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Standing Committee Debates

Common Agricultural Policy Single Payment and Support Schemes (Cross-compliance) (England) Regulations 2005

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Sixth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Ann Winterton

†Chapman, Ben (Wirral, South) (Lab)
Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
†Cunningham, Tony (Workington) (Lab)
†Etherington, Bill (Sunderland, North) (Lab)
†Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings and Rye) (Lab)
†Grogan, Mr. John (Selby) (Lab)
†Havard, Mr. Dai (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)
†Horwood, Martin (Cheltenham) (LD)
Kawczynski, Daniel (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con)
†McCabe, Steve (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)
†Marsden, Mr. Gordon (Blackpool, South) (Lab)
Milton, Anne (Guildford) (Con)
†Moon, Mrs. Madeleine (Bridgend) (Lab)
†Morley, Mr. Elliot (Minister for Climate Change and the Environment)
†Paice, Mr. James (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)
Rosindell, Andrew (Romford) (Con)
Williams, Mr. Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)
Celia Blacklock, Frank Cranmer, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(2):

Atkinson, Mr. Peter (Hexham) (Con)
Pritchard, Mark (The Wrekin) (Con)

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Wednesday 29 March 2006

[Ann Winterton in the Chair]

Common Agricultural Policy Single Payment and Support Schemes (Cross-compliance) (England) Regulations 2005

2.30 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Common Agricultural Policy Single Payment and Support Schemes (Cross-compliance) (England) Regulations 2005 (S.I., 2005, No. 3459).

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the Common Agricultural Policy Single Payment and Support Schemes (Set-aside) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2005 (S.I., 2005, No. 3460) and the Common Agricultural Policy Single Payment and Support Schemes (Reductions from Payments) (England) Regulations 2006 (S.I., 2006, No. 169).

Mr. Paice: The opportunity to debate these statutory instruments is long overdue. It is some time since we prayed against them, and there is a great deal of concern in the farming community about some of the issues that I want to raise with the Committee. As the Committee knows, there is a debate going on next door about the wider issue of the Rural Payments Agency, so I shall try not to stray too far on to those issues. Before entering into this debate, I remind the Committee of my declaration in the Register of Members’ Interests.

The reform of the common agricultural policy, the mid-term review and the single payment scheme all came into existence on 1 January 2005, since when farmers have been besieged by paperwork. Vast volumes have landed on doormats, frequently changing the rules.

Statutory instrument No. 169 is the least controversial of the SIs before us. It defers the issue of payment reductions and changes the order in which deductions are made. That will have an impact on how much individual recipients receive, because if one modulates before or after other circumstances, it can change the final result. I do not wish to debate those issues, other than to make the point that far from delaying the deferment, there has been a complete delay in any payment.

Hon. Members are debating that issue next door, and the reality is that in rural communities, tens of thousands of farmers are now in desperate straits, fending off their creditors. It is difficult for tenant farmers to pay their March rent, and there has been a long winter in many parts of the country, so feed bills
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are high. Farmers have not received substantial sums—for some, it could be one third of their income—and they are in difficult straits.

The impact of cross-compliance is very, very serious. I do not believe in exaggeration, but if, as the Secretary of State implied, many people may not receive their payments until June—the end of the window—there will be some tragic events in the countryside. There will be bankruptcies, and I fear more suicides. Already the Rural Stress Information Network reports a massive increase in the number of calls to it for help in the past few months. That is the real, human tragedy of what is happening. It is something that we, in this Palace of Westminster and in Whitehall, seem sometimes to forget. Out there, real people are suffering seriously because they have not received the money that they were pledged.

There is cross-party agreement and we all hope that in time, farmers will be able to develop their businesses so that the injection of money becomes much smaller, if not unnecessary for the production side of their businesses. However, we are not there yet. This is the first year; it is a painful transition; and it is wholly unrealistic for anyone to say, as some people have, including one Member in the Chamber on Monday, that farmers should do without it. Farmers have had 60 years of supported agriculture in various guises, and to expect them to make that transition overnight is absurd. They must be given time.

