Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examinations of Witnesses (Questions 280-296)

MR NICK SOMERFIELD

9 SEPTEMBER 2004

  Q280 Paddy Tipping: You paint a picture and you are saying visitors should not come into the countryside. We will have a discussion about that at another time. Could you tell me your view about the power that will go to the National Assembly in Wales? This is a Bill that covers England and Wales. You mentioned the changes in area payments earlier on. There has been a big discussion about differential payments on various parts of farms because along the English/Welsh borders there is quite a lot of overlap.

  Mr Somerfield: That is a nightmare.

  Q281 Paddy Tipping: It is a nightmare because the National Assembly can set one set of regulations and the UK Parliament another. Have you worries about this?

  Mr Somerfield: I have indeed, yes. On the one hand, I pushed for historical payments for Wales because I thought that was the right way forward but, of course, we had not foreseen the extent of this cross-boundary problem. It is stopping some people buying land on the other side of the border because they will be losing so much in area payments. You are quite right that it is a tremendous problem. How it will be resolved, I do not know. I do my best with the National Assembly but it is not always easy.

  Q282 Mr Mitchell: What sort of problems do you envisage? Would you rather be dealt with by the National Assembly or by the UK Parliament?

  Mr Somerfield: As an Englishman in Wales. although of 40 years standing, I was very much against the National Assembly because I thought power would inevitably come from Westminster.

  Q283 Mr Mitchell: But, now that you have it, who is going to deal with these issues?

  Mr Somerfield: The National Assembly is there and it has to deal with them now. We have got it. We are stuck with it. It has got to be made to deal with this. I presume there will have to be some liaison between the National Assembly and Westminster over this border definition. It is history repeating itself, is it not?

  Q284 Paddy Tipping: You cannot have different regulations for different parts of the farm?

  Mr Somerfield: I do not know what the solution to that is and whether certain areas could resolve this between the Assembly and Westminster. It looks like being a big ongoing problem.

  Q285 Paddy Tipping: You have painted a very dim view of this Bill. Broadly, do you support the Bill?

  Mr Somerfield: Yes, of course, I do. We all support animal welfare, do we not? I think there is some unfortunate wording in this entry thing. What one must realise, and what I would like to get across to this Committee, is that we have a plethora of experts attending us all the time. They come in droves and they come in twos. For example, we have a large ancient monument outside the farm, an Iron Age fort. There are four bodies monitoring that: CADW, the Welsh Ancient Monuments group, CCW, the Countryside Council of Wales, the National Assembly and the Brecon Beacons National Park and no one body speaks to the other. Four lots of people come round and I have to spend two and a half hours of my valuable time with each. I have said to them, "Look, guys, either hire a minibus and all come at once or decide which one you want me to deal with because I cannot deal with four of you".

  Q286 Paddy Tipping: You could charge entry?

  Mr Somerfield: Yes. It is quite fun.

  Q287 Joan Ruddock: You are providing us with an amusing picture of life in Wales. I am a Welsh woman from that part of the world and I quite understand what you are saying. I wonder if this Bill is really going to make a difference. You describe the types of farming you have and the high standards you set. What do you envisage actually happening? Do you see tangible improvements and what might those be? You say that you are concerned about unintended consequences for livestock farmers. What do you think those might be?

  Mr Somerfield: They might be misjudgements on the part of inspectors. Some of this seems rather like a job creation scheme for local government. It follows a similar theme because we had the same thing with Access for Wales. As I said previously, we have a terrible shortage of large animal vets and qualified people who know anything about agriculture. Trading standards people do their best but you cannot expect anybody to acquire a lifetime's experience in a few weeks of training. The problems might arise through misunderstandings, particularly on the definition of cruelty. I could give you so many examples. I will not labour you with them all but I will tell you about one. The RSPCA rushed out to a farm the other day. A woman had come from Swansea to live in the countryside and she commuted every day from Llangadog to Carmarthen on the A40, which is about 25 miles, and she had reported a farmer keeping cattle on concrete with no food or water and they were there in the morning and they were there in the evening. Of course, she went to work at 8.30 and came back home at 5.30! My next door neighbour has a very well kept donkey. As you know, donkeys do sharp inhalations of breath before they bray. Several times he has been reported for having a donkey with extreme breathing difficulties. If that donkey ever does have real breathing difficulties he will be in real trouble.

  Q288 Joan Ruddock: Presumably the RSPCA no doubt felt obliged to go and check up on the first case that you described, but when they established the facts, there was no problem.

  Mr Somerfield: Oh, no, but it is making work for the RSPCA. The problem was resolved. I have found personally, both in the livestock markets and at home, that the RSPCA have been very helpful and supportive but I do not think, and I have discussed this Bill with the RSPCA, that they want to become a police force.

  Q289 Mr Mitchell: You yourself expressed reservations about a national voluntary body being regarded as the appropriate national authority. Why is that?

