Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  80. Will the introduction of CAPPA be part of the solution or just another part of the problem?
  (Mr Gardiner) I very much hope that it will be part of the solution. We need to take every possible step to avoid it becoming a further problem. Earlier this morning reference has been made to the fact that the Government's record on major computerisation is not fantastic. Throughout the process which has led to the formation of CAPPA we have pressed very hard for sufficient money to be given to the system, and also outside expertise. In fairness to the system as it is run, one must remember that the European rules have changed every year, often in very significant ways. However, when one has an inflexible database trying to run after rule changes one has enormous problems. CAPPA and those who work for it will need to understand that further massive rule changes in the IACS system are all too likely. It is no good producing a specification for software which fits today; it must fit tomorrow, which is not entirely predictable.

  81. A key recommendation would be that, for heaven's sake, one should make sure that the system is capable of accommodating quite significant changes?
  (Mr Gardiner) Absolutely. It should include quite major things, such as the introduction of the dairy industry in future with dairy cow payments.

Mr Todd

  82. You touched briefly on the possibility that other countries had invested more in the application of technology or fundamental data collection to aid the process of administering the process. Have I correctly understood it?
  (Mr Bennett) That is one of our impressions. One of the few elements of confirmed knowledge from other Member States is that there is much greater investment in IT in most other countries. That stems from earlier operation of cattle databases through to much more sophisticated IT, for example IACS. The French seem to be in front of us in simplifying the system for their farmers. Most other European Union countries appear to realise that when they put together databases it is useful to talk to one another; if they do, it means that they can reduce it to one inspection instead of four or five. We could learn a little from the way that other countries in Europe have operated.

  83. You listened to my line of questioning about CAPPA. Clearly, other models could have been looked at to see how we could move to a process which correctly identifies our cattle and manages the grant implications. Do you think that generally enough is done in the UK to look at other models before we march blithely into the future?
  (Mr Bennett) I believe that MAFF spent considerable time looking at what others had done in creating a cattle database. Mention has been made of the Dutch. I believe that the Department spent some time looking at all the other operations before it set up Workington in 1996.

  84. The Department may have looked at it but do you think that it learnt anything?
  (Mr Bennett) It was a very difficult operation to set up. Certainly, it learnt a number of things, and there are some further matters to be learnt.

  85. You said that in the past perhaps the problem was lack of investment. Is it also lack of imagination, competencies and a willingness to compare with others before moving ahead? On the basis of that example, you say that it did?
  (Mr Bennett) There is no doubt that money plays a big part. As has been indicated already, when Government starts to invest in IT systems they tend to do it to cost rather than decide that that is the system that they want for which they must pay. One fault line is that they tend to decide, for example, that a cattle movement database is required without thinking through how that system is to operate in future and is to be linked with the support schemes. If there is one criticism—perhaps this is unfair because I am looking from the outside in—it is that possibly there is a need for a strategic plan to operate across the whole concept, not just cattle movement database, on which a decision can be taken.

  86. Do you think that as to that our response is disastrous, in that we have said we must do this for the control of BSE and have bolted on some other elements without first thinking it through?
  (Mr Gardiner) Another point arises on the split between the capital cost of the cattle tracing service which is to be met by Government and the running costs which are to be met by the industry. There is always a temptation in Government to allow a more complicated system to operate for which the industry pays rather than put money up front for development. Certainly, all the way through the industry group which looked at cattle tracing, of which we form part, pressed for the more rapid implementation of electronic alternatives, while recognising that it would be difficult for some farmers. We saw that as simplifying the whole process. One of the major problems is transcription errors from farms to claims and reading errors in entering the claim in Workington. With the best will in the world, those will continue. Farmers will still write slightly obscurely and someone in Workington will misread it. Unless one gets closer to an electronic system, these problems will persist and add to the running costs and strain on individual farmers.

  87. You mentioned the difficulties in obtaining comparative information in Europe, although the forms are readily obtainable. Is not a large part of it the difficulty of understanding the different cultures of administration—I see you nod—and trying to identify, not what appears on a piece of paper, but the way in which officials interact with the community with which they are supposed to work? Is not one of the most critical aspects to look at the fact that the bureaucratic mind is less suited to this task than the mind of some other Member State officials?
  (Mr Bennett) There is a variation across the Community in terms of officials. Some countries have almost as many officials as farmers, so in a sense there is a good deal more advice available on the forms. I believe that we get good back-up for the number of officials employed by MAFF.

  88. There are armies of people at some Regional Service Centres.
  (Mr Bennett) If one goes to the Republic of Ireland there is a distinct variation in the number of people employed, but there are cultural differences in how these matters are approached. It is interesting that the Commission itself, which effectively administers these schemes for the Court of Auditors, has never come up with standards of best practice in different Member States, which would probably be beneficial.

  89. That cultural difference is perhaps worth some exploration. We should not necessarily take the view that the British way is best because that is the way we are used to doing things. Before you came in, I drew rather harsh comparisons with the colonial world and how civil servants in this country had traditionally behaved. Is there at least the possibility of scrutinising the culture of different bureaucracies and how they apply these tools to achieve the outcome that we seek?
  (Mr Bennett) I certainly believe that further investigation as to how other countries implement the schemes is warranted. But the fundamental stumbling block in terms of the UK is that our officials are probably more frightened of the Treasury and disallowance than those in any other Member State.

