EU fund controls to halt farm cheating

 

THE Department of Agriculture yesterday introduced tight new controls to prevent farmers cheating the system to pick up EU payments under the new Rural Environment Protection Scheme.

It discovered that "a significant number" of plans submitted to it by farmers for payments from the £280 million REPS scheme did not conform to the Department's specifications.

Under the scheme, farmers' submit a five year plan, drawn up by agricultural consultants, under which they agree to farm in an environmentally sensitive way. The Department's control and monitoring system has also revealed other plans which were "designed outside the spirit of, and not in conformity with, the environmental conditions of the scheme".

A Department statement said some applications appeared to have been devised merely to obtain payments under REPS, without the applicants working holdings in the accepted sense of farming.

Officials also found that some farmers had tried to get payments on top of the maximum £5,000 by leasing land in Natural Heritage areas or commonages, without having previously farmed the holding.

The abuses have led to a clampdown by the Department which has decided that, in future, payments to all new applicants will be on the basis of an initial 50 per cent and the remainder at six month intervals.

The Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Mr Jimmy Deenihan, said planning agencies which have submitted faulty plans will he required to reexamine their plans and resubmit them.

Spot checks on new and resubmitted plans would be at an increased rate, and deficiencies in plans prepared from now on could lead to the removal of an agency from the approved list.

The Department said it would not pay the grant for the second year until a planner had certified that a plan conformed to the scheme.

Last night Mr Brian Cowen, the Fianna Fail spokesman on agriculture, accused the Department of doing "a con job on REPS". He said the Minister, Mr Yates, had failed to secure funding for the scheme and the Department was now creating a device to stagger payments to prevent collapse of the scheme.

The Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association said it had no problem with tighter controls but would be insisting that REPS payments be made in one annual bulk sum on joining the scheme.

The Irish Farmers Association also accused the Department of attempting to camouflage the inadequacy of finds by introducing the new regulations. Planners would be responsible to farmers if plans were inadequate.