Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260 - 279)



  260. One of the complaints we regularly have from farmers is that when they do make some such error, there does not seem to be enough friendliness or ability among the people dealing with the form to say, "That is a simple error. We will correct it for you," and that is done. They imply that that does not happen, and there is a bureaucratic procedure which they then get into which can end up with them losing money. Would you accept the criticism, and if not, how much flexibility does someone looking at the input from the farmer actually have to do a quick check and correct obvious mistakes which are the result of human error?
  (Mr Duncan) This is a very difficult area. I have heard the criticism you have just made on a number of occasions. I am afraid there is a vast difference between what we would call a genuine error and an obvious error. There is coverage in the regulation for us to handle obvious errors, and the Commission over the years have produced a large amount of guidance on the type of error that we can accept as obvious. We use that as much as we are able. But having used that, there are cases that fall outside that area, and these are the ones that exercise us. On the area side, we accepted something like 12,000-14,000 instances of obvious errors in the last processing year, and the figures are similar on the livestock side. So there is a fair element of flexibility already being used. The cases that fall outside the guidance is a whole new area that reaches straight into the simplification debate or, to coin another phrase, the proportionality debate. I think there is some way to go amongst Member States and the Commission on this particular one. Clearly, it may well be that what we are talking about is a real simplification in this area.
  (Mrs Purnell) I have said this often to Mr Slade and others: if the rules are so complicated that farmers do make innocent mistakes which cost them huge amounts of money, we ought to think about simplifying the rules rather than not applying them. There is a particular instance, which is the Producer Group rules under the Sheep Annual Premium Scheme, which are abysmally complicated. It is often a family partnership, they have to have both the sheep and the quota in exactly the right proportions, and if one family member dies it is not sorted out properly and the executor has to apply, and we have some hideous cases. They are very harsh. But that requirement is in a Council regulation. It is not even an implementing regulation. We have made the case very strongly to the Commission that they need to change this, because these rules were introduced years ago, before quotas. Now we have individual quotas, there is absolutely no need for the Producer Group rules, and we could simplify them. We do do what we can under the guidelines, and we would like to see more proportionality on this, but I find it strange that we should be told to disregard the rules when the real answer is to make them easier.

  261. Do you think there is much fraud actually getting through the system in the UK?
  (Mr Duncan) From my perspective, I do not believe there is much fraud. You can never guarantee that there is no fraud. There is a lot of genuine error, or maybe even carelessness, bearing in mind the large amount of money that could be involved, but I see very few examples of real fraud.

  262. So there is scope to try and simplify the rules if the objective is to protect from fraud, which we would share. I was going to ask a question on the IT area. You have mentioned a few times the Geographic Information System. When is it going to come?
  (Mr Duncan) The current position on the Geographic Information System is we have a tender specification out and we are awaiting bids, which we hope to get around the middle of April. We would then see a two- to three-year programme of work to translate our current field register into a spatial database. That involves capturing information, digitising it on to digital maps, and then incorporating it into the database. A each stage of that accreditation standards have to be applied, and at each stage there is going to be a dialogue with the applicant. What we want to do is to agree that what we hold for each applicant is in accordance with what the applicant believes he actually has on his farm. So the first stage is to capture the data, and having captured it, to check with the applicant.

  263. It seems a bit complicated to me. The farmer may think he has a certain acreage, but there will be a reality. There has to be a reconciliation between what the farmer has been filling in on his form for a long time on a sound basis, and possibly what emerges as the more accurate data. How are you going to resolve that?
  (Mr Duncan) The first point is that each farmer so far has based his claims on Ordnance Survey mapping. We are also going to be using the digital form of Ordnance Survey mapping to populate this database. The regulation covers us for minor discrepancies. Where a farmer has relied on an Ordnance Survey product to make his claim so far and he has done that honestly, he is not liable. If the digital process changes that database slightly—from some original work we have done we can expect there to be pluses and minuses across a large farm—the end product is not markedly different.

  264. Is it going to be phased in, or will there be a "big bang" after the two or three years?
  (Mr Duncan) I think we will phase it in a part at a time, but the current database will still be the database used until such time as we are satisfied that we can phase it in correctly for the country as a whole.
  (Mrs Purnell) In terms of using it for claims, it will be built up around the country as the digitising and data capture and acceptance by the farmer is achieved. We cannot administer part of our claims using the old database and part with the new. The expectation is we will bring the database for England in as soon as we have finished.

  265. So a time will come when you will say, "We have now got that running" and you switch from one to the other?
  (Mr Duncan) Yes, that is right.