The second statutory instrument that I wish to discuss is No. 3460, the set-aside regulations. There is not a huge amount on which to challenge the Minister, but there are one or two points. He will probably agree with me on the question of whether we need set-aside at all. Before you rule me out of order, Mrs. Winterton, let me point out that I am the first to accept that that is not the subject of the regulations. However, it is worth saying—and I suspect that the Minister will agree with me—that, with the removal of any support from production, the idea of set-aside becomes irrelevant. Farmers produce for the marketplace and what their customers require, so it is up to them to produce as much or as little as they think appropriate based on those market signals. The idea of a statutory level of set-aside does not sit clearly with a freer and more open-market agricultural policy. Nevertheless, that is what we have got.

I hope that the Minister can explain why the rules for the management of set-aside need to be separate from the cross-compliance rules for the rest of the land. That is the principal issue. The set-aside regulations change only existing set-aside rules but, now that we have cross-compliance for the single farm payment, they seem to add an extra level of bureaucracy. Individual farmers have more to take on board and try to understand in having to manage their set-aside according to rules that are different from the rules of cross-compliance. I hope that the Minister will explain that important point.

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I readily accept that the set-aside regulations slightly simplify and make more flexible previous statutory instruments on managing set-aside. Fundamentally, however, why do we need them at all, when we now have some pretty onerous regulations on cross-compliance, which would equally apply to set-aside?

The cross-compliance regulations, SI No. 3459, are what I consider the meat of the debate. If they were not so serious, one would almost think them a joke. The regulations, and all that they bring with them, impose one of the most onerous burdens on farms that one could imagine. As I shall try to demonstrate, they are so at odds with what farmers elsewhere face, in our alleged single market under a single, common agricultural policy. Even in Scotland and Wales the burden is not as onerous. When we cross the channel to the mainland of the continent we find that the burden is certainly nothing like as onerous, yet we all operate under the same European Union regulation.

That is the most important facet of the problem. Where do such regulations begin? They begin—you may be aware of this, Mrs. Winterton, because I know that you take an interest in such matters—with a schedule of 13 lines in the European regulation defining good agricultural environmental condition, or GAEC. However, those 13 lines have been translated into a vast series of documents.

To illustrate what farmers end up with, I have a selection of the documents that they now have to absorb: “The Single Payments Scheme Cross-Compliance Handbook”, “The Single Payments Cross-Compliance Guidance for Soil Management”, “The Single Payments Scheme Cross-Compliance Soil Protection Review”, and “The Single Payments Scheme Cross-Compliance Guidance for the Management of Habitats and Landscape Features”. The soil protection review is of course a key part of the cross-compliance regulations because it requires every farmer in the country to complete the document by 1 September. There is a page after page of more and yet more forms to be filled in.

That underlines the apparent distrust by the Government, in all their facets, of farmers’ ability to look after the land. I have been in and around the farming community all my life and I am the first to accept that there are some who do not manage their farms or land as well as we would like, but they are a tiny minority. The regulations hit everybody. It is not that most farmers do not look after their soil or do not try to prevent run-off, or that they work on waterlogged soils. Most farmers know full well that if they work on waterlogged soils, it will take years to put the soil structure back and it will cost a lot of money, because they need heavy equipment to create the fractures, and so on, that are necessary to recreate it. Farmers will not do that wilfully, yet the implication is that they do not know how to look after their land and need to be told. That is the single payment scheme as far as cross-compliance on soil protection is concerned.

