With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and before I answer, I have to say that the Secretary of State has asked me to thank you for your indulgence in allowing him to join our proceedings somewhat late this morning. As you are aware, he intends no discourtesy to the House but is delayed by his attendance at Cabinet, which, being the Prime Minister’s last, is scheduled to run a little longer today.
The single payment scheme requires two types of inspection: first, on whether the land is eligible; and secondly, on whether farmers comply with cross-compliance. Five per cent. of applicants are subject to a land eligibility inspection, and the four competent control authorities each inspect 1 per cent. of applicants under the cross-compliance requirements or standards for which they are responsible. The Rural Payments Agency is working to implement the Hunter review recommendations to reduce the burden of such inspections.
I thank the Minister for that answer and accept entirely the importance of compliance when disbursing public money. However, some inspections are duplicated. I give the example of a farm having a TB test, whereby all the cattle have to be brought in twice within four days, and then a month later being told that there must be a bovine inspection and all the numbers have to be taken again, although the processes could be done at a single time. Will the Minister impress on the Environment Agency, DEFRA officials and the State Veterinary Service the importance of co-ordinating programmes to eliminate duplication and so reduce the burden on farming businesses?
I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. This is something that we have impressed on officials. The RPA is considering it and looking to co-ordinate inspections wherever possible. It is absolutely essential that we try to reduce the burden on farmers in the way that he suggests.
I acknowledge the Minister’s interest in reducing bureaucracy, but would he admit that for farmers such as myself—I declare my interest—the real problem with the scheme is that they are now faced with their third year of disfunction in terms of the delivery of payments, while at the same time any minor mistakes that they make in good faith in compliance with the scheme are disproportionately punished? [Interruption.]
An hon. Member: It’s Gordon Brown. [Laughter.]
Once hon. Gentlemen have recovered from the paroxysms of mirth that have overtaken them, I can say that I appreciate the point that has been made. I know that there is a perception that sometimes farmers are penalised for very minor infractions, but I think that it is a mistaken impression, and there are a number of statistics that would show that it is. In 2006, of the 5,500 inspections that were carried out under the SPS to determine eligibility of land, 1,370 minor breaches that fell below the penalty threshold were reported, and only 62 cases actually triggered penalties. I am aware that there is an impression out there that minor infractions are always punished, but a lot of them fall below the threshold. Comparatively speaking, the record of inspectors on getting it right is quite good.
Does the Minister accept that the number of inspections, with various agencies’ inspectors parading around farms, creates the danger of disease being carried from farm to farm? Surely there should be proper co-ordination. Farmers want to farm instead of having this endless bureaucracy and red tape.
I accept that we should minimise the number of inspections to which farms are subjected. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that the Hunter review, which reported in March this year, specifically recommended that Government should keep the number of inspections to a minimum and reduce the target time that each inspection takes. In 2005-06, the failure rate on inspection under the EU regulations was high, and an additional 800 inspections were therefore required, but in 2006-07 those additional inspections were not required. That is very positive because it shows that farmers are finding the way to compliance a lot easier than previously, which has the knock-on effect of reducing the number of inspections that are required under the rules.
The burden of regulations from DEFRA to business is £527.8 million a year, and 154 new regulations were introduced last year despite the Department’s claim that it was reducing the regulatory burden. There is now a perfect opportunity for the Government to lift that burden. At the moment, sheep farmers are required to put only one tag in a sheep’s ear. Are the Government going to continue the derogation allowing single tagging in sheep? It will save shepherds and farmers £15 million a year if they do not have to put a second, identical tag in a sheep’s ear.
The hon. Gentleman will know that discussions are being held with the European Union on that subject. He also knows that derogations are usually allowed by the EU for only a limited period. He mentioned the specific issue of sheep identification and tags. Let me shatter the myth about burdens. Of approximately 1,500 cross-compliance inspections carried out in 2006, only 71 breaches were reported, of which three attracted warning letters, 44 received a low 1 per cent. penalty, and 21 got a 3 per cent. penalty. Again, the burden is low.