THE announcement that the Department of Agriculture – and not farmers – will have to repay €67.6m in penalties to the EU will not stop a legal challenge in respect of ineligible land payments, according to a spokesperson for the Disadvantage Farmers’ Legal Challenge Group.
Fine Gael TD, Noel Harrington, had welcomed the announcement, saying: ‘There has been a lot of fear among farmers that they would have to contribute a significant amount to this, but the Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, has confirmed that the penalty will be covered by a Supplementary Estimate that will increase the Department of Agriculture’s expenditure for 2015.’
But Margaret Peters, who is the secretary of the Disadvantaged Farmers’ Legal Challenge Group, told The Southern Star: ‘The announcement leads us to believe that the whole problem of arbitrary and unjust cuts and penalties to the Single Farm Payment scheme has been solved – it has not.’
According to Mrs Peters, ‘thousands of farming families were fined and penalised – through no fault of their own – but rather because of a flawed, subjective system.
‘Most of the fines and penalties,’ she said, ‘were targeted at family farms in disadvantaged areas, some with modest single farm payments.’
She said: ‘many of these families have been put through extreme financial stress and psychological trauma as a result of this system.’
Since 2013, Mrs Peters said the Disadvantaged Farmers’ Legal Challenge Group has been pleading with the minister to reverse the cuts to the Single Farm Payment. Each EU member state was obliged to identify land parcels owned by farmers – a portion of which would have been deemed ineligible – and the €67.6m penalty relates to errors that were made with regard to establishing what was eligible and what was not.
Mrs Peters claimed that million of euros had already been collected from farmers under the Single Farm Payment before Ireland was penalised by the EU and she said the Disadvantaged Farmers’ Legal Challenge Group ‘is adamant that the penalties already imposed, and the unjust removal of hectares from their basic payment application, will have to be repaid.
‘The department has made it quite clear that these cuts and penalties are not going to be reversed, or paid back,’ said Mrs Peters, who vowed to proceed with the legal challenge ‘in order to bring justice to all farmers who have been unfairly and arbitrarily penalised.’
Mrs Peters said the Disadvantaged Farmers’ Legal Challenge Group has collected €100,000 from more than 1,000 farmers throughout the country and are preparing to bring a test case before the High Court in 2016.