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Stormont stalemate 'hitting Northern Ireland farm funding'

By Rachel Martin

Hard-pressed farmers are missing out on unspent European Union money because of the Stormont stalemate, an agricultural union has claimed.

The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) criticised a decision to hand over all £1.5m of unspent EU money to small dairy farmers without any consultation over how beef and sheep farmers could benefit.

With no functioning Executive, such decisions are being taken by senior civil servants.

A UFU spokesman said: “While any funding to farming is welcome, the body believes the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) missed an opportunity to deliver wider benefits when it decided to give unspent EU emergency funds to smaller dairy farmers. The UFU was not consulted, but accepts the decision was taken to avoid funds being lost back to Brussels.”

The Daera decision will see the money from the 2016 EU Exceptional Aid (EEA) package spread among owners of farms producing less than a million litres of milk.

The exact amount paid to each farmer will depend on how many apply. The £1.5m to be spent on the scheme is the remainder of a £4.1m package.

The under-spend is largely because one of the schemes drawn up by Daera to make use of this funding did not begin.

UFU president Barclay Bell said: “The Daera decision was to avoid funding being lost.

“That makes sense, but it was Daera’s choice not to consult the industry. As a result, the use of the unspent funds will have a very narrow focus, and beef and sheep farmers will inevitably question the decision to direct this funding to smaller dairy farmers. With the decision now finalised, Daera should now aim to get the detail sorted out and the money to farmers as soon as possible.

“At the same time, even without a minister in place, Daera needs to accept that the easy answer is not always the best. Decisions should not be taken without consulting the industry.”

The development comes as milk prices stabilise and we enter a fourth month with no power-sharing Executive.

A Stormont spokesman said: “Daera is committed to maximising our eligible spend of EAA of £4.1m for the benefit of dairy and other livestock farmers here.

“The measures first announced last November, and which provide help for farmers across a range of livestock sectors, are demand-led and the level of expenditure is driven by farmer uptake.

“It is now clear that those measures, which were developed following consultation with the industry, will not use up the full allocation of EAA funding, and for that reason we have added a further component to the package to help use up any remaining funds here. However, we are restricted to those UK measures notified to the European Commission last November and which can be implemented relatively quickly and easily within the EU expenditure deadline.

“Daera has therefore secured legal provision for an English scheme to be extended to small dairy farmers in Northern Ireland. There is no scope for Daera to vary the conditions of the English scheme. Daera would ask key stakeholders to encourage all eligible farmers to apply for the range of schemes funded through EAA here.”

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