Examination of witness (Questions 120
WEDNESDAY 7 FEBRUARY
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 accessibleof course we
will start with the most popular schemesfor 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
(Mr McNeill) Yes.
128. Have you got a budgetbecause clearly
there are advantages both to you and, I would think, the farmer
in terms of reducing time, effort, energy and expenditureto
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
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
(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.