Members of the Stormont Agriculture committee are due to receive a briefing from DAERA officials next Thursday 28 January on the role of the Independent Panel at Stage 2 of the current Review of Decisions process.
It follows on from a statement made by Minister Poots last November when he confirmed that he would not be going against recommendations made by the two-member panel.
Despite that, as revealed in the Irish Farmers Journal dated 9 January, there are seven cases still awaiting a final decision by DAERA, after the panel made a recommendation in favour of the claimant. And as reported in the edition dated 12 December 2020, there are up to 50 cases since 2015 where the Department has not accepted (in full or in part) the recommendations made by this panel.
That information was revealed in a series of freedom of information requests made by Strangford MP Jim Shannon, and he has now written to the Stormont Agriculture committee suggesting that it should undertake an inquiry into the current Review of Decisions process.
In addition, as reported in last week’s edition, local barrister James O’Brien BL and Brian Little, a voluntary adviser to the DUP, have put a document to the committee setting out potential options for a new process.
That would require a change to the law. O’Brien and Little suggest that MLAs could legislate that the decision of the Independent Panel is final, or as an alternative, introduce a Supreme Agricultural Appeals Panel, to adjudicate in cases where a claimant is still not satisfied with the outcome of an appeal.
Either way, the aim is to avoid farmers being left with a costly Judicial Review as their only remaining course of action.
At the Agriculture committee meeting last Thursday, members indicated that they wanted to hear from DAERA officials before deciding how to proceed.
But a number of MLAs expressed frustration at the current process where DAERA officials can effectively ignore the recommendation of the panel at Stage 2 review.
“I think that is grossly wrong and unfair, and we need to look into that. Why have an Independent Panel if you don’t accept the findings of it?” said DUP MLA William Irwin.
“This needs to be addressed. It wouldn’t be beyond our remit to do a mini inquiry – there are options to explore in more detail,” added committee chair, Sinn Fein MLA Declan McAleer.