Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220 - 239)

WEDNESDAY 7 MARCH 2001

MRS JANET PURNELL AND MR BILL DUNCAN

  220. We are good at contributing to future policy but no one is an admirer of our current systems, or perhaps we are not very good advocates of our current systems because no one has as yet taken on any of our processes voluntarily?
  (Mrs Purnell) In discussing our forms with Irish officials they have said that they like the way in our guidance we have a check-list of the things not to forget, reminders. That is a fairly minor example but they have said they think that is a good initiative.
  (Mr Duncan) Some Member States have taken advantage of the issue I discussed earlier about using cadastral measurements and field references as part of IACS. Certainly on the livestock side we have been instrumental in trying to develop this centralised approach to controls for livestock and we were at the forefront with the Commission on that one. Certainly that is of interest to other Member States.

  221. Is that the cattle passport?
  (Mr Duncan) No, it is the physical controls for animals. Instead of going out for the Special Premium Scheme and out for the Suckler Cow and out for checking cattle passports, we can combine the inspections. That is something that was promoted strongly by the United Kingdom.
  (Mrs Purnell) This is called CoBRA. You may have seen reference to CoBRA in the papers, particularly the one you have had from me.
  (Mr Duncan) I think there have been successes. IACS is an over-arching control Regulation and when you talk about the other scheme Regulations there have been issues there pushed by the United Kingdom and accepted by others.

Mr Opik

  222. I have one point on the devolution issue. I represent a Welsh constituency, Montgomeryshire, and I have had a number of complaints from farmers who feel they do get treated as second-class citizens within the United Kingdom itself because it takes longer for them to get their payments, for example on Suckler Cow Premiums. Do you have any experience of that kind of feedback?
  (Mr Duncan) Are we talking about cases which are cross-border cases?

  223. No, they are Welsh, they are not complex in the sense that they cross the border.
  (Mrs Purnell) Obviously since we do have four systems there will be different rates of progress in making payments. I know that the National Assembly for Wales is, as we are, going to re-engineer its computer systems. I think we are all hoping that this will make it easier for us to pay farmers quickly because, as I said, with the trial of the electronic IACS form they all went through central validation immediately and that means that they can thereafter be fully validated. You cannot start paying them straightaway because there are these strict payment windows, but our hope is if we can persuade the industry to go down the electronic route that more and more claims will be stacked up ready for payment so that once the window opens October 16th we will be able to say, "Pay them", and then there will only be cases where there is probate or some of these issues which we cannot resolve where we will have to hold back payment. As I think we have said, we see IT as the key in all this.

  224. So the good farmers of Wales are assured that you are making sure that they will no longer have any reason to feel that their payments are being delayed?
  (Mrs Purnell) I think that is a point you would need to take up with officials in the Assembly.

  225. I shall do so. I want to ask some questions about simplification. Comments that come from our opposite numbers in Northern Ireland as well as from MAFF make it pretty clear that you are keen to be at the forefront of simplification. What are the key actions that you are taking to make sure that that does come about? I know you have already touched on this earlier on but if you could be more explicit.
  (Mrs Purnell) I think perhaps some of it resulted from our experience at the end of 1999 when we were trying to agree the implementing rules for Agenda 2000, which I think everybody was very dissatisfied with, and also particularly for me because at the same time I was acting as Secretary to Don Curry's Red Tape Review Group. COBRA, the Combined Bovine Risk Analysis inspection system, was one of the results of that, but the drivers were what came out of Agenda 2000 and also from the Red Tape Group. We did decide that that was a major policy interest, that we did want simplification, and from that the rest in a sense has followed in that we had extensive contacts with the French back in June, we agreed priority lists of simplification areas, they were then taken round to other Member States by the French Presidency, and we got this commitment in October that this would all be pursued, and tomorrow is the first meeting. The field margins was the first problem we got sorted out, then there was something on set aside strips alongside water courses, which was a minor change but a welcome one, and we would like to go further on that one, and on the cattle schemes we will be pursuing our discussions tomorrow. When I went out to Westport to give that presentation the point of that was a bit of evangelism to try and get support from others and from the Commission and I was able to follow up that presentation with a fairly long discussion with Mr Slade. So, yes, I think we have tried to take this forward.

