Examination of witness (Questions 20 -
WEDNESDAY 17 JANUARY
20. We are not perfect?
(Mr Curry) No, we are not. One must assume that European
auditors are consistent in their application. We asked the question:
did they treat the UK any differently from any other Member State?
One must assume that they are even-handed in their approach.
21. Bearing in mind your statement about the
two very brief contacts that you had with other Member States,
which appear to produce rather better systems than ours, I am
puzzled that you did not produce a rather more resounding document
about how to respond to it?
(Mr Curry) It was not our task to appeal to the prejudices
of the industry and to damn the Government out of hand. I believe
that we took a balanced approach in addressing the issue. We specifically
said to government that they had to get the cattle tracing system
up to speed. That was a very strong recommendation which I impressed
on the Minister on a number of occasions. We had to invest very
quickly to ensure that we had a cattle database and tracing system
which met the EU's requirements, because we were lagging behind
other Member States. That recommendation was made in response
to what we had seen in Holland and information from other Member
22. I recognise that you felt you should not
confirm prejudice but, as I put it to you a minute or two ago,
there is a different way of looking at the subject. It does not
have to be seen as "rigorous Brits and sloppy foreigners"
but as clumsy and unimaginative bureaucrats here and others who
have thought through some of these issues in a rather more imaginative
way and implemented the controls with greater sensitivity. The
contrast does not have to be between bad and good in the sense
we tend to see it; the relationship can be viewed in a more positive
way. I am very disappointed that your report did not take that
opportunity or, if time constraints prevented you from doing that,
encourage others to do so. I believe that that would have been
a positive recommendation.
(Mr Curry) We believed that the farmers on either
side of the Irish border to whom we spoke were a good barometer
of whether the approach in Northern Ireland and the Republic differed.
Their view was that in terms of the livestock schemes there was
very little difference in application. As to IACS form-filling,
it was believed that the form used by the Irish Government was
shorter and easier to fill in. I believe that the Irish Government
had already embarked on a GIS system which allowed them to provide
more information to the farmer. Certainly, they have a good mapping
system. One of the recommendations included in the report was
that we should adopt a GIS system as soon as possible so that
we could provide the same.
23. There is a constant picture of clumsy, old-fashioned
processes in UK regulation. You have highlighted several of them.
(Mr Curry) They are highlighted in the report.
Mr Todd: I suspect the difficulty is that, as
you say, with conventional British gratitude you would have thanked
the various MAFF officials for their contributions to the process.
These are the people who in many cases are directly responsible
for the antique, neo-colonial (dare one say it) systems which
have been adopted in this country. We have imported a bunch of
ex-imperial civil servants to run these processes, and they do
it in the way that they conventionally dealt with the natives.
24. Was any account taken of the economics of
the process? You were given a brief to look at the forms and process.
The whole point of the process is that there is a product at the
end of it. I think everybody accepts that the process is not a
point from which they would want to start. Was any account taken
of the impact on markets of the type of process and processing
being undertaken here?
(Mr Curry) We are well aware that all regulations
carry a cost. Compliance with the regulations as far as concerns
the industry is not just a boring, tedious challenge but also
a costly exercise. Whether those costs are borne by the farmer
or markets, they have an impact on the industry. That was very
much part of our thinking. If we can reduce the regulatory burden
we can reduce the cost of compliance and applying the various
regulations. That was why the recommendations fell into two categories:
first, to encourage the industry to keep better records; secondly,
and more importantly, to encourage the Government to invest in
IT systems which would make a substantial contribution to reducing
the cost of compliance. It is the cost to government in establishing
adequate data systems and CAPPA which will substantially reduce
25. One of the accusations that could be levelled
is that by the very nature of the process you discriminate in
favour of one sector as against another. That can be added to
by the relative complexity of the forms. People chase the money
through the forms rather than think what they are best at, and
so on. That is not an accusation to be levelled at just the British
but the whole panoply of form-filling that goes on in Europe.
(Mr Curry) Yes. As to the paper burden, we looked,
perhaps simplistically, at three areas in which there was an opportunity
substantially to reduce the amount of paper and the burden of
form-filling: the IACS forms, various livestock support schemes
which require a good deal of form-filling and cattle passports.
If one looks at markets, cattle passports are by far the biggest
burden in moving paper. We recommended that we should move to
a situation in which paper passports became unnecessary in two
years and IT systems should be developed to the extent that IACS
forms could be filled in electronically. A pilot scheme was trialed
in the Anglian region which has now been rolled out this year
nationally. We also recommended that the livestock forms, particularly
the cattle forms, should become completely unnecessary once sufficient
data was on the database at Workington. The cattle tracing system
is virtually up to speed. The information as of December was that
the numbers required to complete the national database were down
to single figures. Once that database is up to speed and farmers
provide information on births, deaths and movement there should
be no need for any forms to be filled in at all. Forms can be
preprinted with the numbers held on the database and farmers can
be paid accordingly. All that we require is a check on numbers
on farms from time to time. Those developments will lead to a
significant reduction in the amount of paper and bureaucracy that
is currently a burden on our industry.
