Irwin presses DARD on review panel verdicts

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Chairman of Stormont’s Agriculture Committee William Irwin MLA has pressed DARD officials on the issue of stage two cross compliance appeals.

During Tuesday’s committee meeting Mr Irwin MLA questioned officials on the number of independent appeal panel verdicts that had not resulted in DARD’s original decision being changed.

Mr Irwin said it was concerning that farmers who had paid a fee to take an appeal to the independent panel and had been successful, had not then seen DARD move to reverse their “original and wrong” decision.

He stated: “This is a concerning issue given that farmers pay a fee of £100 in order to take a second stage review of a cross compliance decision to an independent appeal. They do this to receive what is essentially a fresh assessment of their case and a verdict completely independent of DARD. What then should occur after a successful appeal is DARD accept that verdict and reverse their original and wrong decision, however that is not always the case.

“The fact that in the three years from 2012 to 2014 where 207 successful appeals were heard, in 25 of these cases, the verdict of the independent panel has not been acknowledged by DARD, and that is something that I felt DARD officials must fully explain to the committee.”

Mr Irwin continued: “Cross Compliance penalties can result in a significant loss of Basic Farm Payment for a farmer and when an appeal is taken forward by a farmer and is successful, DARD should move to make a payment based on the independent panel verdict. DARD officials in response to my questioning admitted in the meeting they do get initial decisions wrong and this is certainly borne out by the appeal statistics. On that basis there is certainly a case for officials to redouble efforts to avoid making wrong decisions in the first place.

“At the committee meeting I stressed to officials that in the case of those 25 farmers who have seen a positive appeal panel decision rejected by DARD, this then sends out a concerning and conflicting signal which must be addressed if farmers are to have confidence in the appeals system.”

Meanwhile, Mr Irwin has tabled a motion to the Assembly on the current crisis in Agriculture.

Commenting after the debate which urged the DARD Minister to make Basic Farm Payments in October and also made the case for a rise in intervention for dairy, Mr Irwin said the crisis in the industry needed a response from all stakeholders.

“There was some politicking on this issue in terms of our party position on the current crisis engulfing our devolved institutions, however my party has made it perfectly clear that on key issues the DUP will debate in the chamber but it is certainly not business as usual,” he said.

“Given the seriousness of the situation facing our agriculture industry this was a case where the debate was needed, hence why Edwin Poots MLA and I represented the DUP in the chamber.

“Agriculture continues to be under a great deal of strain and with the EU Commission moving to permit the early issuing of Basic Farm Payments, I used this opportunity to press the minister to ready her department for making earlier payments. Cash flow is a huge issue for our farmers and any assistance such as early access to BFP will be a benefit in what are very financially challenging times.

“In my contribution I also stressed the importance of the banking institutions showing some leniency with farmers given what is at stake and the fact that farmers have invested a lot of time, money and effort into their land and the farm operations and many of the problems facing farmers are outside of their direct control.

“Intervention for dairy remains and important issue and one which requires an on going lobby at the highest levels both in Westminster and in Europe. It is vital that the level of intervention is raised to a level which would at least make a positive impact on prices and provide a more realistic return for our dairy farmers, who like many other sectors are producing at a loss.”

He added: “The fight continues in terms of getting our industry back on a firm footing and there remains a real need for finding new markets for our world class products and a need to return agriculture to a sustainable position. All levels of government have a role to play in that process.”