Mr Lambe’s entitlements.
The document from Mr Lambe’s legal representative states that the determination of the Department’s ‘Review of Decisions Procedure’ was, at each stage of the review/appeal process, concluded by the ‘Head of the Paying Agency’. After much investigation Mr Lambe discovered the decision-maker to be the Permanent Secretary of DAERA, Mr Gerry Lavery, with whom he had had much correspondence in relation to his case.
Mr Lambe immediately informed the Minister at the time, Michelle O’Neill, that there was, in his view, a material ‘ conflict of interest’ in the review/appeal process.
“Irrespective of her assurances that it ‘would not be a problem’, the ‘conflict of interest’ existed and continued to exist,” the document from Mr Lambe’s barrister states.
In June and July 2014 DAERA continued to demand payment of the sum of £1179.29 plus a fluctuating interest between each of the letters.
Mr Lambe continued to submit SFP applications in 2013 and 2014. In 2015 he ceased to satisfy the definition of an active farmer and so ceased any further applications.
Speaking about his case Mr Lambe said he was ‘determined to do what is right here.’
A native of New York, his father was born on the farm he now owns and which is involved in this case.
He added: “My mother was a first generation Irish American. My father first brought me to Ireland, to the ‘home place’, in 1961. Since then I visited most summers and helped my uncle who owned the farm. I very much enjoyed my uncle, the farm, the neighbours and the rural way of life.
“My uncle died in 1988 and I inherited the family farm here in Armagh. Most years I would spend several weeks or months depending on my schedule. I have always maintained it to the highest standard while letting most acres out on conacre.”
Mr Lambe said he was ‘aghast’ when DARD/DAERA accused him of falsifying SFP submissions.
He added: “I am taking a case against DAERA for at least three reasons. What they did was wrong and required a response and I have the resources to do so.
“Second, I believe DAERA should be helping farmers and landowners not harassing and punishing them. Third, I know from others that DAERA has committed similar unjust actions against other farmers but the other farmers dare not officially complain because they are financially dependent on DAERA payments.”
Mr Lambe said that in his view what DAERA has done was ‘outright robbery.’
“I have met some local department people in the area and they are very knowledgeable and helpful and in my opinion that is the way department should be. They should be out to help farmers and landowners but there is a big difference between those in the field and those in the headquarters,” he added.
Mr Lambe said the department had fallen foul in recent years of fines meted out by the EU and he said it was ‘very reasonable to think that they would want to recoup some of the money.’
“Many farmers have been affected like I have but they don’t want to say anything. Subsidies are a big part of their income and they don’t want to upset that. Many are affected as well and have been silent about it,” he added.
Mr Lambe said he will be meeting his barrister over the next few days to decide on the next course of action in his attempt get a resolution to the case.
DAERA was asked for a response in relation to Mr Lambe.
A DAERA spokesperson said: “We cannot comment on individual cases.”