Northern Ireland gets some £300 million per year in CAP subsidy payments, but now the Executive (regional government) will be fined (or disallowed) £60 million for what seems to be a list of serious errors. The BBC has reported that claims were awarded where farmers were claiming for land that was built on (as agricultural land), ditches, and even different farmers claiming for the same piece of land.
The farmers submit claims to the Department of Agriculture, which are backed up with documentation including maps of the areas in question, and then on this basis the CAP money is given to the Department to be distributed amongst the farmers. The Agriculture minister (and my MP) Michelle Gildernew considers, it seems, that no one is really to blame. Since at least 2005 these faulty claims were being put through and these findings are obviously serious: how far did the department check up on how up-to-date the information it was provided with was? It may be hard to assign blame in many circumstances - some cases could be genuine mistakes - but farmers and the department should know about the differing values and qualities of land, and they especially should have the common sense to be able to ascertain whether or not land has been built on. From the minister's tone it doesn't seem as if she's open and willing to learn from past mistakes; hopefully she will have to anyway: after all, the department cannot risk fines in this economic climate, for it's the department and not the farmers directly who will bear the burden.
The department seems to be saying that it will push for a reduction in the fine, but last night we were treated to a very rare scene of a Commission Official explaining on local news that the fines cannot be altered by political pressure. The irregularities were discovered by Commission Officials who came in to check up on the NI situation. I wonder how seriously this will damage the Executive's voice in Europe. NI is far more rural than the rest of the UK, and has a big interest in the continuing of the CAP and seeing its interests represented in any reforms. Naturally, as a region, it's not likely that it would play a big role in discussions, but the example may provide more ammunition for those advocating more radical reforms and reductions in subsidies.
The EU has provided money to NI in the past in support of the peace process, and naturally enough the packages have decreased in size over time. It will be harder in the future for NI politicians to get a sympathetic hearing in Brussels.