Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witness (Questions 120 - 139)

WEDNESDAY 7 FEBRUARY 2001

MR JOHNSTON MCNEILL

  120. Do you know the answer to the question, does this electronic form scheme work for all the other payment schemes which are going to be available, because there is going to be a plethora of them?
  (Mr McNeill) The intention, as I understand it, is that all of the schemes will be accessible—of course we will start with the most popular schemes—for electronic completion of forms to make the claims. That is the proposal.

  121. Is it proposed to develop an integration where obviously if a holding has common information, if nothing else the name and the address and the number—
  (Mr McNeill) Yes.

  122.—and in terms of arable area payment schemes you will have a definition of fields and number.
  (Mr McNeill) Yes.

  123. If somebody goes into a multiplicity of schemes, is the idea to be able to take all data about each holding and use that so that it minimises the amount of extra information which farmers have to send in?
  (Mr McNeill) That is the intention. The intention is that the forms will be populated with standard data to save time and, of course, the risk of error in populating those forms. So your holding number, your name, address will be inserted under the various claims when they are made.

  124. Is there a philosophy which says "We would like to move to a position which says to the farmer we would like to minimise the amount of information in total you send us and we would like to maximise the amount of calculation that we do for you"?
  (Mr McNeill) Yes. Of course, using other systems, for example the traceability system, the date based export scheme database will enable us to populate forms and potentially save farmers having to fill in animal tag numbers etc for all the animals because that system identifies the holding on which those animals are. We would hope that we would be able to, as part of the system development, extract out information, populate the form, name, holding number, details of animals and that means the farmer can follow it up.

  125. You mentioned the integration into the system of the British Cattle Movement Service, if I have understood you correct, and there, for example, payments to farmers under various livestock schemes are related to the length of time which animals are held by a particular farmer. Would you envisage the system working on autopilot where there was not any need for farmers to fill in forms and you simply said "The system says you have got these animals here after X months and Y months, here is your cheque"?
  (Mr McNeill) It is a nice idea but I do not think it would fit in with the rules and the Commission's requirements for the schemes.

  126. That is the way the Irish are moving. They told us that last week.
  (Mr McNeill) We will certainly be looking for the best practice but it still has to be compatible with the requirements of the auditors otherwise it will be disallowed. Within that framework certainly we will do as much as we can.

  127. What the findings of the survey trial tell us is that clearly a majority of farmers are still wedded to bits of paper.
  (Mr McNeill) Yes.

  128. Have you got a budget—because clearly there are advantages both to you and, I would think, the farmer in terms of reducing time, effort, energy and expenditure—to move people towards electronic transmission of data?
  (Mr McNeill) I am advised that we cannot actually offer a financial incentive, that would be, again, contrary to the Commission's guidelines.

  129. For example, what about training advice?
  (Mr McNeill) We can certainly do that and that is something we would be very keen to work on with the Farmers' Union and other organisations, to identify areas where we are still having perhaps difficulty in moving people on to the new system. I think there we would have to focus on those areas and try to find ways through local colleges, or whatever mechanism, to train the farmers.

  130. I have not had a chance to read every paragraph in this document but you commented earlier about the fact that farmers travel very considerable distances to seek the reassurance of an official who would look through boxes and say "That is okay". Did you get the sense from the trial that the interactive nature of the form, which prompted someone if an error occurred, if you like, replaced that face to face contact by giving a degree of reassurance that having filled in the right boxes electronically the form was correct?

  (Mr McNeill) That is the intention, that the system is smart enough to identify that if you try to complete the form inaccurately it will tell you that is the case. So, yes, at the end of that I think we would have to identify some way of ensuring farmers are reassured.

  131. You said you had a lot of contact with the customer. Are you going to do what I might call a survey of reassurance, because what I would like to move on to is how are you going to convince all the people on bits of paper that they can feel as confident if they move to an electronic system as they might do by journeying 100 miles to see a real person to give them that reassurance?
  (Mr McNeill) That is, I think, one of the most significant challenges of the exercise because we will have the computer literate internet farmers who will move on to this very quickly. We will have those that perhaps have never seen a computer and that is going to be a major challenge.

