North-West MEP Jim Higgins has called for the establishment of an agri-ombudsman to investigate complaints from farmers. The Mayo native MEP said: "As inspection penalties against farmers continue to rise, it's clear that our agri-inspectors need to be pulled back into line. In the last four years penalties against farmers rose by a whopping 500 per cent, the total penalties rose to €4.7 million in 2012, up from just €780,000 in 2009."
He went on to outline recent events which saw him bring a number of farmers to Europe in relation to a particular case. "Last week I brought a group of farmers, whose single farm payments had been withdrawn by Department officials, without any explanation, to the European Parliament to have their case heard. The farmers turned to Europe having been effectively refused redress at home, where the departmental appeals procedure can take up to five years. In the past week my office has been inundated with texts, letters, calls, and emails of support from farmers in similar situations. Farmers speak of the horror of departmental inspections - where an official can destroy their livelihood with the stroke of a pen."
The effect of such a decision can have a drastic and detrimental effect to the lives of farmers and their families he explained. "Farmers are literally living in fear, absolutely dreading the knock of an official at their door. It's a fear shared by large and small farmers alike - not even the most meticulous farmer is safe. The stress caused by inspections is an undoubted factor in suicides in rural Ireland. Indeed Tom McEvoy of Pieta House, suicide prevention centre, said there has been a large increase in farmers seeking their services this year."
The lack of accountability of the inspectors is something that needs to be addressed immediately the Fine Gael MEP said: "At present departmental officials are not held accountable to anyone, this must change. We need an independent agricultural ombudsman to inspect the inspectors. We have a Farmers' Charter of Rights which is totally outdated and completely ineffective. What we need is a totally independent body, like that of the Garda Ombudsman. At present we have a broken system where officials investigate fellow officials.”