Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 14

Memorandum Submitted by the Country Landowners' Association (H15)

INTRODUCTION

  1.  The CLA is pleased to submit evidence to the Agriculture Committee's Inquiry on the implementation of IACS in the EU. The CLA represents some 50,000 land holdings/rural businesses. Our members include farmers (both small-holders and full-time farmers), foresters, game-managers, fishery-owners, rural businessmen, conservation trusts, institutional and private estate owners and professional advisers dealing with land law, finance and management. As people who live and work in rural areas, our members have a deep commitment to the countryside. Many also have a direct interest in farming. We therefore welcome the Committee's decision to examine the implementation of IACS in the EU.

  2.  The CLA fully recognises the need for public scrutiny of the use to which public monies are put. We accept that farmers, as the main recipients of payments from the CAP, which accounts for half of the EU's budget must have their claims monitored to ensure that there is no misappropriation of public funds. Overall, most farmers respect the work done by MAFF officials in administering IACS related schemes, and entertain good relations with them. However, we are concerned about the apparent increase in the number of IACS-related penalties borne by our members and relating to genuine mistakes in interpreting the complex rules of IACS-related schemes. We have already taken up these concerns with the Minister and with the Commission, but are happy to summarise them here. Our concerns mostly relate to the use of disproportionate penalties for genuine mistakes, to the inappropriateness of existing dispute settlement procedures and to the absence of an appeals mechanism system.

Complexity

  3.  Overall, there is a general feeling among farmers that, although necessary, filling in the IACS forms is a complex task, undertaken with some reluctance, and often left until the last minute. In that light, we welcomed in principle the Minister of Agriculture's announcement earlier in the year that the process of dealing with CAP support schemes would be streamlined by merging the paying agency functions of the nine RSCs and the Intervention Board, and by enabling farmers to submit forms electronically. That being said, we had—and continue to have—reservations about the way the new electronic IACS will be implemented. A copy of our response to MAFF outlining these concerns is attached in Appendix A [not printed].

Disproportionate penalties

  4.  Many of our members have over the years expressed their frustration at the perceived lack of proportionality between the penalties imposed by MAFF when farmer error has occurred and the scale of the error. Although gradually some flexibility has been added to the system, it continues to offer insufficient scope for discretion to be exercised by officials. We have had more than once to raise with MAFF officials cases of genuine human hardship where, for instance, the submission of IACS forms has been delayed for reasons of illness. Although officials have expressed their personal sympathy for the individuals concerned, they have invoked the rules, and their narrow definition of "force majeure". This has too often meant that families who already under severe mental pressure have the added stress of having their IACS payments curtailed or, at worst, disallowed. Although, as stated earlier, we fully understand the need for accountable systems, the principles of good regulation also include proportionality which , we would argue, has too often been lacking in these cases.

  5.  We accept that the Commission has made an effort to introduce some flexibility in the interpretation of the IACS rules, for instance by introducing rules on offsetting. However, even those rules remain very strict. There is also some resentment at the one-sidedness of a mechanism which claws back money from farmers who have over-claimed, but does not compensate them if it is found out that they have under-claimed.

Inappropriateness of dispute settlement procedures

  6.  A recurrent problem over the years has been the lack of an independent appeals mechanism, to adjudicate in cases where farmers contest decisions taken by MAFF officials, and to sift out genuine mistakes. We have raised this issues already with the Minister, but have been told that the current appeal arrangements provide adequate opportunities to make representations about penalty decisions. Although we agree with the Minister's view that at heart the problem lies in the nature of the IACS rules themselves, we would still argue that an independent appeals systems would do much to reverse the perception among those farmers who have experienced difficulties over their IACS declarations that MAFF "is out to get them".

Lack of forward information

  7.  Another recurrent complaint by our members relates to the lack of information given about changes to the rules. This has a negative effect on farm planning. A recent example of this is the continued uncertainty about IACS rules on field margins.

Inspections

  8.  Although the need for inspections is well understood, their timing could be improved. Many farmers have had to deal with "surprise" inspections which have entailed chasing livestock up and down muddy fields and, if the roundup was unsuccessful, having to repeat it at a date agreed with the inspector. This process is quite costly both in farmer's time and in inspector's time. As an example, one of our members had a cattle inspection in Spring this year. Because of the muddy condition of the animals (April showers), the inspection could not be successfully completed on the given day and had to be carried out at a later date. By the time the process was complete, the farmer had spent some 16 hours working on the inspection; his spouse had spent some six hours producing a list of the animals in number order and helping round up the cattle, and an employee's time also had to be used. All in all, the cost in time of the inspection amounted to nearly half of the money that the inspection was supposed to safeguard (eight bullocks, out of a herd of 105 animals). This estimate does not include the cost of the inspector's visit (which totalled some 13 hours). In some ways, this problem will remain as long as agricultural support is linked to headage.

9 November 2000


 
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