Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witness (Questions 180 - 193)

TUESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2001

MR MALCOLM SLADE

  180. They were discussing it from last autumn.
  (Mr Slade) I think MAFF is going ahead to try to develop a control regime along those lines with our blessing. I consider it to be already possible. The problem at the moment is that legislation requires, nevertheless, a 10 per cent on-farm inspection per scheme, which means that we are not so flexible. For the male bovine scheme you cannot do 8 per cent make 16 per cent for the female bovine scheme, let us say. You must do the minimum 10 per cent each. That is what the law says and that is what I am there to control. With the changes that we are hoping to make in the course of this year in the legislation, it will be possible to vary the level of inspection according to the scheme and according to the perceived risks per scheme, which will vary according to the scheme.

  181. Do you judge it to be a reasonable possibility that it will come into fruition this year?
  (Mr Slade) Yes. You would have to speak to MAFF about it, but I understand that MAFF's plans are quite advanced. They know our feelings on it which are favourable. We have stressed the minimum needs. We would like to see this go ahead. MAFF would be under an obligation to inform us when they decide on their final plans, to notify us and to get our okay, if you like. That would be a formality but, nevertheless, that would arrive on my desk. I would consult colleagues and it would go around the house to different services within Agriculture D-G and possibly others. Then we would say to MAFF, "Please go ahead". It will be done quickly and we would be very happy for MAFF to do that.

  182. When the Commission inspects member states, who makes up the team? From where do they come?
  (Mr Slade) On the IACS side we are a unit of 30 people. If you take out the four secretaries and myself as head of unit, as I do not make missions, there are 25 controllers sub-divided into the different schemes. We have six colleagues in the arable crop sector; four on the animal premiums; four on olive oil, which is in my unit because it will become integrated into IACS; and on rural development we have two teams of five on accompanying measures. In total we approach our complement of 25 inspectors. There are all nationalities. I go to the UK, to Greece. We go across the spectrum. It is not done on the basis of nationalities or where people come from. We are all Commission officials. There are no national experts. Certainly other services in the Commission tend to veer towards our system of control which is to say that we do not let a British person go to the UK, a Greek go to Greece or a Swede go to Sweden on his own. We go everywhere.

Chairman

  183. Out of interest, how many non-Greeks in your service speak Greek?
  (Mr Slade) We have two Greeks in my unit and they are both very good at English and one is good at French. None of us speaks Greek.

  184. That raises a problem.
  (Mr Slade) No.

  185. Why not? You are examining a Greek form and you are examining the practices of the Greek government and, therefore, you are dependent on other Greeks to tell you whether it is working or not. One may make the same observation about Portugal which has a minority language. Many people speak English, French and German, but how can you check a Greek form, filled in by a Greek farmer, and by Greek civil servants on a Greek island?
  (Mr Slade) That is fair comment. In relation to form reading I can manage in most languages, but the two problem languages are Finnish and Greek. No one speaks Finnish except the Finns. There are a few specialist interpreters at the Commission. When I go to Greece I have two interpreters with me, one on each shoulder. One translates into Greek and one translates from Greek into English. That is the first step. That is for my on-the-spot control and the exchanges which are part of the work that I carry out. When it comes to an examination of the documentation, of course on the spot I am reliant upon the interpreters. The interpreters are not interested colleagues; they simply tell me what the form says. When I return, or even before trips, we will have received information. At the Commission there are vast translation and interpreter services, an army of people—freelance and official translators—who translate all sorts of documentation. Often a problem is caused by the time that it takes to receive a translation—sometimes six weeks to two months. Those are practical problems and we overcome them to the best of our abilities. It would be wrong for me to say that I can assess the Greek system, such as it is, as well as I can assess the UK or Irish systems. Clearly, that is true.

  186. Turning to penalties, all of us have constituency cases of farmers who have been penalised by their regional office for some transgression and inevitably we end up writing to the Minister. Usually we receive a letter from the Minister saying, "Awfully sorry, if we do not disqualify this chap we risk disallowance". You have already mentioned that that is a heinous sin. I rather take the view that the more one is disallowed the more one will try to help the people. My reaction is often to say that if that had been the French minister he would say that the farmer did not intend that and he would allow it. What flexibility is there in the discretion that member states have? What latitude is there for taking into account genuine errors? The French told us that because their administration at a departmental level is close to the chamber of agriculture and there is a process of dialogue, that enables corrections to be made if they conclude that the chap was not wicked. In Britain people are hit because they have made a mistake. What is the latitude? How do you monitor it? Is there a rule book in relation to it?
  (Mr Slade) When you say that in Britain people are penalised because they make a mistake, in my travels in previous years, and up to two or three years ago, the situation regarding application of sanctions was unsatisfactory everywhere, including in the UK. I must underline that. I also said that since then I consider that the statistics show that there has been some significant improvement in that. Part of my remit and my job is to try to ensure that any sanctions, for irregularities or anomalies, serious errors, deliberate or otherwise, are subject to fair and proportionate sanctions. That is our job. I am told by my lawyers in Brussels that it would be illegal to do otherwise. The European Court of Justice would reject cases if the sanctions applied were not proportionate or fair as they are supposed to be. How do we arrive at that? It is not easy to say when a mistake is genuine and when it is not. In the past couple of years we have built into the regulation the idea of recidivism. That is to say that where someone offends twice in a similar way he is subject to a penalty the second time, but not the first. We try to make the sanctions suitable to the particular risk and the particular offence. Obviously, a premium system that is based, for example, on the identification of animals requires a sanction if the animal does not have an ear tag and so cannot be identified. We would be negligent if we did not envisage that. However, at the same time, at the other end of the spectrum, if someone forgets to sign his form, he puts it in on the last day of the claim-lodging period, sends it back outside the 25-day period and loses his whole premium because of that, that would be a rather harsh measure to take. It is not easy. No errors are identical.

