Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



Dr Turner

  100. That is an input into the form making, is it not? Before we leave the question of advice about form-filling, your memorandum finishes on a fairly sound note. You refer to the fact that, despite the efforts of MAFF, discrepancies in advice have not been eliminated. Sometimes one does not know to whom to turn to get proper advice. Can you identify the way forward for MAFF to ensure that those issues are addressed? Does the Department need to do more than it is now doing to ensure that you do not return in a year's time to complain about the inconsistencies?
  (Mr Gardiner) I believe that a single national information centre could help. I speak from experience. We give a considerable amount of advice on a good number of issues to farmers through lots of routes. We have set up a national call centre very much for this purpose. One can keep better control over one's advice. When a complex issue arises that has not surfaced before one can ensure that it is spread round the advisers quickly. I see that as an advantage of the call centre. A lot of farmers are worried about losing the local Regional Service Centre. We must look at it. However, for the purposes of uniformity a call centre could assist.

  101. Do you believe that the measures in place should now address the problem, moving away from a lead region for specific topics? Do you believe that if one had one national focus for advice it would solve it?
  (Mr Gardiner) Quite a lot of the problems arise from interrelationships between schemes. To have one lead region here and another for another scheme there makes that co«ordination slightly more difficult.

  102. Do you believe that it is important to have everything on paper with good advice and guidance notes? Do you believe that the guidance notes can be thinner and there should be easy access to proper advice in the difficult areas?
  (Mr Gardiner) I am very reluctant to believe that advice should be shortened. I do not believe it matters how long is the advice so long as it is written in clear, simple English that people can understand.

  103. What is required to start with is something clearly written on paper?
  (Mr Gardiner) Yes.

  104. You briefly referred to the move to electronic forms, which clearly you see as the way forward. In the past we have met farmers who appear to be reluctant to be persuaded that that is the case. What should be done to make sure that this move is made quickly to the benefit of your members?
  (Mr Bennett) First, it is important that the system that is developed to deliver electronic IACS is a good one. We must maintain a paper system for some time to come. The key is to have a good call centre so that people have the opportunity to obtain clear advice particularly when they start on the electronic method. Hopefully, the interactive nature of the computer application will be very good; in other words, if one makes an obvious error it will say so. Some farmers will adapt to this technology very quickly; others will want to do it that way but use a third party. It is very important that third parties are allowed to become involved in the process. The speed with which farmers take up this matter will depend on whether there is an incentive. If they fill in the electronic forms and receive their arable payments a month earlier—they are rather slow compared with some other Member States—that is a fairly good incentive.

  105. With regard to the trial which took place in my region, East Anglia, although the people were self-selecting a significant number were unhappy with it. Have you done any investigation into the reasons for their unhappiness; and, if so, do you have feedback about the kind of problems that they experienced to give to those who produce the forms?
  (Mr Bennett) Having talked to the farmers involved in the trial, they spotted what they considered to be problems and found as it proceeded that a lot of the points were picked up. Those problems were either resolved or would be resolved before the programme went national.
  (Mr Gardiner) MAFF has presented the electronic system to our committees since then and made improvements based on that trial, and others are in course. We are very happy with them. I believe that in the opening year we must not force the system on farmers; it should be on offer. One wants willing volunteers to move into this. If MAFF can show that that works well it will spread more rapidly than some people believe. I know that some farmers will be very resistant to it, which is why the NFU has pressed for a paper-based form system to continue for an indefinite period. We could underestimate the rapidity with which this change may take place. It is significantly easier to fill in the forms, particularly if one has farm management computing systems, where the third party—the manager of the system—will adapt it to make certain that it fits in with the MAFF claim form. One can envisage a situation in which an enterprise, in particular a cattle farm with electronic records, can virtually press a button to submit a claim because it is all done inside the machine.

Mr Drew

  106. Do any of your members refuse to have anything to do with visits because they want to farm rather than fill in forms?
  (Mr Bennett) We often receive complaints about the complexity of the process, but I am not aware of anyone who has decided that he would rather avoid the forms and not have the money. The drive from our members is to reduce the complexity but they still want the support.


  107. There was an option not to engage in set aside and take the area payments?
  (Mr Gardiner) Yes. People with small arable areas have a very simplified system already. That takes us on to whether for very small applicants—at the moment, it appears to be up to about £600—there will be a much more automatic system, which we believe may be a useful simplification.

Mr Drew

  108. Would you welcome that? Clearly, all the things that you have talked about—the increasing sophistication of information systems—are fine if one is a big farmer; one simply pays someone else to do it. However, if one is a small part-time farmer one can do without all this; one has many other ways in which one can earn money?
  (Mr Bennett) We welcome it, but in the European context we accept that this may be seen as a disadvantage to the United Kingdom. For example, the proposal as it now stands would take out very few of our farmers, but it would take out about 60 per cent of the Portuguese. In developing this scheme because we have a larger farm structure in a few years we as a nation will be much more wedded to complicated form filling. A good number of other countries with different farm structures do not have such form-filling. I am sure that that will be pointed out to us by our members.


