An independent panel tasked with dealing with a farmer appeal of a DAERA decision should be fully independent of the Department and have the necessary understanding of the law and of agriculture, MLAs on the Stormont Agriculture Committee were told last Thursday.
The committee is currently finalising a mini inquiry into the issue, after Minister Poots told his DAERA officials that he would not be going against the views of the panel at stage two of an appeal. A DAERA consultation on a new process and amended law is expected later this spring.
The panel should consist of a legal person who understands agricultural law, a practical person with a knowledge of the different schemes, as well as a person qualified in mental health
Giving evidence last week, representatives from the Agricultural Consultants’ Association (ACA - NI) and NI Agricultural Producers’ Association (NIAPA) were clear that the independent panel decision should be final.
“We want their views totally adhered to – whatever they say would be binding,” said Jim Carmichael from NIAPA.
“The panel should consist of a legal person who understands agricultural law, a practical person with a knowledge of the different schemes, as well as a person qualified in mental health,” suggested David Rankin from the ACA.
We think additional information should be allowed prior to the stage two independent panel
Rankin was critical of the current appeal process, which he claimed lacked transparency, and sometimes leaves farmers with the impression that DAERA case officers are more interested in protecting each other than producing a fair result.
He also highlighted a flaw in the current process whereby farmers can only provide additional evidence to an independent panel at Stage 2 in exceptional circumstances.
“We think additional information should be allowed prior to the stage two independent panel, but restricted to at least two weeks prior to the Panel meeting,” said Rankin.
During the evidence session some MLAs questioned the need for a Supreme Agricultural Appeal Panel (SAAP) proposed by James O’Brien and Brian Little at the committee meeting of 11 February 2021.
“I really don’t see the need for a SAAP – I need to be convinced,” said mid Ulster MLA Patsy McGlone.
“There is a lesser need for a SAAP if we could get the proper grounding for an independent panel at stage two,” responded Carmichael, although both he and Rankin pointed out that it is up to lawmakers (such as MLAs) to come up with appropriate text in legislation.
Many farmers could not afford the cost [of a judicial review], and are too scared if they win, they will receive further cross compliance inspections
However, ultimately any new appeal process can still be challenged in law, and the reason that O’Brien BL and Little have proposed the SAAP (at a cost of £1,500 to the applicant) is to avoid a £100k+ Judicial Review as being the last remaining course of action.
“Many farmers could not afford the cost [of a judicial review], and are too scared if they win, they will receive further cross compliance inspections. At that stage many just bite their lip and say: ‘forget it, the Department has won’,” said Rankin.
The other potential role for a SAAP is to look at historic cases where the independent panel recommended in favour of a farmer, only for this recommendation to be rejected by DAERA. Rankin told the committee he had referred a couple of potential cases to the UFU.