  187. You cannot really monitor the culture differences, can you? You have just said that you have been to Greece and you said that they take the form along to the local administration office where they would fill it in for him. In Britain, a farmer may take his form along to the regional service centre, as many still do because they like the security of handing it in, and they are specifically told that the staff will monitor that it is filled in, that all the boxes have a tick or a number in them, but they do not check whether they are correctly filled in. It is a mechanistic process, whereas in Greece there is a qualitative process. That is a difference in culture, I believe. That is not really controllable, is it? There has to be an element of faith, trust and tolerance in all that.
  (Mr Slade) I agree. The regulation lays down minimum control and sanction requirements. It is part of my job to enforce those minimum requirements. Member states can, according to their own wishes, apply other procedures and other sanctions. The veterinary legislation, for example, envisages national administrative measures to be taken against people in some member states on the continent of Europe and there can be a 100 franc fine if the identity card is not handed in on time. Apparently in the UK the legal system does not allow such an administrative fine to be applied by the local inspector.

  188. Is the data or the application of sanctions by a member state in the public domain?
  (Mr Slade) It will be. I wonder what you will do with this bundle of information.

  189. If it is in the Commission it is in the public domain.
  (Mr Slade) When you receive this packet, we would appreciate you referring any difficulties that you may have to us in due course for clarification. They can be indicative. I do not think that is in the public domain. Here, for example, we have control and inspection statistics, sanctions, numbers of claims, numbers of hectares involved and numbers of animals. That comes in a more detailed form from the member states and we collate it and summarise it, as we have done here. We distribute that information to all the national authorities of all member states. I do not believe that we have laid down any rules as to what they do with that when they receive it. I do not know whether it is in the public domain. We have not given it out to anyone else.

  190. Perhaps you could check on that and let us know the answer?
  (Mr Slade) I should say that the information has been given to the European Parliament in recent years. Annually we send the statistics that you will receive to the European Parliament. Whether that counts as being in the public domain I do not know.

  191. The Irish told us that an EU-level working group will look at penalties, with a first meeting scheduled for next month. Are there proposals to simplify the penalties system? Do they include suggestions to address the apparent disproportionality of the current scale of penalties, whereby a genuine error can entail a significant loss?
  (Mr Slade) It will all be done by my service, with the IACS hat on, on 8 and 9 March next week. Yes, as I explained, the proposals for simplification that we shall present to the delegates in a preliminary way will also involve clarification of sanctions and, if possible, streamlining of sanctions systems. As I said earlier, that is not such an easy thing to do. We are keen on it, if it makes it work and if it makes the system work more effectively. We have a basic interest and it is one that I am familiar with. I go on to farms and I watch the national inspectors carry out their job. When sanctions are swingeing, the inspectors close their eyes. That is the reality. They close their eyes because they know that one relatively small offence can produce a dire result for a farmer, particularly in the current climate. I have no interest in making sanctions so swingeing that they will never be applied. That gives me work in the clearance of accounts context, which is not progressive. I have an interest in making sanctions fair and proportionate and for the inspectors to understand that they are fair and should be applied to improve the system overall for everyone.

  192. In 1995 the NFU initiated court action on behalf of a number of British farmers who had suffered severe penalties for IACS set-aside infringements in the previous two years. The European Court ruled that the less severe penalty—the 1995 penalty—should be applied retrospectively, relying upon a provision in Council regulation. Then there was the IACS review under Don Curry—no relation—and he concluded that the European Commission has interpreted this judgment to mean that any reduction in the severity of existing IACS penalties would have to be applied retrospectively to 1993. Was he right? How does that affect the attitude of the Commission?
  (Mr Slade) I was making reference to that case earlier when I said that the European Court of Justice would not allow disproportionate or unfair penalties to be applied, no matter in what domain. It is not for me to judge the consequences of the judgment. That is for our legal service and for the legal authorities in MAFF. I do not have an opinion. If you want a clearer answer, perhaps if you put that question in writing, I am sure that those in the Agriculture D-G legal service and/or in the Commission legal service would certainly be willing to give an opinion.

  193. We could give you a copy of that question to take with you. Is there anything that you want to say that you have not said already, or that you have said, but you wish you had not, or do you have a brief point that you would like to make in conclusion? I want you to feel that you have put over to us what you want to say.
  (Mr Slade) I thank you for the fair hearing that you have given me. It has been more fair than I anticipated. I would like to think that the national authorities who work with my service and the delegates who know me personally would consider that I and my service have shown an even-handed approach and that we have worked towards a fairer, more equal application of the IACS in both the controls and the sanctions. As my voice has been disappearing since yesterday morning, I shall leave it at that. I thank you for inviting me over.

  Chairman: Thank you very much for coming. At a later stage we shall pursue one or two points with you, but this has been an extremely helpful session.


 
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