Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witness (Questions 40 - 59)

WEDNESDAY 17 JANUARY 2001

MR DON CURRY

  40. Do you see a role for the involvement of third parties?
  (Mr Curry) Yes. Some farmers will be either unwilling or unable to adopt the new technology and participate in this brave new world. They must have the option of continuing to fill in forms manually, if they prefer, or using a third party to do the work for them.

  41. Can you explain why they should have the option of filling in forms manually?
  (Mr Curry) There is a transitional period here. Initially, they should still have the option to fill in forms manually if they wish, but if they are unable to do it electronically they should be encouraged to use a third party, an agency or whoever. That raises certain other issues, such as electronic signatures, delegated authority and so on, but those matters can be overcome.

  42. We have been told that progress is being made on the introduction of digitised mapping. You asked for the work to be done urgently. We have had progress reports. Do you think that they would fit with the expression "implementing urgently"?
  (Mr Curry) There has been some delay, but progress is now being made. MAFF is about to go out to tender on the development of a digitised mapping system, or GIS. Perhaps the word "urgent" has not been applied as rigorously as it might have been.

Mr Todd

  43. Did you visit CTS?
  (Mr Curry) Yes.

  44. Were you impressed by the performance and accuracy of the service?
  (Mr Curry) It is easy to criticise. David Evans and his team initially faced a very difficult challenge in building the business from the start. There are still too many errors.

  45. Did you not say in earlier evidence that the Netherlands had attempted it a while back? Did you not give that as an example of a particular process?
  (Mr Curry) Yes. However, the delay in developing a CTS system was not the fault of the National Cattle Data Centre but the fact that Government did not invest money in the systems. There are two different issues here.

  46. I was concerned with a different point. Did it not occur to you that at least part of a model existed in another Member State?
  (Mr Curry) Yes, and the same model existed in Northern Ireland which had also developed a national cattle data system. There was a recommendation by the Wilson Committee in 1992/3 that the British Government should invest in a national cattle data register. That recommendation was never adopted other than in Northern Ireland.

  47. We have used the word "urgent" and have heard your definition of that word. Do you think that action by the British Government in this respect can be classified as urgent in any normal meaning of that word?
  (Mr Curry) No, because it was first recommended in 1992.

  48. Do you believe that some reflection on other models outside the UK—you mentioned the example of Holland which you discounted—might have helped to improve the efficiency of the establishment of CTS which was, though you have not said it, plagued by error and waste at the start of its operation, remains substantially inaccurate now and has dramatically exceeded its budget cost? That is another example of British application of technology to agriculture. We have just had a lengthy questioning session on how technology might apply. One might think that our reflection on learning processes in other areas would lead us to be at least cautious about it?
  (Mr Curry) There are two stages to this. One is the establishment of the National Cattle Data Centre and the introduction of passports and the provision of information about movements. CTS, which was the complete cattle-tracing system, was implemented this year. That should have been done a long time ago so that we had a complete national cattle register in place. All other Member States who moved when we should have moved have had to replace their systems because technology has moved on. Both Northern Ireland and Holland have replaced their systems, and we would have had to do the same by now. We would have been in a much more advanced, better position had we done it much earlier.

  49. It is not just that. Perhaps we did not look hard enough, or at all, at what other people had already done?
  (Mr Curry) I do not believe that there was any lack of knowledge as to what the system could deliver: there was lack of willingness to invest the money.

  50. And perhaps a lack of willingness to learn from others?
  (Mr Curry) I believe that it was a resource issue.

  51. Does it concern you that the group which advised on the technology and implementation of CTS also advises, I believe, on the technology and implementation of CAPPA?
  (Mr Curry) I was not aware of that. Once the decision was taken, CTS was implemented quickly and efficiently this year.

  52. Efficiently?
  (Mr Curry) Yes, I believe so. All the problems with passports are a separate issue. The introduction of the CTS technology this year has gone well.

