Agriculture Minister Andrew Muir has taken money out of various parts of DAERA to allow additional funding for his “top priorities” of addressing climate change and protecting the natural environment in NI.

A total of £2.4m in savings has been signed off by the minister, which have been generated by reductions in over-time, agency costs and not replacing staff across three groups within the Department. Those groups include veterinary service and food, farming and rural affairs, under which sits the likes of the CAFRE colleges.

Of the £2.4m of savings found, around £2m is being prioritised towards actions to address pollution in Lough Neagh, with £1.6m used to fund an additional 28 posts in DAERA’s NI Environment Agency (NIEA).

Outlining the changes to MLAs on the Stormont Agriculture Committee, DAERA finance director Roger Downey said the additional staff will be involved in enhanced communication to farmers around water quality. They will also be involved in “slurry tank construction investigations” and deliver “increasing inspections under the nutrient action programme and cross-compliance”.

Briefing the same committee last Thursday, Minister Muir said it was necessary to do more around regulation and enforcement, with his “clear message” to any business contravening environmental legislation that “there is more chance you’re going to get caught”.

He also confirmed that he has engaged with Justice Minister Naomi Long, with both agreeing to a review of fines and penalties for polluters.

Reverse Poots decision

In addition, he has asked DAERA officials to look at a decision taken by his predecessor Edwin Poots in 2022 to put a cap on repeated negligent breaches of cross-compliance rules.

Previously, a farmer with repeated negligent non-compliance ran the risk of it being treated as intentional, thereby attracting a much higher rate of penalty to their direct farm payments. Under the change made in 2022, this rate of penalty was capped at 15%.

While the decision by Minister Poots attracted much criticism from the environmental lobby, in reality, it impacted a very small number of farmers.

“I don’t feel I can stand over that [decision by Minister Poots] and I’ve asked officials to commence work to reverse that,” Minister Muir told MLAs.

Responding, committee member William Irwin said the system of fines to farm payments means farmers can end up with deductions of tens of thousands for a minor offence.

“Farmers believe they are an easy catch for DAERA,” said Irwin, who pointed out that other industries and polluters must be taken to court by the Department to get a fine and that fine might only amount to £500.

New agency

During last Thursday’s meeting, Minister Muir also made clear his preference to set up an independent environmental protection agency in NI, effectively taking environmental regulation in NI outside of NIEA / DAERA.

“I don’t believe the current arrangements are fit-for-purpose,” he said.