  226. How successful have you been with your evangelical work in regard to other nations?
  (Mrs Purnell) I think it is now accepted by all—and we had a first meeting of a group on more general simplification back in December—and I think there is no dissent from this. All Member States want to see simplification. They have all got their own particular points. There is a general agreement that the cattle schemes need straightening out. On the field margins it was really a United Kingdom problem though we got a fair amount of sympathy from other Member States. So I think in some cases it is the Commission that is a little wary that we are trying to push them a little bit too far too fast.

  227. Not for the first time. You mentioned some specific areas. What would you say are the key priority areas for the United Kingdom?
  (Mrs Purnell) I think it is this work on the bovine schemes, because this is where the huge new burden arises, both for us as administrators and for the farmers. There are other areas: we would like to see a revision of the penalty regime in line with the recommendations of the Don Curry group, which would be raising the penalty threshold from three per cent to five per cent for area claims. We would also like to see perhaps some sort of time limit as to how far you could go back in applying penalties when you find at inspection that there are errors in a claim which have obviously been around for a number of years. But I have to say that the Commission is far less forthcoming when it comes to a commitment to simplify and ease the penalty regime. I think you had a taste of that last week.

  228. What sort of timescale are we talking about? There has been mention from the French government about doing this rapidly, and the implication is that you do have a timetable in mind.
  (Mrs Purnell) Yes. The first experts' group is tomorrow. I shall be looking at the papers later today. A first idea of how they are thinking is emerging on revising the basic Regulation 3887/1992. The plan, I think, is to have two or three more groups this year, with the idea of agreeing changes so that they can come into effect on 1 January next year.

  229. Are you satisfied with the proposals for the individual schemes? What else do you think could be done to make them even more farmer-friendly?
  (Mrs Purnell) The actual schemes are not the responsibility of the IACS team, in a sense, because policy responsibility for the cattle schemes would lie with our Beef and Sheep Division colleagues, and for the arable schemes with our Arable Crops colleagues. We would in fact work with them.

  230. Is the Small Farmers' Scheme part of your remit?
  (Mrs Purnell) Partly. The Small Farmers' Scheme raises some quite serious questions about the future direction, because you are talking about switching the direction of CAP support, modulation, degressivity, switching support progressively to the second pillar. The Small Farmers' Scheme, which takes smaller claimants out of IACS, has to be considered in that context, and to that extent the policy issues go wider than my Division. But clearly, if you are going to be taking these farmers out of IACS, you have to freeze their land, you have to freeze their quota, you have to make sure that nobody who is in IACS is borrowing sheep from someone in the Small Farmers' Scheme—there are all sorts of quite difficult control issues that come out of that, and to that extent we are involved in looking at it. It is also the case that it is a scheme which will affect other Member States in very different ways from us. No decision has been taken as to whether it should be implemented in the UK. It is currently subject to consultation with the industry, but I think it is generally recognised that we would have comparatively few farmers who would be eligible for that scheme, so it is going to be of lesser interest to us.

  231. The threshold proposed is 1,000 euros. Do you think that threshold could be made higher given the UK's circumstances in regard to small farmers?
  (Mrs Purnell) Obviously, there is a lot of pressure, as Mr Slade told you last week, for that threshold to be reached. I think our view at the moment is that this is a pilot scheme; it will be voluntary both for Member States and for farmers. 1,000 euros is probably about right in terms of a pilot scheme like that, but that is not to say that this threshold will not change as part of the negotiations.

  232. A wonderfully diplomatic answer. My last question is slightly more blue-skying. It seems to me that many of these changes are, quite understandably, an evolution from where we are now. Has any work been done to set aside the natural progressions and say, "If we were to totally re-design the system, what would it look like?"
  (Mrs Purnell) There is certainly thinking of that kind going on as to what the future direction of the CAP could be and what sort of policy changes we would want to see. I am not closely involved with that. Our role is much more "minding the shop", or looking after the system we have at the moment, but yes, there is thinking of this kind going on.

Mr Jack

  233. On a point of clarification, you were talking about changes to bovine-based schemes and livestock schemes. Mr Slade told us "In the Bovine Premium Scheme we are aiming for a paperless system with no claim form." Are we?
  (Mrs Purnell) Yes, absolutely.

