Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240
WEDNESDAY 7 MARCH 2001
240. When European scrutiny committees in the
House look at what you are doing and you have to say whether it
is going to have any impact on farmers in terms of costs, if you
have not done this exercise for five or six years, how do you
answer that question?
(Mrs Purnell) In terms of the IACS rules, we would
not normally be doing any memoranda for scrutiny committees, because
they are Commission regulations which are directly applicable
in Member States, and therefore they are not covered by the scrutiny
procedures. So in fact we would not be having to do a regulatory
impact assessment for them. It is very much part of that thinking.
We do sometimes try and simplify things for farmers, and it does
not work. As you have probably seen, we have one form which is
for farmers making arable claims or arable and forage claims,
and there is another simpler form for farmers who are only claiming
forage area, and I think it came out of the previous efficiency
scrutiny that when farmers were only claiming forage and there
was no change from year to year, as there might well not be, they
could just tick a "no change" box. We did introduce
this, and we found that farmers were ticking it when they should
not have done because there had been changes, but because they
had not thought their way through the form, they had effectively
given us the wrong information. I gather the Irish authorities
tried the same thing and came to the same conclusion.
241. Do you make comparisons of the effectiveness
of MAFF's performance in terms of its cost efficiency in the process
of delivering its services? I remember I asked a parliamentary
question years ago on the relative costs of the various Regional
Service Centres, including Reading, in implementing the various
IACS processes, and I had the very strong impression that that
was an incredible innovation, and that no-one had looked at that
sort of measure of performance for some considerable time, if
ever. Would that be a fair view?
(Mr Duncan) I do not think that is necessarily a fair
view. We do know the comparative costs of our operations in the
various RSCs. From memory, I think the National Audit Office indeed
looked at this a couple of years ago.
242. That would have been about the time I asked
the question actually.
(Mr Duncan) I think it probably was. In each of our
offices we have all the relevant information to enable us to work
243. I can certainly vouch for the fact that
when I visited an RSC, they did not know the information in relation
to their performance at that time, and that would have been two
to three years ago. Indeed, they were very surprised to be asked
about it, and regarded it as slightly irrelevant. "Why should
you be interested in the unit cost of handling this particular
task?" It is all about disallowance, is it not?
(Mr Duncan) Yes. Clearly, we are focused on delivery.
We are focused on delivery both in terms of deadline and quality.
As far as the other side of the house is concerned, we are interested
from a management point of view in the relative costs, as any
good organisation would be, to make sure that we are efficient.
If you look at our costs in terms of what we pay out, it is very
efficient indeed, but some of that is related to the very large
amount of money which we pay out.
244. You hand out vast sums of money, so if
you just measure it as a percentage, it is always going to look
apparently quite efficient.
(Mr Duncan) That point comes out very well, but looking
at it on unit cost is something that we do on a regular basis.
I do not have the figures with me today.
(Mrs Purnell) I think if you asked now, you would
find that the question was not regarded as strange. There is much
more awareness of this now.
245. It did give an indication of the poverty
of what I would describe on a commercial basis as basic management
information in CAP administration until very recently. That is
a fair perception, I think.
(Mrs Purnell) I have only been involved in this for
a comparatively short time. I think there always has been an awareness,
but I would agree that in recent years we have looked more closely.
I think the National Audit Office looked at the Arable Area Scheme
as we implement it and as Sweden and the Netherlands do it, and
some of our costs were higher, but again, the claims are much
bigger and more complex. As we have already said, the Swedes came
to this late and were able to benefit from the experience of the
rest of us when they designed their system. We have internally
looked at some of the variations between Regional Service Centres,
where again some of the variation at least is due to the different
nature of claims that are being handled by those offices. But
I think we are concerned now to try and set quality service targets
which are not just how many claims you pay by the deadline, but
looking at other qualitative data to check the quality of the
service we are providing.
246. You have already indicated you look beyond
these shores to some limited extent as to cost comparators, however
difficult it may be to look on a comparative basis.
(Mrs Purnell) Yes.
247. Do you look at the unit costs of the other
national authorities within our country, the Scottish and Northern
(Mrs Purnell) We have not looked at unit costs as
far as I am aware. We do keep very closely in touch with them,
but we have not done any internal benchmarking between the four
paying agencies in the UK so far.
248. A curious omission. The focus, as you have
said, was always on whether you were making these payments in
a timely way. Farmers, of course, care about that greatly too.
How have you sought to advance the payment process? You gave an
indication of the success of the electronic system, which obviously
increased the likelihood of an early payment. Are there other
steps which you have taken?
(Mr Duncan) Yes. We have tried year on year to improve
the capacity of the database. I think we have now reached the
point where we do need to modernise our IACS database by introducing
much stronger electronic facilities into it by re-designing the
database to some extent, and by introducing new features, such
as the Geographic Information System, digital mapping, to give
us a better capacity to turn things round more quickly. It is
well recognised by everyone that the current alpha-numeric system
within the database is quite complex, and it causes problems when
there are splitting up of fields from one year to the next and
different cropping patterns. That is one of the drivers for introducing
the Geographic Information System, a special database to improve
that. It works very well in other Member States. One area where
we have always had very good exchange between Member States has
been on databases and how they work, especially new, spatial ones.
