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Regulatory Burden (Farmers)

Volume 520: debated on Thursday 9 December 2010

One of my first actions was to appoint Richard Macdonald to lead a taskforce to identify ways of reducing the regulatory burden on farmers. The taskforce recently completed a public consultation and will make recommendations to the Government by April next year. I hope that it will bring about a change in culture in implementing our regulations, while at the same time maintaining standards.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Farmers in Stratford-on-Avon will welcome the Government’s commitment to the industry-led review of regulation. Can he give farmers a time frame for the review, so that they can begin to enjoy a regime that makes it easier for them to produce the food that we eat and care for the countryside that we all cherish?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as he and many others are championing the cause of reducing regulation in our rural areas. As I said, the taskforce will report to the Government in early April 2011, and we will then have to see how to take it forward. I cannot be absolutely precise about the time scales, but I would like to take this opportunity to say that this is not about reducing standards, but about reducing the burden of process that has become so prevalent over recent years. We have seen an obsession with process, whereas we need to move much more towards making a judgment on outcomes.

DEFRA has had a better regulation agenda for many years, but few, if any, farmers have seen any tangible benefit from the reduction in bureaucracy and red tape. What reassurance can the Minister give that the current review will lead to real benefits for farmers in my constituency and elsewhere?

The reassurance I can give is simply this. When we were in opposition, seeing how the previous Government made noises about reducing regulation but never did it convinced me that we had to find a new way. It is not just a question of abolishing regulations—although if they can be abolished, they should be—but how we implement and enforce them. We have become obsessed with requiring farmers to fill in countless forms, tick loads of boxes and read legions of guidance notes when what really matters is whether the benefit expected from the regulation is achieved. That is what we have to focus on now.

I thank the Minister for his responses. One big concern of many farmers and landowners over the years has been about red tape, particularly filling in grant forms such as for, among other things, single farm payments. Sometimes they inadvertently fail to tick a box. Can we have some flexibility in the system to ensure that those who qualify for the grants get them and do not lose out because of one small mistake?

The hon. Member puts his finger on an extremely important point. I have studied many cases in which farmers have been penalised because, as he said, they omitted to put a figure in a particular box or something like that. Although I have pushed back hard on this front, we are unfortunately constrained very much by the European Commission’s Court of Auditors, which is very robust. The disallowances are completely out of proportion. We are working with the Commission, and I have chased up these matters with it to try to get a more proportionate sense of penalty. Hopefully, we will then be able to move forward.

One key issue repeatedly raised with me by farmers is cross-compliance and the heavy penalties they face for minor infringements that are of no material consequence whatever. Does the Minister share my view that these penalties are out of all proportion? Will he raise this issue with the Commission as a matter of urgency?

Yes, I entirely share the view that these penalties are out of all proportion. I have raised this with the Commission and, more importantly, I and many other Ministers of Agriculture have raised it in the context of the review of the common agricultural policy, which has just commenced. We have firmly expressed to the Commission our view that the next system of CAP support must be simpler, both for individual farmers and for member states to implement.

Having met Richard Macdonald, I am confident that he will undertake a thorough and comprehensive review of the regulatory burden on farmers. When he reports, will my hon. Friend ensure that he receives support from other Government Departments and that that these matters are discussed, if necessary, with the European Union as well?

I can assure my hon. Friend that I am in close contact with the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), and, as I said in answer to an earlier question, with the relevant Commissioners across Europe. We are determined that if this industry is to flourish and succeed in the face of increasing world demand for food over the next decades, it must be freed up from unnecessary burdens of regulation.