As reported in last week’s edition dated 17 September 2022, the number of farm penalties, handed out by DAERA in 2021 as a result of cross-compliance checks, was significantly higher than anything seen in recent years.

It simply cannot be the case that farmers have suddenly become less compliant with legislative requirements. Instead, the figures suggest these rules were rigorously enforced in 2021, potentially to a greater extent than ever before.

While there probably won’t be any evidence forthcoming of a conscious clampdown by Minister Poots’ Department, we have to be aware of the increasing attention given to environmental and animal welfare issues by politicians and wider media. That focus seems to have weighed heavily on the minds of DAERA inspectors in 2021.

It is also important to point out that inspections tend to be targeted at repeat offenders, and in some cases are prompted by complaints from neighbours, so the penalty rate does not reflect the wider farming community.

But at the same time we also hear about farmers being unfairly treated, especially by inspectors from DAERA veterinary service, with penalties applied for minor issues that could instead have been easily resolved by a follow-up inspection. A 3% penalty on a £20,000 payment is £600 – anyone getting that level of fine in a local court would have conducted a fairly serious offence.

Looking ahead, we have the promise of new Farm Sustainability Standards as part of an overhaul of farm policy, potentially starting in 2024.

DAERA has acknowledged that the current system can lead to penalties that are not proportional, and committed to simplify the system, as well as focus on repeat offenders and where significant harm has been done (eg to the environment).

Good enforcement starts with knowledge and education, not going straight in with penalties. Unfortunately, the current regime has created fear in the farming community, and alienated DAERA from people it is meant to serve.

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