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Paragraph 2 of the schedule to SI No. 3459, on the standards of good agricultural and environmental conditions, “Post-harvest management of land after combinable crops”, contains a horrendous series of detailed interventions that it is important to describe. It says:

    “If land has carried a crop . . . a farmer must ensure that, throughout the period—

between harvest and the end of February—

    “at least one of the following conditions is met on that land . . . the stubble of the harvested crop remains in the land . . . the land is left with a rough surface . . . the land is prepared as a seedbed for a crop and the crop is sown within a period of 10 days . . . after final seedbed preparation . . . the land is under cultivation sequences used for the purpose of creating a stale seedbed; or . . . the land is sown with a temporary cover crop”.

Notwithstanding the 10-day period, we all know that the Met Office is not always right about weather. It is common for farmers to prepare land as a seed bed, then find that the weather prevents it from being planted when they were hoping to do so. A period of 10 days laid down in law is unrealistic on some occasions, yet there is no way out, no exemptions and no ability to seek permission, even if it could be obtained, not to do the planting.

The biggest issue is what on earth else is there to do with the land? Having read out those five options, there is nothing else that can be done with it. Any possibility is covered, so why have the provision at all? It is a clear example of a wholly unnecessary, bureaucratic regulation. One may say, “You’re going to have to do it anyway,” which is all right, but every farmer in the country has to read, learn and digest the regulation and ensure that they have not missed something. It is all extra, unnecessary work.

Paragraph 3 is about waterlogged soil:

    “A farmer must not carry out a mechanical field operation or use . . . unless . . . the soil is within 20 metres of the access point to an area of soil which is not waterlogged”.

That is too detailed a level of specification laid down in law. Most farmers know that they do not work on waterlogged soil unless they really have to. The paragraph also contains a range of reasons why they might be able to do that. Why else would someone go on waterlogged land unless it was absolutely essential? That takes me back to my point that farmers know how to look after the situation.

I am concerned about the impact of paragraph 6, “Overgrazing and unsuitable supplementary feeding”. I realise that time is moving on. I hope that the Minister will have considered this matter, because keeping stock outdoors in winter will be relevant in his constituency. If cattle and sheep are being grazed outdoors, sometimes during an exceptionally wet winter—that cannot be said of my part of the country this winter—the ground can get a bit poached, but it is restorable. It is unacceptable that, through the fault of the climate, a farmer could be penalised heavily for having stock outdoors when that would normally be all right.

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Even more unacceptable is the potential impact on the huge increase in outdoor pig herds throughout the country. That increase is welcome, because it is much more welfare friendly and the market and the consumer require pigs to be kept in that way. But there is a real risk that some farmers will fall foul of the cross-compliance rules about overgrazing and poaching the land, and so on, by keeping pigs outdoors. There is a clear division between what we all want and what is laid down in legislation.

The schedule deals with many other issues, including storing manure on the field only when

    “it is to be used on that field in the next growing season; or . . . on an adjacent field”—[Interruption].

I have not finished yet, Mrs. Winterton, so we shall have to return to that.

The Chairman: I shall suspend the sitting until 3 o’clock.

2.45 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Paice: I suspect that this will be a very short episode in my contribution.

I was referring to the schedule to SI No. 3459, and I was about to move on to its provisions on hedgerows. Without detaining the Committee by going into great detail on all the rules, I have to say that that this also contains extreme, pernickety detail about how farmers should manage a hedge. Of course there is the odd rogue out there who does not manage a hedge properly—anybody who lives in the countryside knows that—but, as I have said of other parts of the schedule, these are such detailed regulations that they will put a huge burden on all the other farmers. They are not based on whether a farmer is managing his hedges sensibly.

Farmers will have to understand and absorb all the details of the schedule, and, even if for years they have been managing their hedgerows properly, sensibly, constructively and in a way that is good for birds, flora and the hedge bottom, they must ensure that they meet all of the criteria. Even the regulation saying that a hedge can be trimmed or cut if

    “it is dead, diseased, damaged or insecurely rooted, and because of its condition it, or part of it, is likely to cause danger by falling on a highway, road or footpath”

is tiny detail. The obvious question is, “How do you know? Who is going to authorise it?” If a farmer has a hedge that he thinks is dead, dying or insecure, he will have to get permission and find out how much—[Interruption.] More in the next episode.

