Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280
WEDNESDAY 7 MARCH 2001
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
(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
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
(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.