  Mr Somerfield: It is because of a lack of bodies on the ground and a lack of qualified people. The RSPCA will admit themselves that they have not got the people with agricultural knowledge on the ground. That is my reservation on that point.

  Q290 Joan Ruddock: Presumably you have local government inspectors, though, as everyone else does?

  Mr Somerfield: Yes, but they have one vet and so many other junior officials, and some of them are at least 17, coming out with clipboards. The industry is up to here with monitoring. There are family farms trying to get the work done; they have so much work to do and all this takes a lot of time and it is extremely bothering. You could be treating a lot of sheep or calving cows or making hay or whatever in the time you spend dealing with these people.

  Q291 Alan Simpson: I want to pursue the point about inspection regimes. I am assuming that you accept we cannot have an effective animal welfare Bill without an effective inspection regime and you cannot have an effective inspection regime if you do not have effective access. I can understand some of your aspirations but I was puzzled that you seem to be suggesting that in farming there should be a more restricted right of access than exists in criminal law or for factory inspections. I do not quite see why you say that.

  Mr Somerfield: I think the access should be by dialogue and reasonable conversation and if that fails, then get in the police or the RSPCA; 99 times out of 100 dialogue works.

  Q292 Alan Simpson: Let me try and take this through into the context of normal factory inspections or inspections by trading standards. If the inspectors turn up, there is a dialogue about accessing the facilities. If those people have nothing that bothers them, the inspection goes ahead. It does not have to be pre-notified. In fact, it is not pre-notified. The question about conflict would arise only if it was at an inconvenient time and there were other problems that just made it impossible, or it was in the middle of a foot and mouth outbreak or whatever, or there was something wrong. In that context, prior notification is a nonsense. To me, the suggestion that you seem to be making is that for a justice of the peace to be persuaded that a relevant offence is being committed requires a higher standard than exists in the criminal law. At the moment, all that is happens is that if the police attend they are required to show that they have reasonable grounds for believing that an offence may be being committed, not that it is being committed. I just do not understand how you would presume that in farming there should be a tougher test for the issuing of a warrant than applies in criminal law.

  Mr Somerfield: I am not exactly saying that. I am saying that the standards are invariably higher. We are being monitored anyway by numerous authorities. We have the Farm Assured scheme; the National Assembly inspector comes round checking our ear tags; sheep are being counted and all sorts of things. Supposing I had a problem on my farm and the RSPCA came to me and said, "We believe you have a cow that is dying in the cubicles; can we go and see it?" I would be foolish if I did not say yes, would I not? I think dialogue works all the time. I do not know of any cases where enforcement has been necessary.

  Q293 Alan Simpson: You are saying that if someone said no and they did have something to hide, you would then require a higher standard of proof before a warrant was issued than applies in criminal law. I do not, for the moment, understand how you could justify that.

  Mr Somerfield: You could be right. Perhaps we cannot. I take your point. In practice, it works out all right but you have to have it written down, do you not? You are making a very good point there. We are not asking for special remission from anything. One problem we have is that there are a lot of incomers. The farm next door to me has just been bought by a VAT chief inspector and his wife who is a criminal law solicitor. I am obliging them by grazing their ground for them, and I am not charging them VAT either! These are people who do not want to farm; they just want space around them. There are many people coming in. I quote the case of a geologist who came in and he had four sheep. I offered to dip them for him. He said, "I do not like these nasty chemicals". Neither do I but one has to dip sheep. His ewes ended up covered in maggots and the vet charged him £200 to deal with them, so he learned the hard way. They did survive, I am glad to say. That is the sort of thing which is giving farming a bad name. I do not know how we overcome that unless these people are allied to a farmer, which they normally inevitably are, who knows what he is doing.

  Q294 Mr Mitchell: You mention a problem that operates in your own farming of sheep on the hills, which I suppose know their territory but could appear to be abandoned. You want the Bill to define abandoned animal in another way. How would you tackle that problem because it is an interesting and important one? It is the same in the Lake District and in parts of Yorkshire as well?

  Mr Somerfield: Yes, indeed, and of course all sheep are now required to be tagged, so the owner should be traceable. I take it that a sheep without a tag or without an ear mark, which is the traditional way of marking hill sheep, is considered abandoned. That is the only fair way to assess the situation.

  Q295 Mr Mitchell: So it would be a simple definition: untagged?

  Mr Somerfield: Yes, ear marks or tags. I think ear marks are dying out now but they were the ultimate because tags can be torn out. We have a huge issue over double tagging now, as you are probably aware.

  Q296 Mr Mitchell: Are they likely to survive up there?

  Mr Somerfield: Yes. Wales is so varied. A mile down the road from me people are keeping Suffolks. If those Suffolks came up to my farm in winter, they would be dead in a week—they would die of disappointment—whereas my Welsh ewes are thriving. This is what people do not understand.

  Mr Mitchell: Mr Somerfield, we are very grateful to you for your evidence. I think we should do a Peter Mayle with An Englishman in Welsh Farming and write a book on it. Thank you very much indeed.





 
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