13 October 2000
Farming couple win 40,000 payback

By Philip Clarke

MAFF must pay back over 40,000 in set-aside money and area aid that it denied a Yorkshire farming couple in 1996.

The ministry has been told by the European Court of Justice that its actions were unlawful.

The case arose when Trevor and Penny Fisher took possession of two farms at Wawne, near Hull, which had previously been rented out to a third party who had subsequently gone bust.

At the time, neither the former tenant nor his receiver were able to provide the Fishers with information on the previous years cropping which was needed to establish land eligible for set-aside.

MAFF also refused to pass on this information, citing the Data Protection Act.

By this time (November 1995), the Fishers were well advanced with their cropping. They submitted their IACS form in May 1996.

But in November of that year, they were told by MAFF that two blocks of land were not eligible for set-aside because of their previous cropping history. Compensation worth 31,507 was denied.

Area aid worth 8760 was also disallowed on industrial oilseed rape grown on the same land.

The Fishers took their case to the High Court, arguing that the error was MAFFs fault for refusing to provide a field data printout.

MAFF countered that it could not release this data because it would be a breach of confidentiality to the former tenant.

The High Court referred the case to Luxembourg.

In its ruling, published this week, the European Court of Justice said MAFF had overstepped the mark in its use of the Data Protection Act.

An applicant for (area) aid has an essential and legitimate interest in being able to procure the information necessary to make a proper application … and to avoid the imposition of penalties, it said.

MAFF should have disclosed the data.

Having refused to do so, it should not have then imposed penalties, said the Court.

Legal representatives for the Fishers have expressed their satisfaction at the outcome, but have criticised MAFF for its intransigence.

Barrister Hugh Mercer suggested MAFF had been blinkered, sticking to a rigid interpretation of one law, without regard for the wider principles of general EU legislation.

It would have no choice but to pay the Fishers their money, plus any costs and interest, he said.

A MAFF spokeswoman said the disallowed aid would be repaid, and the wording on the IACS form would be changed to ensure information on previous years cropping could be passed on in future.