Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 259)

WEDNESDAY 7 MARCH 2001

MRS JANET PURNELL AND MR BILL DUNCAN

  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.

Mr Todd

  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 that out.

  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 Ireland systems?
  (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 available date?
  (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.

Dr Turner

  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 in?
  (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.



 
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