FARM LEADERS are urging the Rural Payments Agency to be “understanding” when it comes to cross-compliance inspections in 2005.

The NFU and Country Land and Business Association say farmers must not be penalised for minor breaches because they have had so little time to get to grips with the new rules.

DEFRA this week sent out 170,000 copies of a 52-page handbook which explains the Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions (GAEC) standards and Statutory Management Requirements that producers must follow after Jan 1, 2005.

The document, Cross-Compliance Handbook for England, also details inspection procedures and sets out the penalties farmers could face for non-compliance.

Andrew Clark, NFU environment team leader, said he accepted that EU legislation required member states to put in place arrangements for inspections.

But he said he was concerned that farmers were being bombarded with so much new information it was hard to take it all in.

This meant there was a chance producers might be found to be breaking a rule when it came to an inspection.

“This week producers will get DEFRA‘s cross-compliance handbook, next week there is one going out about waste regulations and in early January there is more information on soil management,” said Mr Clark.

“There‘s an awful lot of stuff hitting farmers in the next month. We need to see the RPA use some sense when they see non-compliance on an inspection.”

Colin Hedley, conservation adviser with the CLA, said he endorsed the NFU‘s position.

“Compliance checks next year should be taken with sensitivity. There should be awareness that this is a new scheme and there hasn‘t been a lot of time to absorb the facts.

“The vast majority of people aren‘t going to be breaking the rules on purpose, so I would be disappointed if they were penalised for minor breaches.”

A spokeswoman for the Rural Payments Agency said the RPA and other enforcement agencies responsible for monitoring cross-compliance would do so in accordance with the requirements of the European regulations, and in “a proportionate, professional and flexible manner”.

DEFRA‘s handbook claims that overall CAP reform will reduce the number of farm inspections required.

But it adds that within this declining total, there will be some new inspections required for cross-compliance purposes.

It says the RPA will try to ensure that visits cause the minimum of disruption but some inspections may have to be unannounced.