To summarise, year on year we have improved and tidied up the
database, but you have to accept that after seven or eight years
with this particular one, it is time to change.
249. Why are payments not made on the first
(Mr Duncan) Payments are made on the first available
date. I do not have the figures with me, but I could provide them.
A significant amount of Arable Area Payments are made in the first
week, from 16 November.
250. It would be useful if you could provide
that information. You mentioned the Irish comparison. They have
worked out a standard of service with their farmers, and there
is an attempt at that within MAFF as well, but it was felt to
be rather less comprehensive than the Irish example. Are you looking
at the possible lessons from their efforts?
(Mr Duncan) I take it we are talking about what we
call our commitment to service?
251. That is right.
(Mr Duncan) Yes, we have a commitment to service in
MAFF. For schemes like the Arable Area Payments we have a payment
window in which we are required to pay at least 96 per cent, but
our standard is 98 per cent, which we indeed met this year. In
fact, I think we have met most of our scheme deadlines this year.
We have not done any direct comparison, as far as I am aware,
with the Irish system. Clearly, that is something we could look
at, because we too are anxious to give our customers a good service.
252. I would like to ask some questions about
errors. Do you actually check what errors are being made? Do you
know the nature of the errors being made in filling your forms
(Mrs Purnell) Each year we look at the types of errors
made and the most common errors, and we try and warn farmers about
this. We certainly carry out a review for each scheme each year
of the commonest type of error so that we can alert farmers to
this in future.
253. As well as alerting the farmers, if you
know what the errors are, do you actually undertake any research
into the reasons for the errors, what has not been understood
and whether it is a matter of not just the farmer changing his
ways but possibly of you changing yours?
(Mr Duncan) Certainly that is one of our drivers for
the electronic form and the ability to have up-front validation.
I have a list here which I would be happy to provide later. It
is simple things like getting field numbers wrong by transposing
numbers, not getting the ear tag information quite right. It is
simple things like that.
254. So those possibly are ones where you have
to try and find some other way round it. Just before we move on
to that area, what I am interested in knowing is whether you have
undertaken any systematic work. Have you had any research done,
for example, to look at whether what you are writing is being
understood, whether some errors arise because the guidance is
at fault? Have you done any specific research into the question
of the origins of errors?
(Mrs Purnell) We do go out to consultation with our
scheme literature each year before it is finalised, so at least
we get some views from the industry.
255. You are saying you consult, but you have
not done any research.
(Mr Duncan) We have not employed a researcher to look
at that in particular, but every year we give guidance in the
booklet as to what these common errors are to try and reduce them.
In actual fact, some of them are very simple indeed, like signing
on the end of the form that sketch maps are attached and there
are no sketch maps, things like that. We prepare the forms with
what the farmer said last year as to what the crops were, and
he has to score out last year's crop and put this year's crop,
and sometimes that has not been done. With pre-validation on the
e-form, when you got to that point on the form you would be advised
that you must put something in if you had forgotten to. It is
very simple things like that. It is human error.
256. When we visited Ireland we were told there
were a number of attempts. Some of them may have been specific
to their circumstances. You referred to the fact that they differ
substantially in some cases to ours, but they were trying to avoid
the need for people to write down long numbers of ear tags, for
example. I had the impression that they were trying very positively
to reduce the error rate. Are we involved in similar work to try
to help make sure errors cannot occur, because we know the human
failings and the errors people make where long numbers are involved?
(Mrs Purnell) We do pre-populate claims. For example,
with the Suckler Cow Premium, where there is a likelihood that
they will go on from year to year, obviously we will be looking
at claims for younger animals for the Beef Special Premium Scheme,
where there will be substantial change. The real answer to that
is that if we can run all these schemes off the database, as long
as the declaration to the database is right, the farmer will not
have to supply us with the ear tag numbers. There may be a stage
where we use the database to give farmers a pre-populated form
and they then make changes as they make changes to their area
field data print-out. But eventually, if we can run the schemes
off the database, they do not have to give us the number anyway.
257. Are you making any other attempts to try
and reduce errors other than the database?
(Mrs Purnell) It is ongoing. As I say, we have our
check-list. We try and alert farmers to the areas where they are
likely to make mistakes, which will cost them lots of money.
258. In practice, when you consult, do they
in fact come back with a number of suggestions for change?
(Mr Duncan) We get one or two suggestions, but generally
not all that many.
(Mrs Purnell) I think this is something we would like
to take forward. It was one of the recommendations of the red
tape review, the Don Curry group, that we should perhaps intensify
our consultation procedures and get more feedback. I think this
is going to be taken forward as part of the plans of the new paying
agency principally now, but there are quite a few things one can
think about, like workshops for farmers on farm records or clinics
and things. You already know that those will be something that
we will be taking forward quite intensively, because with the
plans that eventually several of the offices will down-size, we
do have to think how we can maintain contact with farmers and
continue to provide them with help.
259. Mr Duncan said quite straightforwardly
that most mistakes are human error, not fraud.
(Mrs Purnell) Yes.