26. I turn to the forms and guidance. What progress
has been made so far? When one looks at the forms one wonders
whether anyone has made any progress at all.
(Mr Curry) We found it rather ironic that while we
met to discuss this important subject Brussels was churning out
even more regulations in relation to the extensification scheme
introduced earlier this year. There is a timing issue here. Had
we had the cattle-tracing system up to speed we would not have
needed, and will not need, all of the form-filling that is required
for extensification. I believe that considerable progress has
been made during the past 12 months. The group was pleasantly
surprised in December when it reviewed each of the recommendations
to see how much progress had been made. Government found the resources
to invest in the cattle-tracing system and met the timescale that
we set; namely, its completion within 12 months of submitting
the report, other than a few straggling cattle on which information
is yet to be received. The IACS scheme trialed in Anglia is now
being rolled out nationally this year. All individual farmers
have been sent an application form asking if they would like to
submit their forms electronically this year. Therefore, that deadline
has been met. You see from the summary of our meeting in December
that overall we were pleased with the progress made. There has
been a time delay in introducing the appeal mechanism, but that
matter is now under way. We have not made progress on the issue
of the producer group, which is irritating. That has been a festering
sore within the industry for a very long time.
27. If we work on the current presumption that
progress takes the form of evolution rather than a radical shift,
when shall we begin to see standardisation? Presumably, the goal
to which we are moving is acceptance across the Union that there
are too many schemes with too many forms, resulting in different
outcomes, and that if we standardise the forms at least one may
achieve fairly similar outcomes. Is that what we are moving towards?
(Mr Curry) We are moving towards the removal of the
need to fill in forms, certainly on beef.
28. Is that true also of arable?
(Mr Curry) In the arable sector, in order to comply
with the IACS scheme farmers will need to disclose each year what
crops they have in the ground. The forms can be provided electronically
and will need to be ticked off by the farmers electronically.
It should be possible to simplify it further when the rate of
payment for cereals, oilseed and set aside is the same. We are
moving towards that. It is only crops which fall outside those
categories that are paid at a different rate. Protein is paid
at a different rate and complications still exist in that area.
But once there is consistency of payment it should be much easier
to fill in the IACS forms, because the question of whether there
is one more hectare in cereals and one less in oilseeds is a lesser
issue when the payment rate is the same. We have not so far discussed
farm inspections. A big part of our study was the need to reduce
the number of farm inspections and adopt a whole farm approach
rather than individual scheme approach.
29. One of the accusations made by farmers is
that different people visit almost on the same day.
(Mr Curry) Yes. Lord Haskins has also addressed the
issue of armies of inspectors which visit farms.
30. One of the underlying issues identified
by the Committee in its investigation of Regional Service Centres
was the nonsense which arose when farmers personally brought in
their forms. Officials found that they were in the invidious position
of being unable to advise but could only nod in the right direction
where perhaps they saw clear errors in form-filling. Where have
we reached in terms of advice? We are not concerned simply with
the clarity of the form itself but that people should fill it
in properly and avoid duplication of effort in the whole process?
(Mr Curry) Obviously, we visited the various Regional
Centres. The report addressed the issue of consistency across
the different Regional Centres as something to be encouraged.
We received a very mixed response. The majority of farmers who
sought advice were satisfied that they had received it. Unfortunately,
there are always one or two cases in which farmers feel that they
have not been properly treated when they submit their forms.
31. The evidence we received was that farmers
did not receive advice. They were not necessarily told what to
do or not to do; it was simply unclear. Surely, if there is a
proper process farmers should be able to obtain advice, not necessarily
fill in the form in front of someone, as to what information is
sought and act accordingly?
(Mr Curry) There is a process. We addressed the guidance
notes provided with each of the schemes and said that there must
be a more consistent approach. The guidance notes must be simple
and straightforward so that farmers can read them and understand
what they need to do. Farmers must also be able to pick up the
telephone if they are not sure about a particular question and
ask how it should be completed. We were told that that was not
a problem. There were people available in Regional Centres to
provide advice on how to fill in the forms. When the farmers arrive
with forms already filled in and submit them at a Regional Collection
Centre there will be limited opportunity. Those who collect the
forms are required to ensure that they have been correctly filled
in. To provide advice once the forms have been filled in is too
late: the farmer must seek advice before that.
32. Clearly, your group was impressed by the
need to use information technology. I was not clear from your
report what advice you had taken from a specialist in information
technology to guide you. Did you receive such advice from people
in assessing the implementation of that system?
(Mr Curry) On three occasions I met the team from
PriceWaterhouseCoopers which was reviewing MAFF administration.
