Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. We are not perfect?
  (Mr Curry) No, we are not. One must assume that European auditors are consistent in their application. We asked the question: did they treat the UK any differently from any other Member State? One must assume that they are even-handed in their approach.

  21. Bearing in mind your statement about the two very brief contacts that you had with other Member States, which appear to produce rather better systems than ours, I am puzzled that you did not produce a rather more resounding document about how to respond to it?
  (Mr Curry) It was not our task to appeal to the prejudices of the industry and to damn the Government out of hand. I believe that we took a balanced approach in addressing the issue. We specifically said to government that they had to get the cattle tracing system up to speed. That was a very strong recommendation which I impressed on the Minister on a number of occasions. We had to invest very quickly to ensure that we had a cattle database and tracing system which met the EU's requirements, because we were lagging behind other Member States. That recommendation was made in response to what we had seen in Holland and information from other Member States.

  22. I recognise that you felt you should not confirm prejudice but, as I put it to you a minute or two ago, there is a different way of looking at the subject. It does not have to be seen as "rigorous Brits and sloppy foreigners" but as clumsy and unimaginative bureaucrats here and others who have thought through some of these issues in a rather more imaginative way and implemented the controls with greater sensitivity. The contrast does not have to be between bad and good in the sense we tend to see it; the relationship can be viewed in a more positive way. I am very disappointed that your report did not take that opportunity or, if time constraints prevented you from doing that, encourage others to do so. I believe that that would have been a positive recommendation.
  (Mr Curry) We believed that the farmers on either side of the Irish border to whom we spoke were a good barometer of whether the approach in Northern Ireland and the Republic differed. Their view was that in terms of the livestock schemes there was very little difference in application. As to IACS form-filling, it was believed that the form used by the Irish Government was shorter and easier to fill in. I believe that the Irish Government had already embarked on a GIS system which allowed them to provide more information to the farmer. Certainly, they have a good mapping system. One of the recommendations included in the report was that we should adopt a GIS system as soon as possible so that we could provide the same.

  23. There is a constant picture of clumsy, old-fashioned processes in UK regulation. You have highlighted several of them.
  (Mr Curry) They are highlighted in the report.

  Mr Todd: I suspect the difficulty is that, as you say, with conventional British gratitude you would have thanked the various MAFF officials for their contributions to the process. These are the people who in many cases are directly responsible for the antique, neo-colonial (dare one say it) systems which have been adopted in this country. We have imported a bunch of ex-imperial civil servants to run these processes, and they do it in the way that they conventionally dealt with the natives.

Mr Drew

  24. Was any account taken of the economics of the process? You were given a brief to look at the forms and process. The whole point of the process is that there is a product at the end of it. I think everybody accepts that the process is not a point from which they would want to start. Was any account taken of the impact on markets of the type of process and processing being undertaken here?
  (Mr Curry) We are well aware that all regulations carry a cost. Compliance with the regulations as far as concerns the industry is not just a boring, tedious challenge but also a costly exercise. Whether those costs are borne by the farmer or markets, they have an impact on the industry. That was very much part of our thinking. If we can reduce the regulatory burden we can reduce the cost of compliance and applying the various regulations. That was why the recommendations fell into two categories: first, to encourage the industry to keep better records; secondly, and more importantly, to encourage the Government to invest in IT systems which would make a substantial contribution to reducing the cost of compliance. It is the cost to government in establishing adequate data systems and CAPPA which will substantially reduce the burden.

  25. One of the accusations that could be levelled is that by the very nature of the process you discriminate in favour of one sector as against another. That can be added to by the relative complexity of the forms. People chase the money through the forms rather than think what they are best at, and so on. That is not an accusation to be levelled at just the British but the whole panoply of form-filling that goes on in Europe.
  (Mr Curry) Yes. As to the paper burden, we looked, perhaps simplistically, at three areas in which there was an opportunity substantially to reduce the amount of paper and the burden of form-filling: the IACS forms, various livestock support schemes which require a good deal of form-filling and cattle passports. If one looks at markets, cattle passports are by far the biggest burden in moving paper. We recommended that we should move to a situation in which paper passports became unnecessary in two years and IT systems should be developed to the extent that IACS forms could be filled in electronically. A pilot scheme was trialed in the Anglian region which has now been rolled out this year nationally. We also recommended that the livestock forms, particularly the cattle forms, should become completely unnecessary once sufficient data was on the database at Workington. The cattle tracing system is virtually up to speed. The information as of December was that the numbers required to complete the national database were down to single figures. Once that database is up to speed and farmers provide information on births, deaths and movement there should be no need for any forms to be filled in at all. Forms can be preprinted with the numbers held on the database and farmers can be paid accordingly. All that we require is a check on numbers on farms from time to time. Those developments will lead to a significant reduction in the amount of paper and bureaucracy that is currently a burden on our industry.

