Department of Agriculture SIU (Special Investigations Unit) 9.12.14

Investigations Division: Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Continued)

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine DebateFirst Page Previous Page Page

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Deputy Tom BarryInformation on Tom Barry Zoom on Tom Barry I welcome the witnesses. I am pleased to have this discussion on the functions of the new investigations division. As with the other Deputies here, my concern relates to governance. It is no bad thing to have a concern over governance, because the new division has a chance to right this now.

Most of the cases I have heard about relate to farmers who come to me because they are dissatisfied with the way they were treated in an inspection. They have a list of complaints on issues in respect of which they believe they could have been dealt with better. It is important that we put a good deal of time and effort into ensuring that inspections are fair, seen to be fair and carried out in an open manner. This applies in general and not only to the investigations division.

One thing hangs over the heads of farmers. The coming of an inspector should not be feared, particularly if a normal farmer is trying to get on with his job and, hopefully, is doing it correctly. However, there is the threat of withholding of the single farm payment, and at this stage the single farm payment represents the farmer’s total profit. It is simply not fair. There are no two ways of putting it. We all know the power the inspector has, but the inspector should respect that power.

I am seeing it from the farmer’s side and it is worth listening to that. It would be interesting to know the legal bill of the former special investigations unit. What was the success rate of the unit? I am keen to see the metrics. I came across a case involving a piggery one year ago. It involved not only the Department but an environmental agency as well. At the end of the day the case was lost. The only protection afforded to the person was the courts. We are failing if we have to run something right through to the courts and it takes a judge to decide that he is not happy and that common sense has not prevailed. There is an onus on everyone to get this right. What the investigations division is doing must be done – no one doubts that – but it must be done properly.

Some of the personnel involved with whom I have spoken are overburdened. They are trying to get through reviews and so on and simply cannot manage. Their work is being delayed because they have a huge stack of work and simply cannot get through it. I presume the same personnel will be in place in the new regime as were in the old regime.

Sometimes people have to come into a situation all of a sudden.

 

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Tom Barry: Information on Deputy Tom Barry Zoom on Deputy Tom BarryIn such situations it would be helpful to have a third party present who can make sure the farmer is represented. People sometimes get carried away and we do not want an unfair situation to arise on either side.

There is still an air of suspicion around the last unit. It had a great deal of work to do but we must not understate that fact that we must work with farmers. I presume the percentage of farmers falling out of kilter is low and the Department has a track record on constant offenders. We now have a chance to get this right because it would be interesting to see how much taxpayers’ money was spent before we finally got a judge to deal with this. The aim of this should be to do the job properly and efficiently, without resorting to the courts. Most farmers are reasonable and if they make a mistake and are warned will try to get on with things. Some farmers will not respond in this way and will require strong action but we are not using the common ground that would allow people to improve. I have thrown my eyes to heaven in some cases where farmers were fined. I have worn a path to the door of the Department from trying to make a case for people who did not seek to create an issue and have been treated unfairly. If this is a brave new era it would be nice to see results.

Chairman: Information on Andrew Doyle Zoom on Andrew Doyle We are discussing a division of the Department where previously there was a unit. Perhaps the witnesses could clarify the difference in terms of the chain of responsibility and accountability. Like other areas of the Department, this division has authority over other sectors of farming including processors and suppliers. Does the division work with the Health Service Executive, HSE, Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, and the environmental health officers, EHOs? The SIU might not be alerted to some breaches through cross-farm compliance by an EHO or a county council vet. How will the division act in such circumstances?

Deputy Martin Ferris asked a question about those who were under investigation by the old SIU. Will they be investigated by the new division or are those cases pending determination? I will allow Mr. Carroll to decide whether he or his colleagues will answer.

Mr. Philip Carroll: I might ask my colleagues to help out in some respects as I address the various issues raised. Deputy Ó Cuív acknowledged that the arrangements appear to be adequate and I welcome that. He asked whether there should be a separate investigation into the SIU and that was mentioned by other members. I cannot deal with such a matter but I wonder what the basis for this is. Various cases in the public domain were mentioned and there have been complaints about the conduct of some investigations and inspections. It is natural that people subject to investigations would respond like this because they are suspected of wrongdoing. Inspections may lead to penalties so, again, it is natural that some people respond as they do. There is a protocol for complaints relating to inspections conducted by the former SIU and very, very few have been made – far fewer than are mentioned by Deputies and the media. In the past number of years around one complaint per year has come through the existing protocol arrangements in the Department.