11 February 2000
Report proposes Ministry shake-up

By Johann Tasker

CONTROVERSIAL details have emerged of Tony Blairs “new direction” for British farmers, pledged by the Prime Minister at last weeks NFU conference.

The Ministry of Agriculture faces wide-ranging reforms and hundreds of jobs losses, according to an internal MAFF briefing obtained by Farmers Weekly.

The document is based on a report prepared for the ministry by consultants Price Waterhouse Coopers.

It confirms claims made last week by a MAFF insider.

Under the proposals, subsidy claims would be computerised and farmers would no longer be able to submit claim forms in person at local MAFF offices.

Personal contact with farmers would be phased out and all subsidy payments would become the responsibility of a single new paying agency.

As a result, some 1750 regional staff at MAFF and the Intervention Board would be made redundant as the streamlining measures were implemented.

The document puts meat on the bones of the PMs pledge to significantly reduce the amount of time spent by farmers filling in forms.

A MAFF spokesman said: “There is a significant cost in terms of developing some of the [computerised] system and we would have to get extra money from the Treasury to take this forward.

“We know that farmers are used to going along to their local MAFF office and talking face-to-face.

“We know they value that service. But the technology has moved on.

“If we can make forms simpler and introduce a dedicated customer helpline, as well as on-line advice, I think they will find the lack of personal contact at a junior level will actually be a benefit.”

Some farmers, such as Leonard Morris, who farms 200ha (500 acres) of arable land at South Kyme Fen, Lincolnshire, remain unconvinced.

“I cant see enough farmers having enough computers to be able to do it for a long time,” he said:

“The annual subsidy claim is one form I like to take in myself to make sure they get it.

“So much depends on it.”

Many of the ideas contained in the MAFF briefing were proposed by the National Farmers Union, said Ian Gardiner, NFU deputy director-general.

“It would be wrong for the government to expect farmers to become more efficient if the ministry wasnt made more efficient as well,” he said.

“What we want is the same, if not a better, level of service.”