Representatives from NIACA have met senior DARD officials to discuss a range of topics following the 2015 Single Application Process.
The delegation on Monday 8th June included David Rankin, Mary McCormack, Rory Gormley, Philip Christie and Damian McCloskey and they met with senior DARD officials, Pauline Rooney, Jason Foy, Theresa O’ Neill and Herbie Jones.
With DARD receiving 27,173 applications of which 12,732 were submitted online NIACA reaffirmed that its organisation embraced the online system for completing SAFs and congratulated DARD on its improvement from earlier years, but they highlighted several problems that their members had encountered.
A spokesperson for NIACA said their main complaint was that there appeared to be a lack of responsibility within DARD as different sections were doing their own thing without considering the implications on others. They stressed they need a better contact point when things start to go wrong.
The spokesperson added: “NIACA made DARD aware of incidents where receipts were not being issued as in some cases DARD’s IT programmes were not compatible with agent’s computers. On several occasions when agents were sending SAF4s, DARD mailboxes were full and agents were unsure if the information had been received. NIACA is now worried that although SAFs were completed they may not have been properly captured on the DARD system and this may result in severe penalties.
“Regular users of the online system had made the point that they knew when a problem was unfolding as the whole system got slower and then ‘crashed’. NIACA made the point that as the online system is meant to be 24/7 then DARD must have a contact helpline available so the system can be ‘rebooted’ outside their normal working hours.
“NIACA highlighted the on-going problems with LPIS maps not matching the data on the SAF, maps corrected online were not up to date, even after a year. Clients were having their maps amended but still the information was not being transferred on the GIS system which resulted in error messages being generated on field that were correct and in some cases the fields in question actually had inspections carried out on them. There was no correlation with map changes, which NIACA fears could potentially delay farmer’s payments, as the areas have to be validated,” the spokesperson continued.
“In relation to Greening, NIACA were critical of the timing and lack of clarity of information coming from DARD. The 93 page guidance booklet and a training course for agents and indeed for arable farmers was arranged much too late. Greening – crop diversification and EFAs was a big issue for many arable farmers but the practicalities of correctly completing the SAFs was very difficult. Questions were asked as to the amount of information required as agents made DARD aware that in other UK regions there did not seem to be the requirements for as much information in relation to identification of crop differentiation and Ecological Focus areas.
“NIACA had written to the Minister requesting an extension to the deadline of the 15 May and have accepted the reason behind her decision not to change that date. However they were critical that DARD only confirmed after they asked the question on the 10 May (five days before the deadline) that SAF4s and white maps could be treated as an amendment provided a SAF was submitted before the 15 May. This ‘extension’ was very beneficial and allowed many agents additional time to have the SAF4s and white maps submitted, but NIACA felt agents and farmers should have been advised earlier. NIACA questioned DARD if they had not asked would DARD have still accepted the greening requirements after the 15 May.
“The same criticism was given to DARD in relation to the Young Farmers Scheme. Details of what was required only became available after the majority of the Young Farmers courses were over. NIACA are encouraged by the number of Young Farmers applying for the scheme but stress it is more than just a Young Farmer top-up as these young people are now ‘Head of Holding’ and have to take on the responsibilities this involves,” the spokesperson continued.
“NIACA also made the point to DARD that 2015 was a very important year for farmers and their agents in relation to the Single Payment. Everyone involved were doing their utmost to ensure that applications were correct. Given the fact that the SAF forms were delayed in being issued, LPIS maps not being correct even after farmers had identified changes and errors and in the guidance notes. It is however inevitable that there could be some genuine errors and mistakes made. NIACA requested that DARD should take this into account when errors or mistakes are identified and not be applying the full rigorous penalty regime that only should be applied where an error is obvious, and/or there is an attempt to defraud.
“NIACA were able to produce numerous examples at the meeting of errors in the explanatory booklets, contradictory information and simple spelling mistakes. One glaring mistake was in the Notes to help you fill in your 2015 Single Application Form where the deadline was from the 2 June to 9 June 2014! Also in the online version for EFAs confusion resulted in the word ‘met’ and in cases a yes answer meant no and a no meant yes!
“NIACA also produced evidence where DARD have either lost claims, miss typed claims and applied penalties where no penalties were due, yet no one is accountable. Farmers and their agents see this as simply “not fair”
“All present at the meeting agreed that the 2015 SAF period was unique this year and that lessons learnt should ensure that future year’s claims should run more smoothly,” the spokesperson concluded.