  26. I turn to the forms and guidance. What progress has been made so far? When one looks at the forms one wonders whether anyone has made any progress at all.
  (Mr Curry) We found it rather ironic that while we met to discuss this important subject Brussels was churning out even more regulations in relation to the extensification scheme introduced earlier this year. There is a timing issue here. Had we had the cattle-tracing system up to speed we would not have needed, and will not need, all of the form-filling that is required for extensification. I believe that considerable progress has been made during the past 12 months. The group was pleasantly surprised in December when it reviewed each of the recommendations to see how much progress had been made. Government found the resources to invest in the cattle-tracing system and met the timescale that we set; namely, its completion within 12 months of submitting the report, other than a few straggling cattle on which information is yet to be received. The IACS scheme trialed in Anglia is now being rolled out nationally this year. All individual farmers have been sent an application form asking if they would like to submit their forms electronically this year. Therefore, that deadline has been met. You see from the summary of our meeting in December that overall we were pleased with the progress made. There has been a time delay in introducing the appeal mechanism, but that matter is now under way. We have not made progress on the issue of the producer group, which is irritating. That has been a festering sore within the industry for a very long time.

  27. If we work on the current presumption that progress takes the form of evolution rather than a radical shift, when shall we begin to see standardisation? Presumably, the goal to which we are moving is acceptance across the Union that there are too many schemes with too many forms, resulting in different outcomes, and that if we standardise the forms at least one may achieve fairly similar outcomes. Is that what we are moving towards?
  (Mr Curry) We are moving towards the removal of the need to fill in forms, certainly on beef.

  28. Is that true also of arable?
  (Mr Curry) In the arable sector, in order to comply with the IACS scheme farmers will need to disclose each year what crops they have in the ground. The forms can be provided electronically and will need to be ticked off by the farmers electronically. It should be possible to simplify it further when the rate of payment for cereals, oilseed and set aside is the same. We are moving towards that. It is only crops which fall outside those categories that are paid at a different rate. Protein is paid at a different rate and complications still exist in that area. But once there is consistency of payment it should be much easier to fill in the IACS forms, because the question of whether there is one more hectare in cereals and one less in oilseeds is a lesser issue when the payment rate is the same. We have not so far discussed farm inspections. A big part of our study was the need to reduce the number of farm inspections and adopt a whole farm approach rather than individual scheme approach.

  29. One of the accusations made by farmers is that different people visit almost on the same day.
  (Mr Curry) Yes. Lord Haskins has also addressed the issue of armies of inspectors which visit farms.

  30. One of the underlying issues identified by the Committee in its investigation of Regional Service Centres was the nonsense which arose when farmers personally brought in their forms. Officials found that they were in the invidious position of being unable to advise but could only nod in the right direction where perhaps they saw clear errors in form-filling. Where have we reached in terms of advice? We are not concerned simply with the clarity of the form itself but that people should fill it in properly and avoid duplication of effort in the whole process?
  (Mr Curry) Obviously, we visited the various Regional Centres. The report addressed the issue of consistency across the different Regional Centres as something to be encouraged. We received a very mixed response. The majority of farmers who sought advice were satisfied that they had received it. Unfortunately, there are always one or two cases in which farmers feel that they have not been properly treated when they submit their forms.

  31. The evidence we received was that farmers did not receive advice. They were not necessarily told what to do or not to do; it was simply unclear. Surely, if there is a proper process farmers should be able to obtain advice, not necessarily fill in the form in front of someone, as to what information is sought and act accordingly?
  (Mr Curry) There is a process. We addressed the guidance notes provided with each of the schemes and said that there must be a more consistent approach. The guidance notes must be simple and straightforward so that farmers can read them and understand what they need to do. Farmers must also be able to pick up the telephone if they are not sure about a particular question and ask how it should be completed. We were told that that was not a problem. There were people available in Regional Centres to provide advice on how to fill in the forms. When the farmers arrive with forms already filled in and submit them at a Regional Collection Centre there will be limited opportunity. Those who collect the forms are required to ensure that they have been correctly filled in. To provide advice once the forms have been filled in is too late: the farmer must seek advice before that.

Dr Turner

  32. Clearly, your group was impressed by the need to use information technology. I was not clear from your report what advice you had taken from a specialist in information technology to guide you. Did you receive such advice from people in assessing the implementation of that system?
  (Mr Curry) On three occasions I met the team from PriceWaterhouseCoopers which was reviewing MAFF administration. I worked with their specialist in this field to determine what was possible in IT and how far MAFF could go. I found it extremely helpful that our study was taking place in parallel with the study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers on MAFF administration.

