Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witness (Questions 136 - 139)

TUESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2001

MR MALCOLM SLADE

Chairman

  136. We are grateful that the mountain has come to Mohammed in this instance. It was the intention of Mohammed to go to the mountain but then part of the mountain disappeared so that made it rather difficult. We are investigating, as you know, the practical application of the IACS rules. What started us on this trail was the constant refrain from farmers in Britain that our forms were infinitely more complicated; sought a great deal more information; were gold-plated, etc, compared with what anybody else had to do; and that elsewhere farmers received a more "understanding" response from their national administrations than they did in the UK which was absolutely terrorised by the thought of financial disqualification. That was the gist of it. We also were conscious that the Irish had a single sheet form for IACS. We visited both sides of the border in Ireland. We visited France where their forms appeared to make our forms the model of simplicity, extraordinarily enough. We have received written evidence from various countries. But the fact is that, as you know, uniformity of application is a crucial matter. It is not just in agriculture. People constantly complain that the rules are interpreted differently. When you get a regulation which is agreed by the Council of Ministers and it is your job to apply it, what happens from then on? What happens so that you are satisfied that the various rules put together by the member states, which do not necessarily follow a common format, do add up to the same thing and impose the same burden/opportuity for farmers across the European Union?

  (Mr Slade) Yes, I was wondering if I would be able to give you any real information, make a real contribution but actually, I think I possibly can.

  137. That is good. If you cannot, would you like to say so now?

  (Mr Slade) No, no. If I had to put money on it, I would say that I am your man, which is rather surprising but, nevertheless, possibly true. I am Malcolm Slade and I have worked for 21 years in D-G Agriculture, always in the same unit, the clearance of accounts. Since 1996, we have taken over also the management of the integrated administration and control system, IACS. That means that we have got two hats. We do audit the expenditure, the direct aid expenditure in all member states. We visit all important member states at least annually, sometimes twice annually and all member states in principle at least once every two years. That is our audit hat. We clear the accounts. We ensure compliance. We audit with a view to ensuring compliance with the legislation, both market legislation and the IACS legislation. Our second hat is that we are responsible for drafting IACS legislation, both the Council regulation proposals but more particularly, the Commission regulations to implement the Council regulations. So we are the service which drafts the rules on controls and sanctions and we also enforce those rules. Yes, the member states, and particularly the UK, are sensitive to the issue of disallowance, financial consequences when the rules have not been respected, and I did see from the MAFF contribution to your Committee that they have given you a summary of the disallowances applied in the IACS context in other members states up to 1997. I can assure you that this procedure continues and is becoming even more significant in financial terms in the last couple of years and will be this year. For the most part, in recent years, the UK has avoided such financial consequences by good, proper, in the main, implementation of the control and sanction rules that apply. It is clear that some member states have failed to implement IACS to a satisfactory degree and, of course, the financial consequences continue for those member states to a larger or lesser degree. Yes, of course, I am afraid it is a common story everywhere I go from farmers or farmers' representatives. The ministries are usually convinced that they are much stricter, it is their job to tell me that they are more strict than anywhere else. That part of it, I have heard all before. There is some truth in it. I would not say the UK authorities are the strictest. They are certainly not the most lenient, that is for sure. It depends which areas we are talking about, which aspects of the legislation we are talking about. I have a series of statistics here which are due to be given out to member states next week, at the next experts meeting, which I would give to you here, which give you the control and sanctions situations in all member states for both the animal premiums and the arable crops. It is a very detailed document covering two years of animals, 1998 and 1999 claim years, and for arable crops, 1997, 1998 and 1999. That will give you some insight into where the UK stands in terms of, if you like, a formal league table of control, level of control and level of sanctions. But I assure you that it is my job, my personal job, it is my personal mission as far as my professional life goes, and that of my colleagues, to ensure equality of treatment. We have very little interference from other services within the Commission. Only the financial control of the Commission really has any big say in our work. Of course, we are audited ourselves by the European Court of Auditors regularly. They were in my office last week, in fact, sifting through my files to make sure that I and my colleagues have applied the same level of enthusiasm in following up the different cases that we have across Europe.

  138. But the fact is that the forms which the member states put together to implement this do vary quite considerably. They are radically different. Have each of those member states got a specific clearance from Brussels for the nature of the forms that they use? The answer to that is yes, because you are nodding your head. So the Irish form has been scrutinised by you, as have the British and the French forms, with, presumably, the explanatory documents that go with them. Secondly, of course, an enormous amount depends on the way those forms are applied at that interface between the farmer and the administration, whether a little correction can be made here, whether a correction is made as a result of a telephone call; whether or not the form is regarded as a biblical document from the moment it is handed in or whether it is a negotiable document. How do you monitor that informal side of things which, in a sense, stems from the culture of the administration and the nature of relationships and infrastructures between the farmers and the adminstrations?
  (Mr Slade) I must stress that the setting up of the forms and the instructions are the responsibility of the national authorities. The regulation that we work to, 3887/92, is possibly a five or six page regulation in total. If we go to the part that lays down what constitutes the minimum claim form, for example, for the animal premium scheme, it is minimal. You must indicate the number of animals and the ID numbers of the animals. Obviously, it is clear that people have to sign and date it and give their address. There are other eligibility requirements laid down by the market legislation, minimum eligibility requirements, which would have to be incorporated somewhere to make it clear that the farmer knows what he is applying for and he has committed himself to respecting certain key eligibility rules. But more than that, I agree that there is a vast difference. My job and the job of my colleagues is to see if the documentation used in a system in all member states is in conformity and compliance with the minimum requirements laid down by the regulations. We do scrutinise them, of course. These forms change annually, or often change annually, as do some of the market rules. If we find that some of the forms are deficient in any way, if that is on a key eligibility question which may, as a result, have been overlooked, those are the reasons why we may conclude that there is a need for financial consequences. Usually that is not the case and we would try to recommend to member states, and strongly recommend because we give them a rather short period in which to implement any recommendations we make, if we go back and concentrate on that issue and we find that that has led to there being a risk to the fund, and we are guardians of the fund at the end of the day, in my service, anyway, then we would draw the necessary consequences. So yes, there is a vast array of different complexities in the forms across Europe. I can agree with you. I think if you are referring to the detail and complexity of the UK forms, I guess that yes, they are among the more complex and among the more complete forms that are used in Europe. But they are not necessarily the most complex.

  139. Your sanction is basically the financial sanction?
  (Mr Slade) Yes.


 
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