  109. Can you give the number of UK farmers as a percentage? Would it be 1 per cent or less?
  (Mr Gardiner) The estimates are very low indeed: 0.1 or 0.2 per cent.

Dr Turner

  110. A large part of your document addresses mapping. Do I take it that means you think that mapping issues have been a major contribution to the complexities of the IACS system?
  (Mr Bennett) It has certainly created a lot of confusion.
  (Mr Gardiner) Mapping has been a major complexity. Sometimes in this country we forget that other Member States had a comprehensive register of their land usage for their own internal purposes. We built up a register from nothing. In the early years we found that we did not have all the information that we thought we had. The Ordnance Survey had not swept over that area for 20 or 30 years. We found that some information was wrong and farmers who had relied in good faith on OS measurements discovered that when somebody did come along and measure up there were discrepancies. That caused a great number of problems.

  111. You tell us that there are still problems in this area and people have used what appeared to be the appropriate data. Despite the recommendations made by the working group they are still being penalised. How has that happened?
  (Mr Gardiner) We are much clearer now that where the farmer has relied on official information he will not be penalised for past years. That is an enormous improvement. However, the claims must then be changed for current and future years. We have little doubt that once we moved over to GIS it would, while that would of itself cause problems, be a much better system. However, we would still have a problem with part field measurement.

  112. I should like to be clear about penalties. In paragraph 4.5 you say that "some of these penalties are being imposed retrospectively—even where the producer has based his claim on areas determined by a previous official field measurement." If it is a previous official field measurement, I am at a loss to understand how those penalties can be imposed?
  (Mr Gardiner) We certainly have a problem, in that if a farm has been inspected and a MAFF inspector has not queried a particular field or discussed it with the farmer it does not mean that in a future year the field measurement cannot be looked at again and changed.

  113. But you said that there could be penalties. It may be easier if, following this morning, the Committee is given one or two specific examples to illustrate cases in which that has happened?
  (Mr Bennett) Obviously, we have done considerable work on this and can dig out a few examples and supply them to the committee.

  114. I would have thought that the Committee, having made such clear recommendations that it should not happen, would be concerned about this and make sure that it stopped?
  (Mr Bennett) I can certainly supply that information.

  115. I believe that I interrupted Mr Gardiner who intended to make some comments about the need to get the digital mapping in place. I am sure that the Committee would like to hear what recommendations you have to ensure that that is done with the minimum disruption, taking as read immediately that there should not be a penalty for errors where people have used what in the past has been assumed to be proper information. What should be done to phase it in smoothly?
  (Mr Gardiner) This is quite a big task for MAFF or CAPPA to deal with. My only recommendation is that they should not proceed until they are absolutely clear that the system that is developed is operable across the whole country.

  116. Is it not a recipe for disaster if one wants to make it happen everywhere at once? Is it not best to make it happen and find out what the problems are more selectively?
  (Mr Gardiner) They have done a deal of work on it. It reveals that although the total error on a farm can be very small, in the sense of the GIS information compared with the previous information, there can be significant variations between field measurements. We have some problems here as we move forward. I believe that it will be a source of friction between the farming community and the Ministry as it goes forward. On the other hand, at long last it will provide us with a proper register of British farmland which once and for all will stop the problem of whether, if a change is made, it applies retrospectively. There would be an official, accepted register of a farm's field area which to us is a very important development.

  117. I did not detect that you had in mind any specific measures?
  (Mr Raymond) One of the strong recommendations in our report was that we move forward with the digitised mapping exercise. If there were to be any discrepancies between the GIS system and the old system of OS maps no farmer should be penalised for any past mistakes that he might have made if he has used the maps available at the time. If those fears within the farming community could be allayed farmers would go along with the exercise.


  118. Presumably, some farmers have lost out because the new mapping may show that they should have put in bigger claims. What happens in those circumstances? Do they receive a bonus?
  (Mr Gardiner) The reluctance of the Government to go back and pay on non-claimed but truly existing land shows we believe that there should not be any penalties when it is the other way round.

Dr Turner

  119. One turns finally to the vexed question of the two-metre rule and the problems that it causes, to which you refer in your submission. Has that problem now been solved, or must steps still be taken to ensure that it does not re-emerge?
  (Mr Gardiner) I think we can say that we have solved it. However, it has taken an extraordinary length of time and caused a great deal of worry and confusion across the country, because farmers are very concerned that their normal farming practices will lead them to have lower areas. It also raises a matter of principle, in that when we declared our regional yields for the arable area payments we based them on what we thought were the existing areas, not the Commission's new definition. There was pressure from the Commission to change our field measurement but no acceptance by it that it should retrospectively change our regional yields to offset the disadvantage. It has been a hugely complicated issue that has been made quite difficult by the inability, or unwillingness, of some Member State representatives to understand the rather peculiar British and Irish problem. Insofar as farmers truly use traditional practices and have field margins wider than two metres, the problem is solved. It will not allow any of our members to change their field margins and their normal practice.

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