People ‘in fear over farm check tactics’

Businesses have been “devastated” and family life upset by the controversial tactics of Agriculture Department inspectors, the Dáil’s financial watchdog has heard.

The chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee, John McGuinness demanded detailed responses from the department over allegations that inspectors had “pushed around” a pregnant woman, damaged a car, and approached an intellectually challenged son of a person they were investigating.

Mr McGuinness said some people were so in “fear” of the inspectors they were afraid to tell the PAC about what they had gone through.

Agriculture Department secretary general Aidan O’Driscoll insisted inspectors were not “out of control” and did not act on their own and would not indulge in grudges against farmers, as he said much of the criticism heard by the PAC was not true.

Mr McGuinness said it was wrong of the secretary general to make that claim without rebutting the allegations point by point.

The PAC chairperson said he doubted “those cases would all be coming in here telling porkies.” Mr O’Driscoll said he would now draw up a detailed response to the allegations made against inspectors.

“There is no unit of the Agriculture Department that is out of control or operates on its own,” Mr O’Driscoll told the PAC.

TDs expressed concern at the alleged “heavy handedness” of operations by the department’s now disbanded Special Investigations Unit.

Mr O’Driscoll said inspectors could not “go after people” because they did not take the decision whether to prosecute or not.

The secretary general was also questioned about a notorious video of 4,000 pigs on a Co Waterford farm being slaughtered in 2002 which provoked concern over animal welfare. The secretary general said that department officials had only been present for a quarter of the slaughter and had been satisfied the farmer concerned was able to carry out the cull in a humane way.

Mr O’Driscoll said the department would not repeat such an incident and would ensure officials were there for the whole of the cull, or that a professional slaughterer would be brought in to carry it out. He said a department official had taken a lump hammer from the farmer to try and stop it being used on pigs.

Mr O’Driscoll said inspectors did not have “special powers”, and could not arrest people like the gardaí can. The secretary general said inspectors were especially concerned with the public health implications of illegal movement of animals and the use of banned feeding substances.

Mr O’Driscoll said “scandalous” things had been said about some inspectors as he insisted that they did an “outstanding” job, though he admitted the investigations unit had made “mistakes”.

However, the official said the fact that 90% of prosecutions ended in convictions proved the system was working.

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