The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) has said it will challenge through judicial review the department's decision to move from a two-stage review of Common Agricultural Policy decisions to a single-stage process.

New procedures for Northern Irish farmers applying for a ‘review of decisions‘ under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will come into force from April 1, 2018.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) announced that a new internal review system based up at Orchard House would replace the current two-step process.

The previous review system – which had been criticised for being too slow – involved a two-stage process where an independent panel discussed all applications.

'No faith in a single-stage process'

UFU president Barclay Bell said: “We have been critical of DAERA’s decision, and rightly so. Farmers share our concerns.

"We don’t have any faith in a single stage-review. The loss of the independent panel makes it unlikely that farmers will get a fair hearing."

The department has said the new procedure will speed up the review process.

However, “Quicker does not mean fairer," Bell added. "The abolition of the right to an independent appeal essentially gives DAERA absolute control."

'A slap in the face'

The UFU, along with eight other organisations, responded to DAERA’s ‘Review of Decisions’ consultation last year. All eight are understood to have opposed the move to a single-stage process.

"We can add this to the ever-growing list of autocratic decisions by DAERA officials,” he said.

I can’t remember the last time I heard of a farmer winning a first stage appeal. It's an approach that stacks the deck in favour of DAERA. Farmers can kiss goodbye to fairness, transparency, and independence.

The UFU believes that, in some cases, the sums involved will be substantial and could be make or break for farming families.

“These are just numbers on a page to DAERA officials - but for farmers it is their livelihood that is on the line," Bell added.

"Scrapping the right to independent appeal is a slap in the face for fair play and public accountability."