The Chairman: I shall suspend the sitting until 3.15 pm.

3.1 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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3.15 pm

On resuming—

The Chairman: The second enforced pause in Mr. Paice’s peroration is now at an end, and I call him for the final part of it.

Mr. Paice: Thank you, Mrs. Winterton. I am glad that you are optimistic enough to think that I have got to the peroration. This will be the final exciting episode in the story; perhaps never has such a short speech taken so long, although I have heard some Liberal speeches in the past so perhaps that is not the case.

I had finished with the issue that I raised about the schedule. There are many other points in it of such pernickety detail that it will create a huge burden on every farmer in the country to understand it and ensure that they comply, even if to most ordinary observers they are farming sensibly and in harmony with the landscape, the countryside and wildlife. That is, after all, what we all seek.

I have received some advice from the National Farmers Union. It tells me, and I am sure that most hon. Members would agree, that

    “cross-compliance should be applied evenly across the EU to avoid re-nationalisation (of the CAP) and competitive distortions”,

considering the

    “way the CAP horizontal regulation is written”.

It went on to say :

    “Cross-compliance comes in two forms: that covering statutory management regulations . . . and Good Agricultural and Environment Conditions.”

I have spoken about those conditions. The NFU then said that

    “the UK has taken a more precautionary and prescriptive approach than other members states, especially with regard to GAEC”.

I wholeheartedly agree that that is a clear example

    “of the unique UK government ‘disease’ of over implementation”.

Farmers have to do a great deal of book work, wading through the books that I showed the Committee earlier.

Farmers must consider a whole raft of specific issues, but I shall refer to one of the most vexed: the idea of a 2 m buffer strip. I do not have a problem with the idea of telling farmers that they should not spray into watercourses or the bottom of hedges. That is perfectly sensible and most people understand it as reasonable. The problem is the way that DEFRA has specified, for example, that a habitat buffer strip should be provided along hedgerows and watercourses, 2 m from the centre line and 1 m from the break of a bank of ditches and so on. The result of such detail, as we already know from the inspections that have taken place—I shall return to the numbers in a moment—is that inspectors are taking a vast amount of time walking round every field with a ruler or a stick measuring to see whether the 2 m strip is achieved.
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They do not go round and make a general approximation such as, “Well, it’s a bit under there, but it’s over there” or use that sort of reasonable, light touch.

We can compare our system to the French system, which operates under exactly the same EU regulation as us and requires farmers to locate 3 per cent. of their cereal growing area as buffer strips alongside watercourses. There are no minimum widths or requirements to measure each one, so there is less bureaucracy and a more flexible approach that results in the same outcome of habitat protection.

Overall we find that England is top of the league on the number of standards that must be complied with. In the 2005 crop year farmers had to assess the implications of 24 different standards detailed in the 74-page guidance document that I showed the Committee earlier. To make that worse—I am sure that your constituents will be thrilled to hear this, Mrs. Winterton, and I use the word “thrilled” ironically—DEFRA has just commissioned consultants to review the landscape standards within good agricultural and environmental condition with the view to identifying other features that should be included. In other words, it intends to make it even more onerous.

It is a tragedy when a Government who seek to simplify the CAP, which was the declared intent of the mid-term review, so surround that simplification with unbelievably detailed rules and bureaucracy that farmers do not know where to turn. In light of the financial problems to which I have referred, they are then faced with the distress of not knowing whether they are complying with every dot and comma of the regulations.

That brings me to enforcement. I heard the Minister asking how many inspections there had been and I readily accept that, proportionately, there have not been many. Last week’s Farmers Guardian says:

    “The latest figures show there have been 850 completed inspections by RPA and 762 by the EA. Many of these will have been combined inspections involving the same producer. There will be a brand new set of inspections for 2006.”

