Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) president Victor Chestnutt has welcomed confirmation from DAERA that Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots will be making the final decision on appeals taken by farmers relating to area-based schemes.
With DAERA officials working on a new appeals process expected to go for public consultation this spring, and to be made into law by the end of this year, the announcement that Minister Poots is taking control of the process is effectively an interim arrangement.
It means that for all cases heard by an independent panel at stage two of the current review process, the recommendation made by this panel will now go to the minister for final approval.
“This is a positive step that has been taken by the DAERA Minister in the interim period. The UFU policy position has always been that the second stage independent panel decision should be final,” said Chestnutt.
To date, the independent panel only makes a recommendation to the department, which it can decide to ignore.
Where that has happened, it has proven to be a very frustrating outcome for farmers.
Last November, Minister Poots told MLAs at Stormont that he would not be going against the view of the independent panel at stage two.
“I recently requested that the independent panel be given decision-making powers in reviews.
“Until that legislation is in place, I have decided that, as minister, I will take the final decision in reviews heard by the independent panel,” said the minister.
While it is a significant change of approach, it is actually normal practice elsewhere (for example, England and Wales) that ministers sign off on appeals made by farmers.
It was also the situation in NI up to 2012. However, back then, the department decided that the appeal would go back to the head of the paying agency in DAERA (deputy secretary level) for a final decision, not a minister.