It is unfair for the State to apply equally stiff penalties to rates of 3% and 20% in land eligibility overclaims, according to Fine Gael MEP Sean Kelly.
He said the Department of Agriculture has room to reassess the proportionality of error rates and is calling for a swift resolution to problems arising from the new satellite mapping system to assess land eligibility for farm payments.
He said the system has causing hardship for farmers. “I have written to [Agriculture Minister Simon] Coveney asking him to take on board my proposals to address the issue,” Mr Kelly said.
“I have met with numerous farmers and farm groups regarding the ongoing problems, and it is impossible to understand how farmers, through no fault of their own, are being hit in the pocket with disproportionate penalties and clawbacks.”
Farmers are facing penalties on payments received as part of their Single Farm Payment and the Disadvantaged Areas Scheme as far back as 2008.
Maps of farmland which the department previously accepted as eligible for farm payments have since been reviewed to conform to satellite images which exclude lands not being used for farming.
Mr Kelly said the department has the option to give an amnesty to farmers targeted for penalties and clawbacks due to errors “through no fault of their own” in their use of maps supplied to them by the department.
The Kerry-based MEP also noted that smaller farmers are paying proportionally larger fines. Their holdings generally contain a higher percentage of hedgerows. Areas with tree canopy coverage are subject to higher clawbacks as a result of the new mapping system.
Mr Kelly is calling for reform of the Agriculture Appeals Office to take it entirely outside of the department structure, with an independent board, following the model of An Bord Pleanála, and ensuring it is sufficiently resourced to speedily process appeals.
“Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done,” Mr Kelly said.
“I believe that this plan is feasible and implementable in the short to medium term and I express confidence in the good judgment and excellent work of Minister Coveney in taking on board my proposals.
“I have also raised these points with European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, who is sympathetic to the concerns raised.”
Last weekend, farmers gathered to protest outside the offices of three West Cork TDs to raise awareness of their financial plight as a result of the retrospective penalties.
The protestors gathered outside the offices of Fine Gael TD Noel Harrington in Bantry; fellow Fine Gael TD Jim Daly in Bandon; and the office of Michael McCarthy of Labour in Dunmanway.
The protests were led by West Cork Community Alliance and the ICSA. During the past year, the IFA and the ICMSA have made a series of approaches to the Department of Agriculture seeking a review of the model which has led to the retrospective penalties currently being imposed.
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