I worked with their specialist in this field to determine what
was possible in IT and how far MAFF could go. I found it extremely
helpful that our study was taking place in parallel with the study
by PriceWaterhouseCoopers on MAFF administration.
33. Since your report we have seen the formation
of CAPPA. Briefly, what are the main advantages to the farmer
flowing from the implementation of that Agency?
(Mr Curry) Clearly, there is advantage in bringing
together all of the payment functions into a single organisation.
There is a consistency of approach and a reduction of duplication
in both form-filling and payment. There are three key IT centres
required: IACS, CAPPA and the National Cattle Data Centre. For
MAFF the development of CAPPA is clearly designed to deliver a
much more efficient administration system than the Department
currently has in place with all of the functions spread around
Regional Centres, but it is also necessary to take advantage of
new IT technology by enabling those three key functions, plus
environmental schemes, to have access to and be able to interrogate
one another for data and information. If one does that it substantially
reduces the amount of work that farmers must do themselves. The
information provided by the National Cattle Data Centre through
CTS will be provided to CAPPA which makes the payments without
farmers having to fill in a form at all. That is a significant
34. At the moment, we are in the process of
submitting electronic forms. Presumably, farmers will always be
in the position of having to check what comes out of the computer
(Mr Curry) For IACS, farmers will have to submit electronic
forms. At the moment, there is no method whereby farmers do not
have to fill in sheep annual premium scheme forms, but that too
can be done electronically. For cattle, provided the information
on births, deaths and movements is supplied by farmersit
can be done electronicallythe rest of the information can
be calculated by information provided by BCMS to CAPPA. Payment
can take place without the farmer having to fill in a form. That
ought to be possible within the next two years or so.
35. I take it from your earlier remarks you
are happy that your recommendation on the possibility of data
warehousing (to use your phrase) is being progressed as quickly
as is reasonable?
(Mr Curry) Bearing in mind that the systems are still
being developed, yes. That needs to take place. Another issue
is the census information which we address in the report. If one
uses the phrase "data warehousing", it is necessary
for census information to be provided through the existing schemes.
Information is being provided on cattle and sheep through IACS.
There is no need to fill in separate forms for census data provided
those data systems can be interrogated.
36. One of the advantages of electronic forms
is that they contain an element of checking. It was quite clear
that farmers were very worried about the effects of making simple
mistakes in submitting forms. It is quite clear that if one submits
something electronically one does quite a lot of auditing. Is
there any reason why there should not be a repetitive process
in which certain checks and calculations are made and questions
raised when the form is first submitted so that not only does
one have intelligence when one submits it but some checking and
feedback and queries are raised before the final form is submitted?
It seems to me that that is the right way to do it. A lot of the
checking could be done before the farmer eventually put his digital
signature to the form. Do you see that as being consistent with
the view of regional offices which were concerned that they did
not own the information? They are never willing to say to the
farmer that he has got it right, because if they are wrong it
will be their responsibility. Is what I suggest a way forward,
and is it being pursued?
(Mr Curry) The view of the group was that because
of the potential to save time and paper through electronic transfer
of data it was essential that the forms should be constructed
in precisely that way so that when a question is answered another
question is raised, if necessary, to ensure that the farmer is
satisfied he has answered the question correctly. We believe that
the number of errors should be significantly reduced, provided
the forms are constructed in that way.
37. It is quite clear that the auditors matter
very much in this. Given that the whole of the Union is likely
to move to the use of electronic forms, is there not also a case
for asking the auditors to audit the forms? They have a role in
ensuring that the original data they receive is collected satisfactorily.
It is important that the forms make the right checks and are correct.
Should we not specifically approach the auditors to ensure that
they have a role?
(Mr Curry) It would have to be done at national and,
I suppose, European level.
38. That would help to create consistency and
(Mr Curry) I am sure that it would.
39. You and I are convinced that farmers should
be happy about using IT. In your recommendations you talked about
government targeting farmers with training and business management
packages. Some of the farmers we met did not sound as if they
wanted to be targeted. Have you any other thoughts as to what
the Government should be doing to ensure that farmers get the
benefits of the move to IT?
(Mr Curry) Obviously, various training packages are
on offer to help farmers through computerised systems and the
use of the Internet. The group has strongly recommended that there
should be specifically targeted packages to help farmers understand
the new technology and be able to apply it. We remain of that
view. The rural development plan includes the possibility of training,
and I believe that that ought to be targeted for this purpose.
Following our meeting in December, we also recommended that when
CAPPA is up and running it needs to convene workshops around the
country to explain to farmers how the new systems will work and
find a better way to get closer to the industry in order to provide
advice; and it should work in partnership with the industry on
the submission of forms. Not only do we need detailed training
packages but MAFF itself can take the message to the industry
through workshops and do rather more.