Newspaper for Crossmaglen, South Armagh, Newry and Down.

DAERA threatened with legal action over farm subsidies

A New Yorker has accused the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) of “outright robbery” over subsidy payments relating to his farm in Silverbridge and says he is considering legal action against the authority.

Michael Lambe (67) lives in New York but spends several weeks every year at his farm on the Lurgan Road, which was left to him by his uncle almost 30 years ago.

Since 2010 he has been involved in a lengthy dispute with DAERA over Single Farm Payments (SFPs), which he believes he was entitled to claim for his land.

Mr Lambe had previously received a number of SFPs from 2005 to 2009 – and had applied but had not received any payment up to 2015 when he was told he did not satisfy the definition of an “active farmer” under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform. 

In 2010, after a no-warning ‘on-farm inspection’ of a neighbouring farm – alleged to be ‘linked’ to Mr Lambe’s farm business by way of an LFACA (Less Favoured Area Compensatory Allowance) agreement – the Department deemed Mr Lambe ineligible for receipt of SFPs and subsequently recovered in full the payments made between 2005 and 2009.  Disputing the move, Mr Lambe claimed no LFACA agreement existed between the properties and documents sent to DAERA by his solicitor confirmed this, while also stating that no permission was given for DAERA staff to enter his property to inspect the land and neither he nor his agent authorized, or have ever received, any control report.

To add insult to injury, Mr Lambe later received a request from DAERA for repayment of more than £1,100 which, it stated, were overpayments of SFPs in 2010 and 2011 – despite the fact that he did not receive any SFPs during that time.

In August 2013 Mr Lambe sought a review of the Department’s decision to confiscate his entitlements in respect of the years 2010, 2011 and 2012.

The following month he received written confirmation from DAERA that he indeed had not received SFP in 2010 and 2011 and its request for repayment was incorrect.

However in May 2014 Mr Lambe’s ‘Single Farm Payment Scheme Review of Decisions’ procedure was concluded as being unsuccessful. The case report stated that he did not meet the definition of a farmer for the scheme years 2010, 2011 and 2012 and considered his SFP to be invalid for these years. The department, in the case report, concluded that Mr Lambe had been overpaid in 2010 and 2011. Additionally, as these payments were invalid, Mr Lambe had not, therefore, claimed entitlements for two consecutive years, allowing the Department, as they believed, to confiscate his entitlements to the subsidy payments. 

At each stage of the review process, decisions were determined by the ‘Head of the Paying Agency’, who, after much investigation, was discovered to be the Permanent Secretary of DAERA, Mr Gerry Lavery, with whom Mr Lambe had had much correspondence in relation to his case.   Mr Lambe says he immediately informed the Minister at the time, Michelle O’Neill, that in his opinion, there was a material conflict of interest in the review process.

Since 2015 Mr Lambe has not applied for SFPs as he ceased to satisfy the definition of an active farmer.

Speaking about his case Mr Lambe said he is “determined to do what is right” regarding the farm his father was born on.

“My father first brought me to Ireland, to the ‘home place’, in 1961. Since then I visited most summers and helped my uncle who owned the farm. I very much enjoyed my uncle, the farm, the neighbours and the rural way of life.

“My uncle died in 1988 and I inherited the family farm. Most years I would spend several weeks or months depending on my schedule. I have always maintained it to the highest standard while letting most acres out on conacre,” he said.

Mr Lambe said he was ‘aghast’ when DARD/DAERA accused him of falsifying SFP submissions.

 “I am taking a case against DAERA for at least three reasons. What they did was wrong and required a response and I have the resources to do so.  Second, I believe DAERA should be helping farmers and landowners not harassing and punishing them.  Third, I know from others that DAERA has committed similar unjust actions against other farmers but the other farmers dare not officially complain because they are financially dependent on DAERA payments,” adding he believes what the Department has done is “outright robbery”.

Mr Lambe said the department had fallen foul in recent years of fines meted out by the EU and he said it was “very reasonable to think that they would want to recoup some of the money”.

“Many farmers have been affected like I have but they don’t want to say anything. Subsidies are a big part of their income and they don’t want to upset that. Many are affected as well and have been silent about it,” he said.

Mr Lambe revealed he is seeking legal advice from his barrister before deciding his next course of action to find a resolution to the case.