The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) will challenge, through a judicial review, DAERA’s decision to move from a two-stage review of CAP decisions to a single stage process.
UFU president Barclay Bell said: “We have been critical of DAERA’s decision, and rightly so. Farmers share our concerns. We don’t have any faith in a single stage-review. The loss of the independent panel makes it unlikely that farmers will get a fair hearing.”
The UFU say DAERA has justified the decision by saying the process will become faster. However that has not eased the concerns expressed by the union.
“Quicker does not mean fairer. The abolition of the right to an independent appeal essentially gives DAERA absolute control,” said the union president.
The UFU, along with eight other organisations, responded to DAERA’s ‘Review of Decisions’ consultation last year. All opposed the move to a single stage process. Mr Bell claimed that without a minister to keep officials in check, DAERA has become a law unto its self.
“We can add this to the ever-growing list of autocratic decisions by DAERA officials,” he added.
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.
“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,” said Mr Bell.
The UFU believes that in some cases, the sums involved will be substantial and could be make or break for farming families.
“These 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 is a slap in the face for fair play and public accountability,” concluded the union president.
Responding to the union’s concerns, a DAERA spokesman said: “The Review of Decisions is an important process and the old approach had been subject to much criticism, not least from the Ulster Farmers’ Union. In response to these criticisms, the then Minister, Michelle McIlveen, 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, including 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 offers greatly improved engagement with individual farmers about the details of their case, keeps 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 allows farmers up to 60 days to submit an application rather than the previous 42 days.
“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.”