Agriculture Committee lays out key findings of Independent Panel review

Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Committee has passed on the findings of its review of the Independent Panel process to the Minister of Agriculture.

Concerns were raised that only written evidence was admissible and that additional evidence was not allowed to be brought forward at the independent panel stage.

There was also support for suggestions put forward by the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association that applicants should receive mental health support.

However, the verdict remains out on proposals for a ‘Supreme Agricultural Appeals Panel’ put forward by those involved in the Barnwell Farms case, with the committee asking for more information on the viability and any legal implications of the proposal.

The letter signed by committee chairman Declan McAleer read: “The information provided to appellants during the appeals process, including at Independent Panel stage, should be reviewed to ensure it is more accessible, easily understood and has less legal jargon.

“New evidence ought to be admissible at the Independent Panel stage and the evidence in formats other than in written format ought to be admissible.

The decision of the Independent Panel ought to be final and historical cases where this has not happened should be reconsidered.

“There should be more support for the mental health and well-being of appellants throughout the appeals process.

“DAERA should engage with community and voluntary organisations such as Rural Support and health services such as GPs and sign-post appellants to these services, recognising that the appeals process can be very stressful and can have a major impact on mental health.”

What is the Supreme Agricultural Appeal Panel proposal?

The applicant in the Barnwell Farms case argued he was selling the grass from his farm as a standing crop, and therefore, met the definition of an ‘active farmer’ in order to be granted Basic Payment.

The Independent Panel recommendation came out in his favour. However, this was overruled by the department. The applicant then took the case on to a Judicial Review, which again ruled in his favour.

The term ‘SAAP’ has been coined by those supporting the case, who propose setting a £1,500 fee for a legally binding review body to have the final say as an alternative to a Judicial Review.

However, members of the Agriculture Committee had previously suggested that should the decision of the Independent Panel be final, there would be no need for any new panel stage to be established, adding that further stages to the process could add to the stress of the appeal process.