Ulster Unionist MLA Robin Swann has revealed that the Northern Ireland Executive was forced to pay the European Commission a total of £19m last year due to failures of the Department of Agriculture to administer EU schemes.
Robin Swann, Chair of the Stormont Public Accounts Committee and who also sits on the Agriculture Committee, said: “In response to an Assembly Question I tabled to the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister I was shocked to learn that last year the Northern Ireland Executive was charged with a disallowance of £19m by the European Commission. In reality that means the Executive was fined for deficiencies in its controls for the administration and payment of EU funded schemes.
“By far the biggest scheme affected will have been the issuing of Basic Payments, better known in the past as the Single Farm Payment. The Department is regularly monitored to ensure that it administrates this scheme, which last year had a value of €326million to our farmers, in the correct and efficient manner as requested by the European Commission.
“Unfortunately however, the revelation that there was a £19m charge made to the Executive in 2015/16 confirms that major mistakes were made and that public services in Northern Ireland have been undoubtedly affected by this fine as it was paid from general expenditure. Those shocked probably the most by this fine will be farmers themselves given that they have had to endure the Department’s interpretation of the scheme rules on the frontline.
“Maybe if the Department had properly understood the rules of the Common Agricultural Policy they wouldn’t have burdened our farmers with such a botched and disorderly implementation, and importantly saved the Northern Ireland public purse this £19m.”
In response Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen said: “Disallowance is a matter which I take very seriously. It is extremely regrettable that we have to set aside funds for this which could be better spent elsewhere. However, the Common Agricultural Policy is a particularly complex system to administer and the European Commission audits are carried out in forensic detail. All member states face disallowance charges from the Commission and Northern Ireland is no different.
“The £19 million referred to by Mr Swann relates to financial provisions made by the department in its accounts to cover disallowance which may, or may not, be imposed by the Commission in future years
“My Department has worked hard to reduce this bill. As Mr Swann has recognised, this has fallen significantly in recent years. Lessons have, very clearly, been learned.
“I will continue to prioritise reductions in disallowance until we can realise the benefits of BREXIT by deciding ourselves how to administer agricultural subsidies without the threat of disallowance from the Commission.”
A DAERA spokesperson added: “The amount of disallowance for any given year is determined by the European Commission. The Commission can take several years to complete its assessment. The latest year for which we have a finalised disallowance figure for Northern Ireland is 2012. Figures for 2013 onwards are therefore provisional.
“Nonetheless, for accounting reasons the department must make financial provision in the current year for the disallowance we expect will be determined by the Commission. This provision is based on our calculation of the ‘risk to the fund. This calculation is based on Commission guidance and methodology.”