In 2006, the Forest Service introduced IFORIS which is its computerised geo-spatial and payments system. Like the Single Farm Payment and other schemes, this system uses ortho-photography, which is geometrically corrected aerial photography overlaid onto maps. The IFORIS system captures an image of an applicant’s claim map and calculates an accurate measurement of the area being claimed. The process of electronically capturing the claim map is called digitisation. This is not a new process but has been widely used for many years. To ensure accuracy and consistency, digitising is performed using well established standards and procedures.
The Forest Service has not introduced any new technology since 2006. It has simply availed of the Department’s constantly updated ortho-photography, which is used to detect potential over-claims and overpayments. A simple example would be where a forestry plantation is initially established, the trees planted are not visible when viewed in contemporaneous photographs. However, when viewed on later photography, maturing trees in the plantation will be visible but the more recent photographs may show gaps where trees have failed, were removed, or were never planted. The updated photography therefore provides an effective audit tool to ensure that claims made under my Department’s schemes are accurate.
The technology used is not new and has been used internationally for many years. Tolerances are applied when capturing and measuring claims in order to avoid penalising applicants due to minor inaccuracies in their claims. My Department has no concerns over the accuracy of ortho-photography and geo-spatial systems for measuring areas. Digitising accuracy depends on the applicant’s claim map – if the applicant submits a claim map which does not accurately define the area planted then the digitised image will obviously reflect that.
Forestry companies are also increasingly relying on their own geo-spatial technology. Furthermore, they now submit 93% of all applications for approval to plant through the Department’s IFORIS Online System . This enables them to submit maps digitally and to verify measurement of the area to be planted and claimed.
Where over-claims by applicants under the forestry schemes have resulted in overpayments, the cause has sometimes wrongly been attributed to digitisation by some parties. In fact, such overpayments are due to claim maps claiming an area greater than that actually planted, or to an applicant continuing to claim for a plantation that failed or was destroyed, or to trees being removed from the plantation, or to administrative error. My Department detects such overpayments through random or risk analysis driven inspections; through Single Farm Payment queries by applicants or their neighbours; through forestry queries by the applicant himself; by formal audit of files; or by the Department reviewing newer aerial photography. In the contentious circumstances of an over-claim and overpayment, while measurement of the area involved is often disputed by the applicant, the digitisation process is not relevant in this context – the crux is that the applicant must prove that the all of the area that he is claiming is eligible for payment under the scheme.
In all cases, my Department is obliged to recoup all public money that has been overpaid. But, each case is dealt with on an individual basis and, where my Department judges that there may be mitigating circumstances in a case, it will moderate the penalty or recoupment as appropriate.