Examination of witnesses (Questions 100
WEDNESDAY 17 JANUARY 2001
GARDINER and MR
100. That is an input into the form making,
is it not? Before we leave the question of advice about form-filling,
your memorandum finishes on a fairly sound note. You refer to
the fact that, despite the efforts of MAFF, discrepancies in advice
have not been eliminated. Sometimes one does not know to whom
to turn to get proper advice. Can you identify the way forward
for MAFF to ensure that those issues are addressed? Does the Department
need to do more than it is now doing to ensure that you do not
return in a year's time to complain about the inconsistencies?
(Mr Gardiner) I believe that a single national information
centre could help. I speak from experience. We give a considerable
amount of advice on a good number of issues to farmers through
lots of routes. We have set up a national call centre very much
for this purpose. One can keep better control over one's advice.
When a complex issue arises that has not surfaced before one can
ensure that it is spread round the advisers quickly. I see that
as an advantage of the call centre. A lot of farmers are worried
about losing the local Regional Service Centre. We must look at
it. However, for the purposes of uniformity a call centre could
101. Do you believe that the measures in place
should now address the problem, moving away from a lead region
for specific topics? Do you believe that if one had one national
focus for advice it would solve it?
(Mr Gardiner) Quite a lot of the problems arise from
interrelationships between schemes. To have one lead region here
and another for another scheme there makes that co«ordination
slightly more difficult.
102. Do you believe that it is important to
have everything on paper with good advice and guidance notes?
Do you believe that the guidance notes can be thinner and there
should be easy access to proper advice in the difficult areas?
(Mr Gardiner) I am very reluctant to believe that
advice should be shortened. I do not believe it matters how long
is the advice so long as it is written in clear, simple English
that people can understand.
103. What is required to start with is something
clearly written on paper?
(Mr Gardiner) Yes.
104. You briefly referred to the move to electronic
forms, which clearly you see as the way forward. In the past we
have met farmers who appear to be reluctant to be persuaded that
that is the case. What should be done to make sure that this move
is made quickly to the benefit of your members?
(Mr Bennett) First, it is important that the system
that is developed to deliver electronic IACS is a good one. We
must maintain a paper system for some time to come. The key is
to have a good call centre so that people have the opportunity
to obtain clear advice particularly when they start on the electronic
method. Hopefully, the interactive nature of the computer application
will be very good; in other words, if one makes an obvious error
it will say so. Some farmers will adapt to this technology very
quickly; others will want to do it that way but use a third party.
It is very important that third parties are allowed to become
involved in the process. The speed with which farmers take up
this matter will depend on whether there is an incentive. If they
fill in the electronic forms and receive their arable payments
a month earlierthey are rather slow compared with some
other Member Statesthat is a fairly good incentive.
105. With regard to the trial which took place
in my region, East Anglia, although the people were self-selecting
a significant number were unhappy with it. Have you done any investigation
into the reasons for their unhappiness; and, if so, do you have
feedback about the kind of problems that they experienced to give
to those who produce the forms?
(Mr Bennett) Having talked to the farmers involved
in the trial, they spotted what they considered to be problems
and found as it proceeded that a lot of the points were picked
up. Those problems were either resolved or would be resolved before
the programme went national.
(Mr Gardiner) MAFF has presented the electronic system
to our committees since then and made improvements based on that
trial, and others are in course. We are very happy with them.
I believe that in the opening year we must not force the system
on farmers; it should be on offer. One wants willing volunteers
to move into this. If MAFF can show that that works well it will
spread more rapidly than some people believe. I know that some
farmers will be very resistant to it, which is why the NFU has
pressed for a paper-based form system to continue for an indefinite
period. We could underestimate the rapidity with which this change
may take place. It is significantly easier to fill in the forms,
particularly if one has farm management computing systems, where
the third partythe manager of the systemwill adapt
it to make certain that it fits in with the MAFF claim form. One
can envisage a situation in which an enterprise, in particular
a cattle farm with electronic records, can virtually press a button
to submit a claim because it is all done inside the machine.
106. Do any of your members refuse to have anything
to do with visits because they want to farm rather than fill in
(Mr Bennett) We often receive complaints about the
complexity of the process, but I am not aware of anyone who has
decided that he would rather avoid the forms and not have the
money. The drive from our members is to reduce the complexity
but they still want the support.
107. There was an option not to engage in set
aside and take the area payments?
(Mr Gardiner) Yes. People with small arable areas
have a very simplified system already. That takes us on to whether
for very small applicantsat the moment, it appears to be
up to about £600there will be a much more automatic
system, which we believe may be a useful simplification.
108. Would you welcome that? Clearly, all the
things that you have talked aboutthe increasing sophistication
of information systemsare fine if one is a big farmer;
one simply pays someone else to do it. However, if one is a small
part-time farmer one can do without all this; one has many other
ways in which one can earn money?
(Mr Bennett) We welcome it, but in the European context
we accept that this may be seen as a disadvantage to the United
Kingdom. For example, the proposal as it now stands would take
out very few of our farmers, but it would take out about 60 per
cent of the Portuguese. In developing this scheme because we have
a larger farm structure in a few years we as a nation will be
much more wedded to complicated form filling. A good number of
other countries with different farm structures do not have such
form-filling. I am sure that that will be pointed out to us by
109. Can you give the number of UK farmers as
a percentage? Would it be 1 per cent or less?
