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Ulster farmers must repay £60m subsidies to Europe

A massive £60m paid in error to Northern Ireland farmers will have to be paid back, the European Commission has demanded.

Auditors sent by the European Commission uncovered the problems. They travelled to the province to inspect a number of individual subsidy claims submitted by farmers.

Farmers receive subsidy cheques based on the land they work on. Europe provides €300m to farmers in Northern Ireland every year and individual subsidy claims are administered by the Department of Agriculture.

The annual claims are submitted to the department, backed up by maps showing the fields and the crops which are grown. But auditors discovered inaccuracies.

Auditors found in some cases fields had been built on, but the maps which had been submitted showed the areas as prime agricultural land for which farmers were still claiming. Farmers have also claimed subsidies on the same piece of land. European inspectors imposed fines totalling £60m on the department.

Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew says her department is trying hard to get the fines reduced.

“The commission feels that at times the Department was too lenient,” she told the BBC.

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“There have been times when farmers have maybe inadvertently claimed for land they thought was eligible but wasn't.”

The Department of Finance is providing £4.8m to help the Department of Agriculture improve its processes.

There are, however, concerns of further fines being imposed.

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