Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 291)



Mr Mitchell

  280. A lot of criticism centred on the lack of coordination between the schemes on requests for data and on the application dates. The IACS Inspection Working Group recommended that more resources be devoted to exploring the possibility of sharing claim data for other schemes. The Government states that this is under active consideration, which of course could mean anything. What are the prospects of progress on this issue?
  (Mrs Purnell) Part of it will be the IT system for the new paying agency, because there we do have a chance to look overall at the sort of information that we capture, so that instead of having separate systems, we can have an integrated system right from the beginning to share the information. The other thing, as I have been saying to you, is to use to the full the information we get from the cattle database, the Cattle Tracing System, and there is obviously a third issue, which is to take account of the requirements of the various surveys and censuses we carry out, either for our own domestic purposes or because of demands from Eurostat. That again will be something that we will do, but it is mainly going to be done, I think, in terms of our plans for the new IT systems.

  281. It will make the new paying agency much more efficient if you have this coordination.
  (Mrs Purnell) Absolutely, yes.
  (Mr Duncan) The general idea is to have databases which are linked to one another, so that we store common data in one place and are able to move data efficiently between one and the other, and that is in the planning stage now as part of the new IT strategy.

  282. Would the sharing of data mean there would be a rationalisation of the record keeping requirements of the various schemes?
  (Mrs Purnell) In a sense, we almost will not need the farmers to keep separate records. Obviously they need to keep supporting data for their animals, invoices, sales notices, cattle passports and so on, but to the extent that we are able to make use of data from the Cattle Tracing Service, that could replace the requirement for a farm record. We issued a standard herd register to farmers at the end of 1999 to help them with their record keeping requirement, because this was a constant problem for them. They were not keeping good records. Once you have a cattle database, you could replace the paper record that they have by every two or three months printing out what is on the cattle database and say, "This is what you've got. Just keep it up to date so that if anyone comes to look at your farm in between times that you have updated it." The same thing with the Geographic Information System. If we have that, and farmers have accepted that this is their baseline, we do not have to ask them for too much information. If they are making an arable claim, we have to ask them what their cropping plans are. I hope that one day they will be able to see their map and say, "That is down to wheat and this is down to oilseeds." I think that is where we can make life a lot easier.

  283. That will be done?
  (Mrs Purnell) Yes.
  (Mr Duncan) Yes, that is part of the developing new strategy.

  284. What about a single business based inspection system in place of the current arrangements whereby each scheme is separately inspected? What is going to happen there?
  (Mr Duncan) Right. I think we have actually said quite a bit already about the combined bovine inspection regime. There is a principle in the current IACS regulation which talks about whole farm inspections. If you have the number of diverse schemes that we have in the United Kingdom, it is very, very difficult to call on, say, the 1st July and manage to cover everything, so we are looking at it in parts. To combine the bovine work in one inspection through using information on the BCMS record, that is already well down the track, it is something the Commission are very familiar with and want to push throughout Europe. The first point, as Mrs Purnell said earlier, was to get each of the European databases to the standard where they could be accredited as being reasonably accurate, updated and accurate. Some Member States are further on than we are with that currently. As far as the land based schemes are concerned, I think there may be possibilities in looking at that as a different group of inspections but that has still not really been taken forward in any great way so far.
  (Mrs Purnell) I think we are actively considering what the scope for combining inspections is. We have our scheme, which is COBRA. We are starting to look tomorrow at changing the rules which will allow us to go further down that route and then eventually using the database to choose the inspections and going out and inspecting both whether all the cattle are properly identified from the veterinary side and looking at all the different schemes that farmer has applied for. I think one has to recognise that those inspections will then take longer once you go out to the farmer and you look at the lot. You are doing actually a full cattle count so there will be fewer, longer, more extensive inspections. For the arable area payment scheme, we do have a window for doing those inspections which is between June and September more or less because we have to look at the crops when they are in the ground whereas a lot of the cattle schemes are tending to be towards the winter. We are limited, to a certain extent. It might at some point be possible to combine arable inspections with agri-environment inspections. We are very actively aware of that and we will do what we can.

  285. That does not indicate any real degree of urgency about it?
  (Mrs Purnell) I think so. I think it does because our combined bovine inspection regime is scheduled to come on stream this year. That is, I think, as urgent as we can make it. We are trying to get the rules changed and the way of going further on that will be available to us generally next year. Because our database has not yet been accepted for subsidy purposes we will not be able to use that provision next year but we would hope to do it in 2003, so I think that is fairly urgent, is it not?