  33. Since your report we have seen the formation of CAPPA. Briefly, what are the main advantages to the farmer flowing from the implementation of that Agency?
  (Mr Curry) Clearly, there is advantage in bringing together all of the payment functions into a single organisation. There is a consistency of approach and a reduction of duplication in both form-filling and payment. There are three key IT centres required: IACS, CAPPA and the National Cattle Data Centre. For MAFF the development of CAPPA is clearly designed to deliver a much more efficient administration system than the Department currently has in place with all of the functions spread around Regional Centres, but it is also necessary to take advantage of new IT technology by enabling those three key functions, plus environmental schemes, to have access to and be able to interrogate one another for data and information. If one does that it substantially reduces the amount of work that farmers must do themselves. The information provided by the National Cattle Data Centre through CTS will be provided to CAPPA which makes the payments without farmers having to fill in a form at all. That is a significant step forward.

  34. At the moment, we are in the process of submitting electronic forms. Presumably, farmers will always be in the position of having to check what comes out of the computer system?
  (Mr Curry) For IACS, farmers will have to submit electronic forms. At the moment, there is no method whereby farmers do not have to fill in sheep annual premium scheme forms, but that too can be done electronically. For cattle, provided the information on births, deaths and movements is supplied by farmers—it can be done electronically—the rest of the information can be calculated by information provided by BCMS to CAPPA. Payment can take place without the farmer having to fill in a form. That ought to be possible within the next two years or so.

  35. I take it from your earlier remarks you are happy that your recommendation on the possibility of data warehousing (to use your phrase) is being progressed as quickly as is reasonable?
  (Mr Curry) Bearing in mind that the systems are still being developed, yes. That needs to take place. Another issue is the census information which we address in the report. If one uses the phrase "data warehousing", it is necessary for census information to be provided through the existing schemes. Information is being provided on cattle and sheep through IACS. There is no need to fill in separate forms for census data provided those data systems can be interrogated.

  36. One of the advantages of electronic forms is that they contain an element of checking. It was quite clear that farmers were very worried about the effects of making simple mistakes in submitting forms. It is quite clear that if one submits something electronically one does quite a lot of auditing. Is there any reason why there should not be a repetitive process in which certain checks and calculations are made and questions raised when the form is first submitted so that not only does one have intelligence when one submits it but some checking and feedback and queries are raised before the final form is submitted? It seems to me that that is the right way to do it. A lot of the checking could be done before the farmer eventually put his digital signature to the form. Do you see that as being consistent with the view of regional offices which were concerned that they did not own the information? They are never willing to say to the farmer that he has got it right, because if they are wrong it will be their responsibility. Is what I suggest a way forward, and is it being pursued?
  (Mr Curry) The view of the group was that because of the potential to save time and paper through electronic transfer of data it was essential that the forms should be constructed in precisely that way so that when a question is answered another question is raised, if necessary, to ensure that the farmer is satisfied he has answered the question correctly. We believe that the number of errors should be significantly reduced, provided the forms are constructed in that way.

  37. It is quite clear that the auditors matter very much in this. Given that the whole of the Union is likely to move to the use of electronic forms, is there not also a case for asking the auditors to audit the forms? They have a role in ensuring that the original data they receive is collected satisfactorily. It is important that the forms make the right checks and are correct. Should we not specifically approach the auditors to ensure that they have a role?
  (Mr Curry) It would have to be done at national and, I suppose, European level.

  38. That would help to create consistency and confidence?
  (Mr Curry) I am sure that it would.

  39. You and I are convinced that farmers should be happy about using IT. In your recommendations you talked about government targeting farmers with training and business management packages. Some of the farmers we met did not sound as if they wanted to be targeted. Have you any other thoughts as to what the Government should be doing to ensure that farmers get the benefits of the move to IT?
  (Mr Curry) Obviously, various training packages are on offer to help farmers through computerised systems and the use of the Internet. The group has strongly recommended that there should be specifically targeted packages to help farmers understand the new technology and be able to apply it. We remain of that view. The rural development plan includes the possibility of training, and I believe that that ought to be targeted for this purpose. Following our meeting in December, we also recommended that when CAPPA is up and running it needs to convene workshops around the country to explain to farmers how the new systems will work and find a better way to get closer to the industry in order to provide advice; and it should work in partnership with the industry on the submission of forms. Not only do we need detailed training packages but MAFF itself can take the message to the industry through workshops and do rather more.

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