The European Commission has ordered Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to pay back £60m of subsidies that were paid out in error to farmers.
The problems were discovered by European auditors who carried out spot checks on some of the individual subsidy claims and found that many of the maps farmers had sent in were not accurate.
The EU Commission therefore proposed a 5% “disallowance” for each of the years from 2005 to 2008. This amounted to around £60m over the four years.
A DARDNI statement said auditors were concerned about a number of issues relating to whether land was eligible for payment. These included the accuracy of the department’s mapping system and the fact that farmers had not reported changes to fields or ineligible areas – especially where fields were covered with areas of shrub, heather and rush.
They were also concerned about how DARDNI applied penalties and made retrospective recoveries.
“We have challenged the Commission’s findings at every stage of the audit process. We believe that the risk to the [European Commission’s Agriculture] Fund does not warrant any disallowance,” a statement by DARDNI said.
“We accept that our process could be improved, but we also believe that any deficiencies to our process do not justify disallowance.
“Farmers and the department need to work together to overcome the problem. The executive has accepted a proposal from the minister to invest £4.8m this year as a spend-to-save initiative to enable the department to make a start to improving maps.”