  266. The other issue which you have already referred to is CAPPA. I personally was disconcerted that it sounded as though CAPPA was mainly about making life easier within MAFF than for the farmer. My worry was that there seemed to be a one-way flow of information, that you were going to tell them what you were doing, and that was seen to be appropriate, rather than the farming community saying, "This is what we want out of it." Would you accept that there is a danger if that project is not handled properly that any improvement for the farmer will be a by-product because it has made life easier for MAFF?
  (Mrs Purnell) I think there are obviously some very important communication issues on this, and we have quite an intensive programme of communication meetings planned. Now may not be exactly the time to be trying to tell them these things with the Foot and Mouth crisis at the moment, but quite clearly we do want to keep them very much in the picture as to what is happening and to consult them. We did have an external consultation exercise—I think you may have the results of that. I do not think we can under-play the need for communicating. The feedback we got from the red tape review group was that they saw this as a very positive development, and that view was reiterated when the group met again in December, and the chairman of the group wrote to you and expressed that view. But they do think that it will help farmers, and it does offer benefits to farmers, but clearly we have a job to do in convincing those perhaps less ready to see that message that it is the case.

  267. I think you have carefully side-stepped my question. There is bound to be an improvement for farmers. That is my feeling, but my fear was that you were busy setting up a system and setting down what you had to do, and getting it all well developed, you are telling people what is happening, but if you really want to get improvements for the farmer, they have to be in there at the beginning so that the specification for what is being done is designed to help them. That is a fear that I had. Perhaps my question to you should be: would you accept that in principle we should be getting an input into the specification of what the system should do from the farming community and those it is serving, rather than from those who are administrating it?
  (Mr Duncan) If I remember correctly, the new Chief Executive has said that he is going to form a number of liaison groups, which would get reactions from the customer.

  268. I do not want reactions from the customer. I want input from the customer saying what they want.
  (Mr Duncan) It may be the wrong word. He was intending to use these to receive information.

  269. You would not have any problems with what I am saying as being the objective, that we should try and ensure that the farmer has an input into the objectives and the design of the system, not a reaction to the detail?
  (Mrs Purnell) I do not think we have a problem with that message. I am certainly prepared to take it back and talk to Mr McNeill about it.

  270. Do you have any timetable at all for when you think it will all be done electronically and for getting rid of this paperwork?
  (Mrs Purnell) No, we do not have a timetable. We certainly have not set a limit, and I do not think we would be allowed to say we were not going to deal with paper forms. I do not think the EU rules would allow us to dispense with paper forms, at this point anyway. Obviously, you can understand we are enthusiastic about this. We hope that farmers will accept that this is going to help them. I think what we would be looking at with farmers who go on submitting forms in the current way is that we will simplify or re-design the forms so that they can be scanned into our system, so that even if they do not come in to us electronically, they are scanned in and become electronic shortly after they arrive with us. Mr Duncan has seen the Swedish forms.
  (Mr Duncan) Yes, I was very impressed by the scanning system in Sweden, which seemed to be able to get round some of the many difficulties with scanning illegible handwriting. They were quoting over a 90 per cent success rate, and I did not believe it. I asked them to prove it, and on the ones they put through they did achieve that, but they used computer programming quite cleverly to eliminate the problems.

  271. In the trial scheme in my region for electronic submission, as I understand it, people could submit more than once. So it clearly would be possible for people to put their best endeavours in electronically, and for the computer to actually do some of the work which is currently done by hand, and in fact to have a communication with the farmer in trying to get the detail right, so that many of the errors—some of which might be preserved in a simple electronic form—could be corrected. Would EU regulations allow that, so that the farmer could be told, "This is inconsistent with what you did last year. Please check"? If so, would you support that as being a way of not only capturing errors but possibly putting them right without causing a great fuss?
  (Mrs Purnell) Our electronic forms are designed to be used on line. There will be other electronic forms provided by farm software management providers, and they, I think, will perhaps offer other possibilities working off line. But obviously if you are working on line you get the intelligence which tells you, "This is not right." Most of the intelligence is based on the guidance that we give in our scheme instructions, but it is built into the form; it is telling you at the time. It is not saying, "Read page 43." It is just saying, "You can't do this." So in fact it is not different, but it obviously is much easier for the farmer, because he does not have to remember.
  (Mr Duncan) I do not think I can add anything to that, because the general idea is to assist the avoidance of mistakes.

