Almost 90% of the North's stage two Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) reviews are still ongoing, shocking figures have revealed.
The findings, uncovered by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), showed 88% of all the stage two BPS reviews requested in 2015 and 2016 are still ongoing.
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said the situation regarding the BPS reviews was "outrageous".
He said: “Information that my office uncovered has revealed that 353 of the 401 stage two reviews requested across 2015 and 2016 are still ongoing."
Swann stated that of the 318 BPS stage two reviews from 2015, 274 are still ongoing and 79 are still ongoing out of the 83 applications for a review received in 2016.
He added: “It’s clear that the current review process is not fit for purpose. The department tries to claim that the procedure provides applicants with a fair and transparent assessment of basic payment decisions.
"Yet by making so many local farm businesses wait for so long, it’s clear that this is not the case.
Instead, farmers are being expected to sit back and wait whilst the department moves at their own snail pace.
“To have so many farmers - 274 - waiting for a decision on a review of their 2015 payment is outrageous.
"I understand that many of these reviews relate to the definition of an active farmer, something which in my experience as a north Antrim MLA has not been applied sensibly or fairly.
'It's clear the process isn't working'
"It’s ridiculous that just at the time when we are trying so hard to attract younger people into farming, the department is acting so stubbornly and has been doing so for such long periods of time.
“Many of the farmers caught up in the review delays will be angry - and justifiably so. Given that the BPS could represent a significant proportion of the annual income of many of the individuals involved, delays in making decisions on the level of payments is simply unacceptable.
The whole point of the two-stage procedure is to give applicants a chance to query whether a correct decision was made in respect of their area based scheme application.
"Whilst the picture is much better for stage one reviews - with 75 claims still ongoing out of 1,924 received over the last two years - it’s clear the process isn’t working.
“The stage two review is a review by an external panel, who make a recommendation, with the final decision resting with DAERA.
Why DAERA then have to approve the decision – and all too often they go against the recommendation of the panel – has never been made clear to me. It’s a classic example of duplication of services and unnecessary bureaucracy.
“These figures also would suggest that the so-called fast-tracking system for stage two reviews, in which farmers are promised a quicker decision but denied the opportunity to present their cases in person to the panel, is simply not working.
"I understand some of these decisions may be difficult but the department should have a moral - as well as statutory - duty to make them efficiently."
A Department of Agriculture (DAERA) spokesman said it was in the process of implementing a new "fast-track" service, but added that uptake had been slow.
He said: "The previous DAERA Minister recognised that the current two-stage review of decisions process was slow and prolonged the uncertainty for farmers. The department has consulted on a streamlined replacement process for 2017 scheme reviews; the outcome of which will be known shortly.
"In the meantime, for those who were already within the existing two-stage review of decisions process, an option to switch to a fast track alternative has been provided.
"To date, only 50% of farmers who have applied for a stage two review have taken up the offer to move to the faster process. Additional staff resource has been secured to take forward this fast track process and these staff are currently undergoing training in this complicated area of work.
It is expected the majority of the 2015 fast-track cases will be completed early in the New Year.
It comes as the department announces that 94% of farmers in Northern Ireland received an advance Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payment in October 2017.
The payments, totalling £182.7 million (€207.87 million), were issued to almost 22,500 farm businesses, an increase of 1,382 on the number of 2016 payments.
Advance payments can only be made on fully verified claims and the department successfully obtained permission from the European Commission to make advance payments at 70% of claim value rather than 50%.
Balance payments, or full payments for those unable to receive an advance payment, will be made from December 1, 2017.