Taxpayer bill for land eligibility justified

Children’s toys found on farms were part of the evidence on which the European Commission based their move in 2014 to fine Ireland €181 million for five years of ineligible land payment claims.

Commission officials, who carried out a series of audits in Ireland from 2009 onwards, said the toys showed that some land for which payments were claimed was garden land rather than farmland.

On three farms, inspectors from the commission found more scrub adjacent to a hedge than the Department had allowed for. 

Findings such as these, for a sample of inspected land parcels, were extrapolated nationally, to arrive at the commission’s €181m fine, or “disallowance”.

However, the Department of Agriculture in Dublin contested the commission’s findings, and, in July 2015, settled with the Commission for a disallowance of €64.1m, for the 2008-2012 period.

The department’s negotiations were strengthened by the results of its review of more than 900,000 land parcels using new, higher resolution imagery from satellites and planes.

It showed that there had been some over-claiming of payments in respect of 180,000 land parcels, or only 19% of the total in Ireland.

As a result, land payments to farmers deemed to have claimed for ineligible parcels were cut permanently from 2013 onwards, by a total of €12.5m per year.

Nearly €4m of overpayments was clawed back from farmers, but the Government made a policy decision to pay the bulk of the disallowance from the Exchequer.

Details of the multi-million euro ineligible land deal were revealed last week in the Oireachtas Committee of Public Accounts, where Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine Secretary General Aidan O’Driscoll defended the policy decision, which cost the Exchequer and taxpayers €67.6m. 

He explained that because the commission extrapolated findings from a small sample of inspected farms, it would have been difficult to “pin” the disallowance on individual farmers.

However, he estimated that up to €16.4 million could have “pinned” on individual farmers.

But only €4m was recouped.

He said the department also decided against the option of a flat rate cut across all farmers’ land payments, saying “it would have been quite difficult in Irish law to sustain the idea that a flat rate cut be made across all farmer payments”.

From 2008 to 2016, EU disallowances incurred by Ireland amounted to 0.79% of agricultural expenditure.

This compared with an average of 2.74% for all member states.

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