The Ulster Farmers’ Union says it is ‘outraged’ by reports the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) is planning to scrap its two-stage appeal process in favour of single-stage review.
It has branded the move ‘tyrannical’ and says it highlights DAERA’s ‘disregard and disdain’ for farmers and their businesses.
In response a Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) spokesperson said the Department ‘utterly rejects the unfounded and inaccurate allegations’ made by the UFU.
In a statement this week, the UFU said that, along with eight other organisations, it responded to DAERA’s ‘Review of Decisions’ consultation last August. All opposed the move to a single stage process. Despite this opposition from industry, the UFU said it understands senior officials decided in September 2017 to push ahead with its plan.
“The DAERA Board’s decision was taken immediately after the consultation closed. That begs the question, whether it even considered the responses,” said UFU president, Barclay Bell. He accused DAERA of mounting a paper exercise with its mind already made up about the way ahead.
“Without a minister to keep officials in check, DAERA has become a law unto its own. We can add this to the ever-growing list of autocratic decisions by DAERA officials.”
The UFU says it has no faith in a single-stage review process, questioning how farmers can be sure they are getting a fair hearing, with the loss of an independent review.
Barclay Bell added: “I can’t remember the last time I heard of a farmer winning a first stage appeal. It’s an approach that stacks the deck in favour of DAERA. Farmers can kiss goodbye to fairness, transparency, and independence. This is a disgraceful decision by officials now free of political oversight.”
As to any claim by DAERA that this will speed up the review process and help clear the backlog of cases the UFU says quicker does not mean fairer.
Barclay Bell concluded: “In some cases, the sums involved will be substantial and could be make or break for a farming family. They are just numbers on a page to DAERA officials, but for farmers it is their livelihood that is on the line. Scrapping the right to independent appeal gives DAERA absolute control. It is a slap in the face for farmers and for any sense of fair play and public accountability. I would strongly urge DAERA officials to think again over a decision rooted in arrogance and the lack of any political oversight.”
Responding a DAERA spokesperson said: “The Department utterly rejects the unfounded and inaccurate allegations made by the UFU.
“The Review of Decisions is an important process and the current approach has been subject to much criticism, not least from the Ulster Farmers’ Union. In response to these criticisms, the then Minister, Michelle McIlveen MLA, commissioned a review of the Department’s Review of Decisions procedure. To help the Department develop proposals for a fast, efficient, transparent and accurate process, DAERA undertook an informal pre-consultation exercise with key industry stakeholders (i.e. UFU, NIAPA, ACANI). Therefore, the UFU helped shape the proposals which the Department subsequently published in a consultation paper in June 2017. This paper included the proposal for an entirely new, single stage process to replace the current two stage provision, where the second stage can be slow, cumbersome and makes no material difference to the vast majority of appeals entering the Review of Decision Process.
“The new process will offer greatly improved engagement with individual farmers about the details of their case, will keep them much more informed of progress and they will receive a clearer explanation of the decisions that have been reached. It will result in faster decisions, whilst maintaining fair, impartial and transparent consideration of the applicant’s grounds for review.
“The Department carefully considered all comments received during the consultation and amended the proposals to take consultee views into account. For example, in response to the views of consultees, including the UFU, the new process will allow farmers up to 60 days to submit an application rather than the current 42 days. The new Single Stage Review of Decisions process will be introduced on 1 April 2018, whilst all applications received prior to this will be processed under the existing two stage process.
“The Department remains committed to ensuring that farm businesses receive the payments to which they are entitled under EU Legislation and Area-based Schemes, and to providing applicants with an opportunity to have decisions reviewed under a fast, transparent and accurate process.”