DPP drops action against false ewe premium claims
By Philip Clarke
NORTHERN Ireland sheep farmers who claimed ewe premium on animals they did not have are to escape prosecution.
Farm minister Brid Rodgers said producers cannot be charged because legislation covers only the provision of false information at the time of the submission of a claim. "It does not address the more likely eventuality of a shortfall of sheep after the claim has been submitted," she said.
The cases emerged last July when 17 of many farmers who had livestock culled due to foot-and-mouth were found not to have any sheep, despite having made claims for ewe premium.
Twelve cases were referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions, (DPP), who determined that seven of them should be charged.
But one farmer appealed on the grounds that he had not provided false or misleading information at the time of the claim. This was the first time a challenge had been mounted on these grounds and the DPP decided not to contest the appeal. After further consideration, all the other cases were dropped.
The farmers involved are still likely to lose their subsidy payments under the normal scheme rules. But they will not be subject to further punishment. The situation has prompted the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to tighten the legislation governing ewe premium for next year.
A new scheme, which opens for claims next Tuesday (Dec 4), makes it a legal requirement for farmers to give notice of any material change to the basis of his or her claim within 10 days. "I am determined that farmers who claim subsidies to which they are not entitled should be amenable to prosecution," said Mrs Rodgers.
The Ulster Farmers Union agreed the law should be reviewed, so long as farmers were not persecuted by an over-zealous reaction. "The farming industry must not get a bad name because of this incident," said president Douglas Rowe.
"The vast majority of farmers are working within the law to try and make an honest living."
Another 89 claimants out of 206 caught up in the F&M cull last spring were found to have fewer sheep than claimed for. About half of these have now had their subsidies cut, while 36 are still under review.
• Northern Ireland has launched a major consultation on proposals for a new scrapie plan. The aim is to reduce levels of the disease, and eventually eradicate it, by genetic testing and selective breeding. *