  234. Over what timescale?
  (Mrs Purnell) That will depend. As you know, there was the Cattle Herd Registration exercise last year, and it is now compulsory for farmers to notify all their cattle to the Cattle Tracing System. At that point the Commission, both on the veterinary side and on the subsidy side—Mr Slade or one of his staff—will come across and look at our system—that will happen some time this year—and give a view as to whether they think it is fully operational. In terms of the subsidies, I think they want the reassurance of it running with a comparatively low error rate for about a year before they would be happy about saying we could run our subsidy schemes off it. So if we are talking about an initial view from the Commission some time this year, and then a year of running-in, that would take us to next year. So I think we would not be able to do it before 2003.

  235. Mr Todd in his questioning drew your attention to something which it was obvious you were aware of, which is the relative simplicity of the Irish form, and you gave us a commentary to explain why you thought the Irish could get away with two sides of A4 and we have a telephone directory! Going back to Mr Slade, I thought it was quite interesting when he commented on a question that was asked about our forms. He said, "They are among the more complex and among the more complete forms that are used in Europe, but they are not necessarily the most complex." I was interested that he said they were the most complete forms. Going back to the first question, this translation process, the regulations lay down the minimum requirements, and often the accusation is that we add—the term "gold plating" has been used. Would you like to say whether you think that some of the extra pieces of information that may be required from a UK perspective are really necessary? Perhaps you would challenge whether you do go beyond the EU minimum, but the perception amongst farmers is that you are mining a vast amount of extra information for no apparent reason. Would you like to comment on that?
  (Mr Duncan) I do not believe there is very much in the way of gold-plating in our form at all. The first point I would like to make is that the Area Aid application serves two purposes. First of all, it serves an IACS purpose in terms of populating the database so that appropriate checks can be done, as required by the regulation. Secondly, it provides a claim form for the Arable Area Payment Scheme. If you were to have time to look over the large number of regulations there are on that particular scheme, you would find that each of our questions relates to one of the scheme rules, so that we can validate everything at one go. Perhaps farmers do not fully appreciate what we are trying to do. This causes the form to be quite large. The arable sector in the UK is complex. It makes full use of all the different crop types. The protein crops and the oilseed crops have until now been quite complex in their information requirements. The set-aside arrangements are diverse. I am not au fait with all the arable rules, but some simplification has taken place. We are taking a vast amount of data at one sweep so that we can pay Arable Area Payments, and a fairly large amount so that we can store forage data in the UK so that we can then transmit it to the other schemes. I believe that is perhaps why Commission officials felt they were complete, in as much as they go that far. They have also provided information to interface with the old, Less Favoured Area Directive as well, which was something else that we decided to capture at that particular point. So it might be that by capturing that amount of data then, we have had to capture less data at other times.

  236. Do you ever sit down and go back through the forms as they exist and review each piece of information which you require and say, "Do we actually need this?"
  (Mr Duncan) Yes. We do that every year. Once a year we have to revise the whole process and prepare a form for the next Area Aid application. At that review we take account of whether we need it all, and also changes in regulations that have been applied in the meantime through the European Union. So there is an annual review. I would accept, of course, that the current system is designed with our current databases in mind. One of the things we have done over the last couple of years is to process-map the whole requirement again in preparation for moving to different types of computer systems. So that might in fact help us in our attempts to simplify the forms at the next review, for example.

  237. Do you look for opportunities where there are certain pieces of common information that refer to different schemes—say somebody has a mixed farm—so that instead of having to fill in all the basic parameters three or four times over, you try to integrate that?
  (Mr Duncan) Yes.

  238. Our system enables us to do that?
  (Mr Duncan) The system enables us currently to save all that sort of information and transfer it in different directions.

  239. Let me ask about the costs to farmers. The Farmers' Union of Wales in their submission to the Committee told us that they reckon that it costs farmers on average £2,700 a year to fill in the various forms. It has always been put to me that where money is concerned, farmers are very happy to fill in forms, but have you undertaken any kind of assessment of the real cost to farming enterprise of this bureaucratic exercise?
  (Mrs Purnell) We have not in recent years. There was an efficiency scrutiny of farmers' paperwork back in 1995-96 which did look at that. As part of the Don Curry review we did not try and do that.



 
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