Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260
WEDNESDAY 7 MARCH 2001
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
(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
(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
slightlyfrom some original work we have done we can expect
there to be pluses and minuses across a large farmthe 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 exerciseI
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 errorssome of which might be
preserved in a simple electronic formcould 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.
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
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
(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
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.