IFA Farm Forestry Chairman, Michael Fleming has said there is no requirement on the Forest Service to pursue the recoupment of payments from farmers as part of cross-compliance.
The reductions in area following digitisation did not need to be applied retrospectively as farmers had adhered to the conditions of the Afforestation Scheme and the forest area had been determined using best available information, which was recognised by the Forest Service. The policy to recoup over-payments, spanning up to 20 years of forest premium in some instances, has caused untold stress for many farm families at an already very difficult financial time.
Michael Fleming said, “IFA has written to Minister Tom Hayes to express frustration that the debt management policy has continued unabated despite it being brought to his attention nearly three years ago. The legitimacy of the policy is questionable when you consider that the Forest Service wrote to farmers in 2008, following the introduction of the new digital mapping system IFORIS, stating that the discrepancy in area was the result a ‘genuine error which came to light as a result of more advanced mapping technologies’. The letter accepted that ‘there was no deliberate attempt to over claim’ and therefore they would not seek to recoup any overpayment made in previous years.”
At a recent meeting with Michael Niejahr, Head of Unit, Agricultural Law, DG Agriculture and Rural Development to get clarification on Ireland’s requirements in relation to cross-compliance, he stated that there was no requirement to administer a penalty if the irregularity was deemed not to be intentional. While, if the irregularity was deemed intentional it may lead to administrative penalties with a limitation period of four years from the time when the irregularity was committed.
He also stated that there was no requirement by the EU to recover payments on forests established since 2007, as the Forestry Programme has been fully funded by the Exchequer. The administrative checks, measures and penalties are governed by national law.
Mr. Fleming said that it is nearly five years since the Forest Service changed its debt management policy and started to recoup over-payments made to farmers in previous years, which appears to be at variance with community law. He said that farmers are very annoyed and believe they have been treated unfairly by the Forest Service. He called on the Minister to address the inequity of the debt management policy and repay the monies taken from farmers.