(Mr Gardiner) The estimates are very low indeed: 0.1
or 0.2 per cent.
110. A large part of your document addresses
mapping. Do I take it that means you think that mapping issues
have been a major contribution to the complexities of the IACS
(Mr Bennett) It has certainly created a lot of confusion.
(Mr Gardiner) Mapping has been a major complexity.
Sometimes in this country we forget that other Member States had
a comprehensive register of their land usage for their own internal
purposes. We built up a register from nothing. In the early years
we found that we did not have all the information that we thought
we had. The Ordnance Survey had not swept over that area for 20
or 30 years. We found that some information was wrong and farmers
who had relied in good faith on OS measurements discovered that
when somebody did come along and measure up there were discrepancies.
That caused a great number of problems.
111. You tell us that there are still problems
in this area and people have used what appeared to be the appropriate
data. Despite the recommendations made by the working group they
are still being penalised. How has that happened?
(Mr Gardiner) We are much clearer now that where the
farmer has relied on official information he will not be penalised
for past years. That is an enormous improvement. However, the
claims must then be changed for current and future years. We have
little doubt that once we moved over to GIS it would, while that
would of itself cause problems, be a much better system. However,
we would still have a problem with part field measurement.
112. I should like to be clear about penalties.
In paragraph 4.5 you say that "some of these penalties are
being imposed retrospectivelyeven where the producer has
based his claim on areas determined by a previous official field
measurement." If it is a previous official field measurement,
I am at a loss to understand how those penalties can be imposed?
(Mr Gardiner) We certainly have a problem, in that
if a farm has been inspected and a MAFF inspector has not queried
a particular field or discussed it with the farmer it does not
mean that in a future year the field measurement cannot be looked
at again and changed.
113. But you said that there could be penalties.
It may be easier if, following this morning, the Committee is
given one or two specific examples to illustrate cases in which
that has happened?
(Mr Bennett) Obviously, we have done considerable
work on this and can dig out a few examples and supply them to
114. I would have thought that the Committee,
having made such clear recommendations that it should not happen,
would be concerned about this and make sure that it stopped?
(Mr Bennett) I can certainly supply that information.
115. I believe that I interrupted Mr Gardiner
who intended to make some comments about the need to get the digital
mapping in place. I am sure that the Committee would like to hear
what recommendations you have to ensure that that is done with
the minimum disruption, taking as read immediately that there
should not be a penalty for errors where people have used what
in the past has been assumed to be proper information. What should
be done to phase it in smoothly?
(Mr Gardiner) This is quite a big task for MAFF or
CAPPA to deal with. My only recommendation is that they should
not proceed until they are absolutely clear that the system that
is developed is operable across the whole country.
116. Is it not a recipe for disaster if one
wants to make it happen everywhere at once? Is it not best to
make it happen and find out what the problems are more selectively?
(Mr Gardiner) They have done a deal of work on it.
It reveals that although the total error on a farm can be very
small, in the sense of the GIS information compared with the previous
information, there can be significant variations between field
measurements. We have some problems here as we move forward. I
believe that it will be a source of friction between the farming
community and the Ministry as it goes forward. On the other hand,
at long last it will provide us with a proper register of British
farmland which once and for all will stop the problem of whether,
if a change is made, it applies retrospectively. There would be
an official, accepted register of a farm's field area which to
us is a very important development.
117. I did not detect that you had in mind any
(Mr Raymond) One of the strong recommendations in
our report was that we move forward with the digitised mapping
exercise. If there were to be any discrepancies between the GIS
system and the old system of OS maps no farmer should be penalised
for any past mistakes that he might have made if he has used the
maps available at the time. If those fears within the farming
community could be allayed farmers would go along with the exercise.
118. Presumably, some farmers have lost out
because the new mapping may show that they should have put in
bigger claims. What happens in those circumstances? Do they receive
(Mr Gardiner) The reluctance of the Government to
go back and pay on non-claimed but truly existing land shows we
believe that there should not be any penalties when it is the
other way round.
119. One turns finally to the vexed question
of the two-metre rule and the problems that it causes, to which
you refer in your submission. Has that problem now been solved,
or must steps still be taken to ensure that it does not re-emerge?
(Mr Gardiner) I think we can say that we have solved
it. However, it has taken an extraordinary length of time and
caused a great deal of worry and confusion across the country,
because farmers are very concerned that their normal farming practices
will lead them to have lower areas. It also raises a matter of
principle, in that when we declared our regional yields for the
arable area payments we based them on what we thought were the
existing areas, not the Commission's new definition. There was
pressure from the Commission to change our field measurement but
no acceptance by it that it should retrospectively change our
regional yields to offset the disadvantage. It has been a hugely
complicated issue that has been made quite difficult by the inability,
or unwillingness, of some Member State representatives to understand
the rather peculiar British and Irish problem. Insofar as farmers
truly use traditional practices and have field margins wider than
two metres, the problem is solved. It will not allow any of our
members to change their field margins and their normal practice.