Ulster Unionist Leader Robin Swann has expressed his anger after it was revealed that 88% of all the Stage 2 BPS reviews requested in 2015 and 2016 are still ongoing.
Mr Swann said this highlighted that the review process was simply ‘not fit for purpose’.
Mr Swann said: “Information that my office uncovered this week has revealed that 353 of the 401 Stage 2 reviews requested across 2015 and 2016 are still ongoing. Specifically, of the 318 stage 2 reviews from 2015, 274 are still ongoing and 79 are still ongoing out of the 83 applications for a review received in 2016.
“It’s clear that the current review process is not fit for purpose. The Department tries to claim that the procedure provides applicants with a fair and transparent assessment of Basic Payment decisions. Yet by making so many local farm businesses wait for so long it’s clear that this is not the case. Instead, farmers are being expected to sit back and wait whilst the Department moves at their own snail-pace.
“To have so many farmers – 274 – waiting for a decision on a review of their 2015 payment is outrageous. I understand that many of these reviews relate to the definition of an active farmer, something which in my experience as a North Antrim MLA has not been applied sensibly or fairly. It’s ridiculous that just at the time when we are trying so hard to attract younger people into farming, the Department is acting so stubbornly and has been doing so for such long periods of time.
“Many of the farmers caught up in the review delays will be angry – and justifiably so. Given that the Basic Payments could represent a significant proportion of the annual income of many of the individuals involved, delays in making decisions on the level of payments is simply unacceptable.
“The whole point of the two stage procedure is to give applicants a chance to query whether a correct decision was made in respect of their area based scheme application. Whilst the picture is much better for Stage 1 reviews, with 75 claims still ongoing out of 1,924 received over the last two years, it’s clear the process isn’t working.
“The Stage 2 review is a review by an External Panel, who make a recommendation, with the final decision resting with DAERA. Why DAERA then have to approve the decision – and all-too-often they go against the recommendation of the panel – has never been made clear to me. It’s a classic example of duplication of services and unnecessary bureaucracy.
“This week’s new figures also would suggest that the so-called fast-tracking system for stage 2 reviews, in which farmers are promised a quicker decision but denied the opportunity to present their cases in person to the panel, is simply not working.
“I understand some of these decisions may be difficult but the Department should have a moral - as well as statutory - duty to make them efficiently. It’s just not good enough that so many farmers are caught up in the review process with no end in sight.”