Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 71 - 79)




  71. For the record, perhaps our witnesses would introduce themselves.
  (Mr Bennett) I am Tim Bennett, Deputy President of the National Farmers' Union.
  (Mr Gardiner) I am Ian Gardiner, Deputy Director-General of the NFU.
  (Mr Raymond) I am Meurig Raymond, Council delegate to the NFU. I was involved in the IACS Farm Inspection Group.
  (Mr Pearce) I am Kevin Pearce, NFU Chief Adviser on beef, sheep and LFAs.

  72. Were you surprised by the conclusions of the IACS and Inspections Working Party that there was little evidence that UK farmers were particularly disadvantaged in comparison with their EU counterparts in the implementation of the IACS schemes?
  (Mr Bennett) We were not surprised, in the sense that for some years we had tried to find out how other Member States implemented IACS. We found it quite difficult. The message that emerges from other Member States is that it is very complex and bureaucratic. When we try to go beyond that we find it very difficult to discover how other Member States implement the system. We see differences. For example, explanatory notes are different in other Member States. In some cases the notes are much shorter, for example eight pages instead of 48 pages. In some Member States farmers get more assistance from officials. The key point is that most Member States are way in front of us in terms of land registration which may make things slightly easier for them. In general, we were not surprised by the conclusion.

  73. I do not understand why you find it so difficult to get hold of the information. You say that "the information available from other Member States is scant and appears [to be] shrouded in secrecy." If the French farmers' union phoned you and asked how you did it you would send the information, and I am sure that MAFF would do likewise. You would not regard it as a state secret. After all, British farmers farm in France. Hardly a day goes by without one seeing articles about the emigration of British farmers to France. You deal with your colleagues in all kinds of Europe-wide organisations. Does not the network work?
  (Mr Bennett) Normally, the network works quite well. When we get into something as complex as this we find that the messages themselves vary within the Member States. Therefore, we find that it is difficult to get clear and accurate information. For example, we have some clear information coming from France—I spoke to the official who developed the system—that the system was to be changed so that all information would be on computers. Effectively, they will do the work for farmers and inform them of what their claims will be. It is hoped to do that within two years. The farmer will receive a form and then agree that that is his claim.

  74. It is rather like an income tax code?
  (Mr Bennett) Yes. However, that is dependent on having all the databases on all the schemes in France talking to each other, which is obviously not the case in the UK at the moment.

  75. As far as concern the Commission and Court of Auditors, how do you rate their monitoring of the way in which Member States apply the rules?
  (Mr Bennett) As for the UK, there is a fear within MAFF of the auditors which colours decisions about flexibility in terms of mistakes or slight errors that are made. I also get the impression—I do not know whether my colleagues agree—that fear also exists among all Member States. One sees that from the fact that nearly every Member State has been caught out and had to pay money back every year for the past few years.

  76. Do you regard disallowance as a badge of honour?
  (Mr Bennett) It certainly shows that the people who administer the scheme are trying to do their level best to ensure that it operates for the benefit of farmers. In that sense I would perhaps agree with you.

  77. What do you believe were the most important recommendations of the review group? Was there anything which you felt it did not go into in sufficient detail because of time constraints or the nature of its mandate?
  (Mr Bennett) As to operations in other Member States, it would have been useful to have more information. We were quite pleased with the recommendation about the appeal system. As Mr Raymond was involved in the group perhaps he would like to comment upon it.
  (Mr Raymond) Time was short. We would have liked to have done more research into how other Member States implemented IACS. I am aware that Don Curry went to Holland, France and the Republic of Ireland. It was difficult to obtain information to compare their operation with ours. I travelled to some of the Regional Centres and detected real fear amongst officials within the Regional Centres regarding inspections by EU auditors. We were fairly well convinced at the end of our deliberations that the same kind of rules and concerns applied in the Member States from which we managed to obtain information.

  78. You say that "there are a number of outstanding issues that still need to be acted on or resolved." Could you give me the top three in order?
  (Mr Raymond) Obviously, the appeal mechanism is important. The consultation period is very important for the industry. In the past, farmers through no fault of their own have made arithmetic mistakes, or ticked the wrong box, and felt that there is no-one to whom they can turn to have their case heard. I should like to see the database at the Cattle Tracing Centre completed. I believe that there could be a huge improvement as far as form-filling is concerned. As to the beef special premium and slaughter premium, one may have a situation in which there is no need for farmers to spend time filling out claim forms when all that information is on a database. Those are two areas in which I should like to see the process speeded up.

  79. Does anyone want to offer a third?
  (Mr Gardiner) The third must be the movement towards computerisation and electronic submission of forms, partly because an important source of difficulty is transcription errors between the farm records and the form. The form can avoid that. The other issue is inconsistencies in filling in the form. Again, the back-up to the form will sort it out as the applicant fills in the information.

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