  132. Is there any relationship between, for example, farm size or turnover of business and the use of the electronic form in the East Anglia trial?
  (Mr McNeill) I do not have that information. What is interesting though is I asked during my visit to Northallerton was it a certain sector that came in with the forms, was it perhaps the elderly, the educationally disadvantaged, difficulty in understanding the complexity of the form that came in or were there any groupings that they noticed came particularly to discuss their application? The answer was no, it is across the board, everything from the one million pound claim from the very large estate to the £2,000 claim from the small farm.

  133. When CAPPA gets up and running and electronic forms are available for all schemes, are you going to be entirely neutral between paper and electronic submission of data?
  (Mr McNeill) There is a significant period of parallel running systems and, as the Minister has already said, we will not be forcing people to move on to the new systems until they are content, obviously, that it is a good option.

  134. This a bit like television and the end of 405 lines and the move to 625 and things have moved on a little, which shows my age. Are you eventually going to say to people there will come a time when only electronic submission will be admitted?
  (Mr McNeill) Only if the Minister says that.

  135. "Only if the Minister says that", but what are you planning on the basis of? Are you planning to have parallel systems forever and a day?
  (Mr McNeill) That will obviously have an impact on the Business Case in terms of its rate of return in terms of the internal investment that we are making. That is something the Minister will have to consider. I think, as you have already identified, the question would be asked "What proactive steps have we taken to move people" rather than put a gun to their head and say "If you do not do this in a year's time, it is tough". I think we would have to think carefully how do we try to educate them and get people to move to the new system.

  136. You hinted earlier about dialogue with the farming industry in this context. Have you identified third party partners who will work with you on the project of helping people to move from current systems to future systems, possible external sources of advice, for example?
  (Mr McNeill) I have not as yet but I would envisage that the National Farmers' Union, who I understand have indicated they would be keen to assist, would certainly be a third party. I think there is already a relationship, which I would like to explore more, in terms of Government support for colleges, further education, etc., to run courses and subsidise courses. There may be a road in there. We may have to look at running heavily subsidised or, indeed, running free courses for farmers in certain communities to get them to adapt.

  137. What would your attitude be to the industry that could well spring up, just as it has done with self-assessment, which says "We will fill in your tax form for you (we will fill in your application form for you)"? Are you going to encourage that kind of commercial third party development and are you going, for example, to produce software or information which might help those people to provide such a service to farmers?
  (Mr McNeill) I know that is a concern to a number of farmers, if they have to pay third parties to do this work it is a loss of income. If this system is user friendly and people can accept that it is smart and does give them the assurance as they proceed through the form to complete it, and the assurance that it is completed satisfactorily, we may find that they are very enthusiastic and do it themselves. If the system is a failure in doing that then obviously we are going to have to look at that because they will not have confidence in it and we will continue to have to provide front desk staff to deal with these issues.

  138. In the final report of the Implementation Study there is a table of findings, and given you have only been in post for five weeks you may not have had a chance to look through it, but I was just wondering if you had had a chance to look through the key findings and whether there is anything in there which made you think and say "My God, this is what happens" or are you saying "Well, that is what I would have expected from an experiment, there is nothing in there we cannot deal with"?

  (Mr McNeill) I am sorry, I cannot recollect that particular document.

  139. It is that.
  (Mr McNeill) Yes, I do not think I have read it yet. What interested me was the very high quality of service that exists. I know we have talked about inconsistent advice, etc., but I think from the discussions I have had with the staff and certainly from some representatives of the farming community, in many cases there is a marvellous working relationship between the farmers and the people in the regional offices. I think that we need to use that as a benchmark and say that whatever we put in place is going to have to beat that. If it is anything less than that we are going to have severe resistance to moving on to a new electronic way of working.


 
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