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    NFUS Leads Farmers' Fight Against Penalties
09/05/06

NFU Scotland is backing farmers in their appeals against Scottish Executive financial penalties which the Union has described as grossly disproportionate and without precedent. The penalties, which in some cases run into tens of thousands of pounds, have arisen from a minor administrative failing under the 2003 Suckler Cow Premium Scheme. In Orkney today, the first Stage 2 appeal against the penalty will be heard, with NFUS presenting the farmer’s case.

photo courtesy of www.jennifermackenzie.co.uk

suckler cattle

In June 2001, the EU set a minimum limit for the number of heifers that must be claimed under the Suckler Cow Premium Scheme (SCPS). The decision was taken to help manage beef supplies in light of a decline in consumption across the EU. As a result, for one year only in the UK in 2003, any farmer claiming SCP had to ensure that at least five per cent of the cattle claimed were heifers (defined as breeding females yet to have their first calf).

Following a check of the cattle claims last year, 260 farmers were informed by the Scottish Executive that they had fallen foul of the five per cent rule, mostly because animals claimed as heifers gave birth during the retention period (therefore ceasing to be heifers) and a replacement animal was not notified to the Executive. In virtually all cases, farmers had the required replacement heifers on farm, and can prove so through the Government’s own cattle database. However failure to notify the local office about the replacement has resulted in a penalty.

The penalty is severe. Not only are the now ineligible heifers excluded from support, but the total claims are scaled back until the number of eligible heifers accounts for five per cent. This means that if a farmer’s claimed heifers all calved during the retention period, his total claims could be scaled back to only 13 animals (the highest number allowed with no heifers) The result has been penalties of up to £80,000.

NFU Scotland's case on behalf of its members rests on the following principles:

  • The penalty is grossly disproportionate
  • Explanatory guidance did not make the procedure for notifying replacement heifers clear, nor did it clearly spell out the penalty, which is unique; in no other cases of late notification are claims scaled back in this way.
  • The British Cattle Movement Service has the data that proves that farmers met the full criteria for the scheme.  Yet, the Scottish Executive is penalising farmers for not writing a letter to notify them of information they can obtain from their own database. 

NFUS Vice President Bob Howat said:

“Common sense has to prevail here. These are not farmers trying to bend the rules, these are people who have made genuine and small admin errors yet they face a uniquely draconian penalty which is completely over the top.

“The galling thing is that SEERAD has the information at its fingertips to show farmers had the required animals on farm. If they are happy to use the cattle database to find errors through cross-checking, then they can surely use it to verify claims as well.

“We will back any members in their appeals and we are willing to take this all the way to the Scottish Land Court if necessary. This was a one-off rule, with completely woolly guidance to farmers. The EU Regulation involved allows obvious errors to be adjusted at any time and all the Executive has to do it pull up the information on a computer. If the subsidy appeal system works as it is supposed to, then surely it must force the Department into a rethink on this.”

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