Farmer filling out form in tractor© Tim Scrivener

For decades, farmers have faced steadily mounting heaps of official paperwork, distracting them from running their businesses, not to mention imposing hefty costs and inconvenience, writes Defra minister George Eustice.

This government came to power promising red tape would be cut – and we have cut it in ways that bring real benefits to farmers’ everyday work.

However, we would like to go further and the recent Focus on Enforcement report by the NFU sets down some interesting ideas that we will explore.

By the election, our programme of reform will have reduced the amount of guidance churned out by Defra and its agencies by 80%.

George Eustice
George Eustice
Farm minister
Defra

We will have scrapped or improved 600 regulations, saving businesses across all sectors of the economy £300m. And since 2010, we have cut the number of farm inspections by 34,000 a year.

The final CAP deal agreed at the end of 2013 was more complex than ever, which is a backwards step. 

Other member states are now waking up to the problems inherent in the new rules. We are continuing the fight to ensure EU rules work for British farmers.

For example, the UK is leading the case for simplification of CAP in the short term and will seek more fundamental reform in the longer term.

Within the constraints Europe imposes, we are already making real improvements. We have cut the number of Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) standards in England from 17 to 11, deleting some rules and simplifying others.

The next stage, which farmers will feel the benefits from soon, will reform the policing of the CAP and ensure that cross-compliance penalties are proportionate. In 2013, breaches of cross-compliance rules cost the industry more than £2m.

Cross-compliance rules should be there to encourage responsible farming practice and good management of the countryside. However, the EU regulations that lie behind the cross-compliance rules are woefully inflexible. Because they leave so little room for discretion, there are frequently unintended consequences and examples of injustice.

But where we can deliver improvements, we are. That is why we are changing the way soil management rules are enforced. Previously, farmers had to fill out a 50-page Soil Protection Review with 95% of financial penalties related to soil standards down to mistakes in the paperwork – not farmers managing the soil badly.

We have scrapped that form. The standards set out in the new GAECs mean farmers will only have their BPS payment reduced if they fail to look after their soil against loss of organic matter or erosion caused by, for example, compaction or livestock trampling away the banks of a stream.

We have also changed how we enforce some of the rules under SMR 1, which regulates, among other things, where fertiliser can be spread to ensure it does not run-off into water sources. The changes will mean a significant reduction in the number of higher 5% penalties imposed.

We are also working to reduce the sanctions for breaches of sheep-tagging rules. We have identified changes that will come into force throughout 2015 and 2016 and which will bring substantial savings for farmers.

The rules are still there and have not changed, but we will be making sure that breaches are assessed so any penalty applied is more proportionate.

Our reduction in penalties goes across the board. We have also changed the intentional penalty matrix and intentional repetitions rule, which will see a reduction in the average penalty by one-third.

Our reforms are about striking the right balance, helping farmers to maintain high standards in a fair way, not about imposing unnecessary and expensive bureaucracy using disproportionate punishments.

The vast majority of our farmers do a fantastic job of combining responsible management of our beautiful countryside with running successful businesses. 

We will always need to have some legislation in place to protect the environment. However, in the long term, I believe that there is a case for replacing the current cross-compliance regime and replacing it with something that is more rooted in justice and where the individual circumstances of each case can be properly considered by a court or a tribunal.

To achieve such modernisation would require legislative reform at an EU level during the next round of CAP negotiations.

I want our farmers spending less time dealing with officialdom and more time doing what they do best—farming. The action we have taken to reform cross-compliance is a step in the right direction.