  286. Hopefully. The NFU gave evidence on the difficulties over changes in business structures as a result of the variation in application and retention periods between the different schemes, that was what they said. They claim that "Annually a number of producers experience a loss of some or all of their premium because they have changed their business structure at the wrong time of the year", is that correct?
  (Mr Duncan) Yes. There are a number of cases like that where, because they have decided to sell the farm, perhaps at the end of one retention period which happens to be in the middle of another one, these cases are quite difficult. I do not actually do much on this area, I am more on the land side, but I am aware from my own office this can cause difficulties. Usually I think we are able to resolve some of them amicably but not all of them, which is why the NFU have got an interest.

  287. "Some" a minority or "some" a lot or most?
  (Mr Duncan) I am not aware of a really serious problem with that but, as I say, I am not really leading on this side at all.
  (Mrs Purnell) I think it occurs mostly on the livestock side. I do not have any great expertise. We know that it is a problem and there are particularly difficult cases. It is a question of whether you want the EU legislation to be very prescriptive here or whether you want to try and work with the industry to arrive at solutions. The NFU are very active on their members' behalf and they do raise these cases with us. I think they provide a valuable service to their members in advice and we are always happy to work with them.

  288. It does seem unfair, can it not be resolved?
  (Mrs Purnell) It is hard certainly but this is a very black and white system. If farmers, either in ignorance of the requirements or because they have no alternative, have to make changes to their business structure at the wrong time of year then the consequences can be quite harsh.

  289. One question about that. It just arises, I might have missed this at the beginning and I apologise for that, it strikes me the French system is more accommodating to the farmers because it is more localised, freemasonry between farmers and administrators and farmers' unions and, therefore, it is farmer friendly, very localised. The same is true of Ireland in the sense it is farmer friendly, that is what it is all about. Ours is much more bureaucratic, impersonal, remote, in which the bureaucrats are clearly going to be concerned with protecting their own backsides, basically, and going by the rules rather than being friendly to the farmers. Is that an unfair caricature?
  (Mrs Purnell) It is not a description I recognise.

  290. You would not, would you, you are a bureaucrat?
  (Mrs Purnell) I suppose so. Perhaps Mr Duncan can answer that one because he directs one of our regional service centres and I am sure he can tell you about his own network of contacts with the industry.


  291. Not at too great length.
  (Mr Duncan) Myself and my colleagues all have a good network with the industry. The particular point that you mentioned is a very, very difficult one. Clearly it is not for bureaucracies to tell farmers when to change their business arrangements and sometimes they have to be changed anyway for a whole range of factors. All I can say on this one is that we do regularly sit down and try and unravel the worst excesses of this kind to try and get them into some kind of order. I would not say we are faceless at all in that respect. Sometimes we get unstuck, both ourselves and the NFU, and we reach a point where we have taken it as far as we can, there is a problem and sometimes it has to be left like that. Of course, that is then when it becomes a matter for MPs and others. Clearly I think we said earlier that there are some very, very complex issues in the livestock sector over retention periods, quotas, headage limits, all this sort of thing, and interaction. There is also a knock over effect, 15 May, for the receipt of area aid applications. If you look very carefully into all the regulations that is also very tightly drawn. We have not had too many problems with that because farmers have generally managed to organise the business arrangements so it is either reflected in the sale price or one decides to be the applicant on the 15th. I think we have managed on that particular side to sort things out. The livestock schemes go back well beyond CAP reform in 1992 and sometimes that can be the difficulty because the rules have been there for a long, long time.
  (Mrs Purnell) I think in terms of contact with the industry we do keep quite closely in contact with the industry. Obviously there are differences in some countries where there is a rather different tradition of civil society, you know, you have to belong to your local chamber of commerce and, therefore, it acts as a natural intermediary to the departement or whatever. We do not have that structure, we have a much more voluntary form of belonging to industry organisations and that obviously has a bearing on how things are perceived.

  Chairman: We are not going into any civil society.

  Mr Mitchell: It is very interesting.

  Chairman: I did not say it was not interesting, I said we are not going into it. We have been face to face for the last two hours, thank you very much indeed. I think there was just one item you were going to produce some supplementary information on which I know you have taken a note of. Thank you very much for coming in front of us.

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