Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 60 - 70)



  60. Do you believe that MAFF understands and accepts that there is a problem with the Commission?
  (Mr Curry) There was initially some reluctance in its support of the recommendation. I had to argue the case hard with MAFF officials and the Minister. It is also true to say that the industry was not at one in supporting the recommendation. There was a divergence of views as to whether it was absolutely necessary, but the group believed that it should be established. MAFF accepted it and has now moved, though not as fast as we would hope, to a consultation process on the recommendation. Therefore, it is moving ahead and I shall be most surprised if it is not supported through the consultation process. Scotland has already introduced a scheme.

  61. I do not have experience of many cases where people are subject to serious penalties. However, anecdotally the people who are caught out tend to be unlucky. One can read two things into that: that they made a fundamental mistake in the filling in of the form or that the process is lacking in rigour and lots of people get through. The money will be paid and we must go through the process of making it appear as though we are being rigorous in enforcement, but in reality that does not happen. I welcome your views on that.
  (Mr Curry) The cases vary significantly, for example making mistakes in filling in areas which are in set aside or not in set aside. During the course of our consideration of this matter a number of cases were referred to me in which farmers had difficulty. Some of those dated back to the eligibility of fields and so on and the remote sensing techniques used prior to 1993 to determine whether or not fields had been in arable. One of our recommendations was that this should be discontinued. One was going back 10 years, and it was a nonsense to investigate whether or not fields were still eligible. MAFF has accepted that recommendation and stopped doing it. It still uses remote sensing to determine the eligibility of fields today, but not historically. Therefore, the position varies enormously from farm to farm. Many of them ought to be resolved at the first stage approach. If there is an appeals process in place I believe that that will be a good discipline on MAFF officials to try to resolve it at the first stage so that the full-blown appeal process does not have to be triggered very often.

  62. Unless I have it radically wrong, a lot of people would struggle to comprehend the forms. I am not a farmer but I have a reasonable grasp of tax forms and so on. These forms are so far off the scale of comprehension that there must be a professional support system to fill in forms and submit them. How does one organise that in terms of an appeal without going to the ultimate of saying that it may as well be tested in the courts and lawyers should pick over it? Is it possible to have an appeal process without going into a legal minefield?
  (Mr Curry) Two members of the group were tasked with looking at this in detail and coming up with a specific recommendation. We appreciated that an appeal process could mean many different things. One could be exposing individuals to substantial legal costs which we wanted to avoid if possible. The Scottish model is one that we may well apply here. It involves training up lay people, whose sympathies would probably be with farmers, with knowledge of the industry to sit on a panel and make a judgment. They might be farmers or agents themselves. It is difficult to answer the question in detail without looking at specific cases. Despite the fact that the forms are onerous, they are now reasonably well understood by the majority of farmers who fill them in. They have now had seven or eight years' experience of filling in IACS forms. What is necessary now is to update people on any changes that take place annually, and farmers then need to take those changes into account. One issue which caused a good deal of aggravation last year was field margins. That has now settled down. Fortunately, MAFF has been able to resolve the matter with the European Commission. Farmers can still apply the same practices as before in terms of field margins. Most farmers now understand the forms quite well. In my view, it is mistakes made in filling in the forms in terms of field areas or the allocation of crops to areas which are likely to cause a problem. The appeal process will be very helpful in resolving those difficulties and also the eligibility of fields.

Mr Todd

  63. The negotiations on Agenda 2000 allow greater flexibility to Member States in the implementation of regulations. Do you believe that we have used that flexibility? Did you have an opportunity to look at how other Member States had responded to the opportunities provided?
  (Mr Curry) No, because the timescale to which we operated restricted our ability to look at other Member States. The Agenda 2000 proposals were being discussed and debated by other Member States at the time and the documentation was not issued in time for our study.

  64. When did you look at it?
  (Mr Curry) At the end of 2000.

  65. Have you looked at it since?
  (Mr Curry) No.

  66. You will have seen the proposal to introduce a simplified scheme for small farms which involves less frequent completion of IACS forms. Does that commend itself to you?
  (Mr Curry) Yes, it does. I believe that that is important.

  67. It was not one of your proposals?
  (Mr Curry) No. The drafting of our report took place in November of last year for submission to the Minister in December. We carried out most of our work in September and October, so it was ahead of the 2000 agreement and any information that might have influenced our thinking on implementation. Had we been operating six months later certainly we could have looked at it in more detail.

  68. The view is that it will have very few implications for the UK. Are there any particular concerns that you believe the Government should express on this matter?
  (Mr Curry) No, I do not believe so. There is an understandable desire to remove smaller farms and enterprises from some of the rigorous compliance requirements, because clearly it is burdensome to inspect them and verify whether systems are being applied on small enterprises. As a principle, to simplify schemes for smaller enterprises is something to be welcomed.

  69. Right at the start of my questioning I referred to the Haskins inquiry which referred to the lack of proactivity by British regulators in addressing the opportunities and presenting ideas to Europe on how to apply regulations more sensitively. Do you have any suggestions as to matters which should be pursued?
  (Mr Curry) One of the issues which we tried to explore was the degree of co-operation between Member States in the implementation of EU regulations and whether there was sufficient discussion in advance of the implementation of regulations across the Union as to best practice and the most simplified way to apply regulations. I do not believe that sufficient debate takes place between Member States on how implementation should be applied.

  70. It is a bit difficult to do if we do not first find out how they do it, and you did not particularly commend that approach?
  (Mr Curry) My comments were based on the stage before that; namely, discussion on implementation. If one has implemented something one has gone down the track and committed oneself. I believe that there should be greater discussion before implementation on how best to do it.

  Chairman: Mr Curry, thank you very much.

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