Mr Opik

  272. Regarding appeals and penalties, it took ten months for the Government to shift from response to original documents for consultation. That is quite a long time. Is there a reason for that?
  (Mrs Purnell) Yes. Obviously, as you have perhaps detected, we are involved in a great number of projects, and if anyone is to take responsibility for that, it is probably me. We did try to push ahead as quickly as we could with that. The consultation document, which I am sure you have seen, does have to raise some quite difficult issues about what form the appeal system should take, what kind of outcome there should be, and whether it should be a recommendation or a decision. There were some quite complex issues that we did take time to consult internally on, and I am afraid that preparation process took longer than we would have perhaps wished. We are now out to consultation. I think the consultation period is due to finish on 13 March. We have not had a huge number of replies so far, I have to say. I am very much hoping that, as with their IACS forms, the people we have consulted will get their responses in in the last few days.

  273. This is not a kangaroo court to condemn you for the delay. What is interesting is whether you feel that the appeals system will be in place for claims in 2001.
  (Mrs Purnell) Obviously we are out to consultation. When that comes back, we will have to review the consultation and we will have to put recommendations to ministers. I cannot give a commitment as to when we do that, but we are looking at what we would need to do to take this on to the next stage. We have been in contact with our colleagues in Scotland, who have their system up and running. We were due to go across to Dublin to look at their new system but with the Foot and Mouth, the pressures have obviously changed and that meeting has been postponed for the moment. We are actively looking at what is done elsewhere and have our planning under way, but the decisions to go ahead will be for ministers.

  274. When would you need to make the decision to go ahead in order for it to be in place for 2001 claims?
  (Mrs Purnell) I would have thought at some point later this year, but I do not think I can be more specific.

  275. That is pretty general, but we will leave it at that. You mentioned the Scottish example. Do you anticipate that there could be a different scheme in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK?
  (Mrs Purnell) It is a slightly different system which is running in Scotland from the one that we have suggested for consideration in England, and also the one that has been suggested in the consultation document issued by the National Assembly for Wales. As you know, there is a different legal system north of the border, and they have Scottish Land Courts which we do not have an exact equivalent of. So they are going to have a legislative final stage whereas the final stage here, with the sort of system that we have envisaged in the consultation document, would be the judicial review. But before then there would be a more transparent decision-making procedure through the panel. I think the National Assembly of Wales is recommending the same sort of approach.

  276. Is there going to be flexibility to update the scheme on the basis of experience from Scotland and indeed from Wales? In other words, is there a sharing of best practice?
  (Mrs Purnell) Absolutely. The people who have been working for me on this have gone to Edinburgh and have looked at the project planning and what has happened. We are also obviously following with interest early experience in terms of considering appeals, as to how many are upheld, etc, and what sort of issues they raise. So yes, we are very keen to learn as much as we can from what has been put in place elsewhere.

  277. Lastly, on the penalty system, some would say that it is pretty harsh on genuine errors. Do you agree with that?
  (Mrs Purnell) Obviously, to the extent that we have to advise on cases that have been put to our ministers by MPs, we do see some cases where the decisions do seem harsh, and they do seem disproportionate to the gravity of the error, but as I think we have explained, the rules are very black and white. We have to decide how we handle those. It has been made quite clear by the Commission auditors that the existence of an appeals panel would not let us off the hook in any way. There is no way that the appeals could be used as a way of fudging the outcome. Mr Slade's former director gave evidence to a Select Committee of the Da"il, where he made this extremely clear. It is always a balance. It is really what can you do to make the system more proportionate and the Commission, as I say, has been rather reluctant to go down that route. But there is quite a lot of pressure.

  278. Finally, regarding the EU working group on this, what are your objectives or goals, and when might we see the results?
  (Mrs Purnell) We are going out tonight for a two-day meeting. The first day is to look at the sort of returns that Mr Slade gave, the comparative returns on the crop and livestock statistics, and we will also have a first look at the way the Commission regulation might be amended. I think they are not talking about amendments, because these regulations are amended over and over again, and it is very difficult to find out what they look like, so I think they are going to talk about a consolidated one, which would be a completely new regulation to replace the very much amended previous one. There will be a discussion on that tomorrow afternoon, and on the Friday we have a discussion on GIS, which is now obligatory. I think tomorrow our objectives will be to try and find out what is on the table, what the extent of the changes the Commission is envisaging are, and to try and build coalitions, allies, in terms of where we think we can get some movement.

  279. Do you have a timetable for when there might be an outcome?
  (Mrs Purnell) I do not think there will be anything coming out of this week's meeting. It is very much an early, preparatory one. I think probably the decisions will not be until some time later this year. I hope they will not be too late into the year, because it is never desirable to be implementing things at very short notice. So I would hope they would manage to get it finished by October or so.

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