NI told to pay for £60m European farming subsidy errors

By Martin Cassidy
BBC NI rural affairs correspondent

Image caption,
Some areas declared for grazing were covered in scrub, bracken and rushes

The Executive needs every penny it can get its hands on at the minute, but now Europe is demanding £60m back for payments made in error to farmers in Northern Ireland.

The problems were discovered by European auditors who were sent to Northern Ireland to carry out spot checks on some of the individual subsidy claims made by farmers.

Farmers gets an annual subsidy cheque based on the area of land they are working.

Annual claims are submitted to the Department of Agriculture and are supported by maps showing the farmer's fields and the crops which are grown.

In total Europe provides 300m euros to farmers here annually while the individual subsidy claims are administered locally by the Department of Agriculture.

But when the European Commission sent in its team of auditors, they discovered many of the maps farmers had sent in were not accurate.

In some cases, fields had been built on but the maps which had been submitted showed the areas as prime agricultural land for which farmers were still claiming.

Image caption,
Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew said no-one was really to blame

Another problem was that areas which farmers were declaring as grazing land were found to be covered in scrub, bracken and rushes.

But the straw which broke the camel's back was that in some instances, more than one farmer was claiming subsidies on the same piece of land.

At that point the European inspectors had seen enough and imposed heavy fines amounting to £60m on the Department for three years starting in 2005.

But finding someone to take responsibility is like finding a needle in a haystack.

Further fines

Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew says no-one is really to blame and that her Department is trying hard to get the fines reduced.

"The commission feels that at times the Department was too lenient," she said.

"There have been times when farmers have maybe inadvertently claimed for land they thought was eligible but wasn't."

But the Executive may have even more to worry about.

While the Department of Finance is providing £4.8m to help the Department of Agriculture improve its processes, there is the fear that further fines may already be in the pipeline.

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