€855,000 underpayment of REPS participants revealed

€855,000 underpayment of REPS participants revealed
Located in Northumberland within the North Pennines AONB

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has agreed to pay a REPS farmer €12,500, after he sought the Ombudsman’s help. Following lengthy engagement with the Ombudsman, the department also identified 109 other similar cases, involving an estimated liability of €855,000.

The Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, welcomed the favourable conclusion to this complaint, saying it will benefit all applicants similarly affected.

On foot of another, unrelated complaint, the department agreed with the Ombudsman to review its decision not to allow a 40-year-old female farmer apply for the Young Farmers Capital Investment Scheme.

The Ombudsman clarified with the European Commission that the interpretation of “young farmer” in the scheme included someone who applied before their 41st birthday.

The department reviewed its decision and confirmed that the farmer was eligible. It also agreed to apply the decision to all eligible farmers, from the date the European Commission issued a clarification, on May 25, 2016.

The complaint by a REPS farmer in Co Sligo concerned the termination of a 20-year aid scheme, which commenced in 1998.

According to the Ombudsman: “My office maintained that, when the farmer signed up for the 20-year long-term riparian zone aid scheme in 1998, under REPS 1, which is a five-year Rural Protection Programme, there was no clause in the aid scheme that stated that he would have to renew it every five years.

“We argued that it was a definite stand-alone 20-year scheme. Following lengthy engagement with the department, the department agreed to pay the farmer €12,500 and, at our request, identified 109 other similar cases, involving an estimated liability of €855,000.”

As part of the scheme, the farmer had set aside a strip of land for 20 years to encourage wildlife habitat.

The farmer had invested considerable resources planting trees along the river, and believed he would receive payments for 20 years. He took part in a number of REPS schemes, with different conditions and varying completion dates.

He was unable to enter the final REPS scheme, and took part in a different scheme.

However, the department stopped the 20-year payments, as he was not in a REPS scheme. The Ombudsman upheld the complaint, as the farmer was in full compliance with all scheme conditions, and it was reasonable to believe he would continue to be paid, as the scheme clearly provided for payment for 20 years.

According to the Ombudsman: “In another unrelated case, the department agreed to review its decision not to allow a farmer to apply to the Young Farmers Capital Investment Scheme, under the Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme.

“The department advised the farmer that she was too old to be eligible for this scheme, on the basis that she was over 40.

“My office wrote to the European Ombudsman, who contacted the European Commission, about the correct interpretation of ‘young farmer’. The European Commission confirmed that a ‘young farmer’ is someone who is not more than 40 years of age at the moment of submitting an application, and that the application has to be submitted, at the latest, on the day before the 41st birthday.

“The department said that the clarification applied to Measure 6 only, and that payments are not made under Measure 6 in Ireland.

“I pointed out that the same definition applied to all Measures, and that the farmer was adversely affected by the decision to exclude her from applying.”

The Ombudsman’s office examines complaints from people who feel they have been unfairly treated by a public service provider.

It can examine complaints against most organisations that deliver public services.

These include government departments, local authorities, the HSE, nursing homes, and publicly funded third level education bodies.

In 2019, the Ombudsman’s office dealt with 3,664 complaints about service providers. Of these, 1,186 complaints related to government departments and offices, including 806 relating to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, 106 to the Revenue Commissioners, and 84 to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

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