Dr Turner

  90. Have you done any work to check one of the simpler measures of difficulty: how long it takes the average farmer to complete the IACS form? Have you carried out any investigatory work?
  (Mr Bennett) We have not run a survey of our members as to how long it takes them to fill in the form. Perhaps Mr Raymond can tell you how long it takes him to do it.
  (Mr Raymond) As far as the IACS form is concerned, it probably takes anything up to two or three days. That is time that could be spent on managing the farm rather than form-filling.

  91. Do you agree that if you have some measure of how long it takes then, as you move towards electronic forms, or changing the forms, possibly you have a check on whether things are getting better or worse?
  (Mr Bennett) When one fills in various forms MAFF occasionally runs a survey in which it asks the farmer how long it takes him to complete the form. That is probably a random survey, because I do not have it every year. Certainly, this year I was asked to monitor how long it took me and then to report back. Therefore, MAFF must itself be looking at the time taken to fill in the form.

  92. Given that it takes two or three days to do it during which the farmer should be doing something else, do you see a role for a professional agency? Would the time saved by the farmer be worth the cost of employing somebody else to cope with the paperwork, in the same way that some people hand their tax affairs to accountants?
  (Mr Bennett) Quite a lot of our members already use professional agents to fill in their forms because they then feel a good deal more confident about it. I am not aware of the percentage, but I am aware of a good number of farmers who hand it over to agents.

  93. Does anyone know what the typical cost would be to the farmer?
  (Mr Bennett) Obviously, it depends on the size of the form, but if the process takes two days one is talking of a few hundred pounds.
  (Mr Raymond) It would probably be a bit more; it might go into four figures if one employed a professional person for two or three days. Obviously, one of the challenges that we identified when we prepared the report was the possibility of electronic form filling becoming the norm, with the completion of the GIS mapping exercise. We studied the system in the Republic of Ireland. There is no doubt that the system in that country is far simpler than ours, because a lot of the work has already been done. Farmers were given preprinted forms and all they needed to do was update them rather than start afresh, as appears to be necessary in this country. The challenge is to get the mapping completed and get as many farmers as possible down the electronic route.

  94. Before we leave the forms, how clear is the advice? If one were asked to rate the current forms for clarity and the advice given on a scale of zero to 10, where would they be at the moment? Hopefully, we shall some of the others to make comparisons.
  (Mr Raymond) I suggest that it is a good deal better now than it was three or four years ago when we first had to go through the procedure of filling in the IACS forms. A good number of farmers are infuriated by the fact that if they make a clerical error they can be penalised. However, sometimes when the previous year's information is passed back to the farmer it may contain clerical errors.

  95. Perhaps I may pin you down. I am an engineering scientist by training and like to quantify things where I can. For clarity, what score would you give the forms now out of 10?
  (Mr Gardiner) I should declare that we give them some advice before it is designed, and each year's form is tested on farmers before it is finalised. However, one must remember that the form chases a system which becomes more complicated every year. The words "CAP simplification" have been thrown around for the past five or six years, but when one comes to the farm operation and the filling up of the forms to get support payments there has not been simplification but complexity piled upon complexity.

  96. There are two processes here. I believe that you have correctly identified that the problems arise on the rules and procedures. Clearly, that is an issue to be addressed. At the same time, we are concentrating on the complexity of the system which is similar in other countries. You have alluded to greater simplification in Ireland. Perhaps you would give Ireland a score nearer 10. I am trying to gauge where you believe we have reached in administering the European system and making it clear to farmers what the rules are and how to fill in their forms accordingly. In a moment I shall give in if you do not give a number. Assuming that the Irish are somewhere near the top, where do you think we rank in terms of clarity?
  (Mr Bennett) To make one caveat, probably each of us would give a different score. There has been a big improvement in the score. I hear a number to my left which is one that I would not give. I believe that the situation is improving, and so perhaps I give a score of seven.
  (Mr Pearce) I would rate each of the individual schemes quite highly, but that is not necessarily the problem. The difficulty is that the dynamics of our industry are such that people claim under more than one scheme. The problem is the interaction between the schemes and the relationship, particularly in livestock, with IACS. Given the overall complexity of the system, my score would be considerably lower than the one just given.

  97. I am not talking about the complexity of the system but how well they do the job in providing the information needed and explaining what must be filled in.
  (Mr Bennett) The important point here is that there is a genuine desire to improve clarity and make a very complex system as simple as possible. There have been improvements but there is a long way to go. I believe that, therefore, the score I give is a fair one.

  98. Do I take it from your comments that you have been consulted this year on what the forms should look like next time round?
  (Mr Bennett) Yes. The Department consults us on all scheme forms before they go out.
  (Mr Gardiner) This year we had important changes in the hill support system. Therefore, this year's form will look a lot more complicated to our hill farmers than last year's, however well one seeks to deal with it in the explanatory notes. It is all new, and is rather like one's income tax form changing every year in a major way. An income tax form is incredibly complex and contains huge numbers of boxes with masses of explanatory notes but, luckily, this year's looks very much the same as last year's.


  99. The more we go towards a discretionary element in the CAP schemes, and the more the Government try to introduce environmental criteria into the payments, presumably the more complex the forms?
  (Mr Bennett) That is one of the concerns. When one introduces national discretion there is a tendency to devise another scheme; for example, the national envelope facility within the beef scheme. One could end up devising another scheme with a different stocking rates. Within the various schemes the producer has up to five stocking rates with which he must cope across all the schemes, from the hill farming scheme to countryside stewardship. The complexity becomes greater. Therefore, when Member States have discretion one of the key decisions to be taken is to reduce, not increase, complexity. We do not see evidence of that at the moment.

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