11 February 2000

Report proposes

MAFFshake-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. MAFF faces wide-ranging reforms and hundreds of jobs losses, according to an internal MAFF staff briefing obtained by FARMERS WEEKLY.

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

Endorsement

It was endorsed by a steering committee last month. Under the proposals, farmers would no longer be able to submit subsidy claims in person at their local MAFF office. As a result, some 1750 regional staff at MAFF and the Intervention Board would be made redundant.

Instead, the submission and processing of subsidy claims would be computerised. Personal contact with farmers would be phased out and all subsidy payments would become the responsibility of a single new paying agency. Field inspections by government inspectors would be decided on a risk assessment basis.

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 are unconvinced. Leonard Morris, who farms 200ha (500 acres) of arable land at South Kyme Fen, Lincs, said: "I cant see enough farmers having computers to be able to do it for a long time. The annual subsidy claim is one form I like to take in myself to make sure they get it. So much depends on it."

Union proposals

Many of the ideas contained in the report were proposed by the NFU. Ian Gardiner, the unions deputy director-general, said: "It is not up to us to say how MAFF should be run. But it would be wrong for the government to expect farmers to become more efficient if the ministry wasnt made more efficient as well. What we want is the same, if not a better, level of service."