It continues:

    “So far preliminary findings from only 287 fully completed inspections out of the 1204 standard inspections are available. They show that 97 farmers, more than one-third, breached one or more of the standards.”

By far the greatest number of failures have been on cross-compliance in cattle identification. There has been a raft of infringements, and I shall not detain the Committee with the whole lot. However, I want to emphasise that when we talk about cattle identification, we have to take a realistic position. When a farmer owns a large number of cattle—cattle are kept in larger and larger herds as farming is increasingly done in large units—it is impossible to ensure that every day of every year every cow has two tags in her ear. I stress the word two, because the whole purpose of requiring two was that if one were to be
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lost, the cow could be identified by the other. However, farmers up and down the country are being penalised because they did not replace a tag in the ear of one of their animals the instant that it was lost.

In reality, somebody who has cattle out at grass, especially if they are in different locations, cannot identify every day whether they have lost tags, nor can he be expected to gather them in. Indeed, it would be bad husbandry if he were forever hassling them and gathering them in to check whether they had lost their tags. Then, he would have to gather them in again to put the replacement in, once the identical tag had been ordered and produced by the authorised, registered tag producer so that it could be inserted by calling the animal back yet again. The Government need to ensure that the inspectors who are out there understand the realities of cattle husbandry.

Of course, if a farmer has kept an animal for two and a half years and it has never been registered with the British cattle movement service, that is a clear infringement, and I would not condone it for a minute. I might say in passing that if he had never registered it, he could not have it legitimately slaughtered either. However, many of the infringements that are being reported are inevitable, given that we are dealing with animals out at grass or in yards, which cannot be checked every day to have their tags replaced.

That brings me to an issue that I have raised consistently with the Government over the past few months, following a speech by Christine Tacon, the managing director of Farmcare, one of the biggest farming groups in the country. One of several cross-compliance issues that she raised concerned matters that arose pre-January 2005, when all of this came into force. She suggested, and I have had it authenticated, that one can be penalised for having breached, before 1 January 2005, a regulation that did not exist before that date. The example given was that of a farmer who had forgotten to notify BCMS that an animal that had died; it could have died five years ago. I have a letter dated 28 February from Lord Bach, who says:

    “I can confirm that if an animal died before that date, and if the farmer had not reported the death to the British Cattle Movement Service, the discovery of this non-compliance with the Cattle Identification Regulations during an inspection that took place after 1 January 2005 would also be considered to be a breach of cross compliance”.

That really is daft.

The Government have made the right rhetorical noises about wanting farming to move to the customer and the marketplace, and about looser regulation, a lighter touch and simplification—all the things that you and I, Mrs. Winterton, would probably endorse as a way forward for agriculture. However, none of that is happening. On the ground, there is the huge schedule of regulations that I described and an onerous and extremely distressing enforcement procedure.

Like me, other hon. Members who talk to farmers will have heard them express concern that the Government are achieving what is almost a nationalisation of the land, certainly in respect of total control of the land, without actual ownership. The Government clearly intend to dictate every tiny detail of land management through cross-compliance.

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As I said, of course there have to be conditions for the use of public money. However, they should be simple and easily understood by those who have to comply with them—to eliminate accidental non-compliance—and taxpayers should understand what they are getting. This is not the light touch that the Government have talked about; what is happening is horrendous. That is why I am glad that we have the belated opportunity to debate the statutory instruments, No. 3459 in particular.

I do not apologise for having taken quite a long time to go through my concerns; I could have taken a lot longer, because farmers are very worried that they will accidentally breach the rules and cost themselves a great deal of money in so doing—assuming that they ever get the money in the first place, although that is a subject for a different Committee.

The issue is very serious. I am grateful to the Committee for bearing with me. I hope that the Government will take a machete to the regulations—cut them right down to a set of minimum expected standards, without all the detail, so that farmers understand what is expected of them and know that they can comply without the regulations burdening their business even more than all the other rules and regulations with which they have to comply.

3.27 pm

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