Some farmers were not being routinely informed of their right to legal counsel, when being investigated by the Department of Agriculture’s special investigation unit (SIU), according to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
The unit was set up in the mid-1980s to provide specialist inspectors within the Department of Agriculture to investigate and deal with serious practices and problems in the use of illegal substances such as hormones and angel dust. Its scope was subsequently extended to include legislation relating to the TB and brucellosis eradication schemes, animal identification, and other animal health and welfare legislation. Its remit was also extended to investigations into potential fraud with regard to national and EU funds.
It was replaced by a new investigations division set up by the department last July.
In its recommendations to Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, the Oireachtas Committee has called for the new investigations division to draw up a charter outlining the rights of anyone under investigation, and to present this charter at the onset of any investigation.
The committee stressed the importance of the principle of “innocent until proven otherwise” and said it has serious concerns about the alleged heavy-handed approach previously adopted in some cases.
The committee said an independent inquiry should be conducted into the operations of the old SIU and, in particular, into the court cases dismissed. The committee expressed concern at department staff who participated in investigations in the old SIU being involved in the new division.
Other recommendations to Minister Coveney included that the investigations division have no authority to determine direct payments; gardaí be notified in cases of threats to department officials; court cases be initiated only when necessary, and a common sense approach be taken to minimise the time spent in court; and that department officials about whom complaints are made be deemed innocent of wrongdoing until proven otherwise.
When department officials recently briefed the committee on the role of the new investigations division, they revealed that over 20 remaining cases are still in the court system, of the 66 cases officials brought for prosecution in the past five years. So far, 44 cases were disposed of in the courts – a success rate of 90%, according to officials.
Officials said about 140 cases a year are investigated – of which very few involve difficulties. Many investigations do not go beyond a warning for somebody who has inadvertently done something wrong.
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