Chairman

  53. Let us turn to records and inspections which you mentioned earlier. Obviously, IACS has led to a big increase in the need to keep records. Will standard herd and flock registers be sufficient to make the situation better, or are further steps possible to minimise the burden?
  (Mr Curry) The national flock and herd registers were an important first step in proving to the European Commission that we had robust on-farm recording systems. Whenever we challenged the number of inspections to which farmers were subjected the retort was that there were so many errors on farm records that we were being subjected to a higher level of inspection than would otherwise be the case. If my memory serves me correctly, we are subject to 10 per cent inspection which could fall to 5 per cent if we had adequate systems in place. A first step, we believed, was that farmers needed to improve their record-keeping to reduce the number of inspections required by the European Union. The second step is for those records to be held electronically, which is a much more efficient way to do it.

  54. With multiple records for different IACS schemes?
  (Mr Curry) Clearly, it is a nonsense for farmers to have to hold multiple records. That is an issue which Haskins identifies in terms of the Environment Agency and environmental schemes. The need for farmers to fill in multiple records for their own mainstream agricultural support system is not so much of a problem, but there is a cross-departmental issue here.

  55. What about the co-ordination of inspections about which you have had something to say in the report?
  (Mr Curry) This is a very important area on which we spent a considerable time. I said earlier that each individual scheme had developed over time and carried with it its own compliance and inspection requirements. The consequence of that was that farms were being inspected for one scheme, another scheme and then another scheme independently. We felt that there was a need to co-ordinate all of that and remove the nonsense of regular, frequent inspections on farms for separate schemes. One then comes up against the problem of retention periods and the need for certain inspections to be carried out during those periods. Therefore, each scheme carries a separate retention period. All of that needed to be harmonised, but with the development of CTS, with all information being carried by it, it is much easier for inspections to be carried out and rationalised than was the case before. All of the data is held there. When inspectors visit farms they should inspect everything on the farm when they are there, whether they be sheep, cattle or IACS, without each individual enterprise being subject to a separate inspection. We wrapped the role of local authorities in inspecting cattle movements and medicine records in with our recommendations that they too should be part of the reorganisation of inspections.

  56. Did you investigate differences between the way that we and others carried out inspections?
  (Mr Curry) As far as our investigation went, in Holland and Ireland we did not detect a significant difference in the way that the schemes were being applied.

  57. They also had inspections on different schemes by different people at different times?
  (Mr Curry) Yes. The Dutch appear to have armies of inspectors to visit farms, which is not regarded very favourably by farmers in Holland.

Mr Drew

  58. Let us look at the appeals process, penalties and so on. Is the level of comprehension of those who fill in the forms sufficient because of the complexity to make this a process that is fair and reasonable in view of the appeals that all of us who have any involvement in this area know arise fairly regularly which appear to be fairly bizarre? Is this all fair and realistic?
  (Mr Curry) We approached this from the point of view that there is only one category as far as European auditors are concerned: fraud. Any errors made on the part of the farming industry in filling in forms comes under the category of fraud, which is quite inappropriate. Clearly, we have led the drive to stamp out fraud in Europe, which must be supported, but farmers are very concerned about making a simple error that jeopardises the validity of their claim, potentially exposing them to severe penalties. It is against that background that we believe farmers should have recourse to an appeals process if they feel that they have been unjustly treated either through the interpretation of the information supplied or mistakes made on their part.

  59. There are two levels of appeal, are there not? At one level someone telephones or goes to the Regional Service Centre and there is a dialogue in which the farmer is told that he should not have put a tick in one box but another. Presumably, the impact is ratcheted-up if the official feels that perhaps someone is deliberately gilding the lily and something must be done about it. Can you explain where the boundary exists?
  (Mr Curry) We envisage within the recommendation a two or three-stage approach. Obviously, the first step is to appeal to one's Regional Centre, if it exists, to report that something is unfair or a mistake and to ask whether it can be corrected. If it is a simple matter of ticking the wrong box or making a mistake with a figure, that should be subject to rectification fairly easily at the first stage process. If it is a more fundamental error which may be deemed to be serious in its impact on the farming business itself, and the individual farmer has not received a satisfactory response from his first approach, we believe that he must have the opportunity to take it further and have it considered more carefully. The second stage could be an independent person within MAFF with no historical involvement with the Regional Centre in the filling in of the form, but the ultimate recourse should be an independent panel, however that is defined legally, where the case can be heard. The farmer should have the opportunity of taking it to that stage and having the matter reconsidered.


 
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