Plans laid out for a single farm inspection body

A more holistic approach to farm inspections and a single field force is essential if the UK is to reduce the burden of farm inspections post Brexit.

According to an interim report from Dame Glenys Stacey, issued as part of her review into on-farm inspections and regulation, the fact there are so many Defra agencies, with different roles and different powers, means the current system has become “labyrinthine”.

See also: Northern Ireland pilots voluntary farm inspections scheme

“We see a lot of little, one-off checks, with someone from one Defra agency or another, walking down the farm path, usually to check for just one thing,” she told Farmers Weekly.

“In other sectors, inspection tends to be much more holistic, which actually offers some value. They may find what’s wrong, but they also find areas of good practice and point to areas where there could be some improvement and how it could be done.”

The five agencies in question are the Rural Payments Agency, the Food Standards Agency, Natural England, the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) and the Environment Agency.

According to Dame Glenys, Brexit provides a unique opportunity to revamp the system, and one of her key suggestions in the interim report is to create a single field force.

“To make good decisions, the regulator needs to see the whole picture of what happens on the farm, rather than considering just one aspect. At the moment we have five Defra agencies, each able to walk down the farm path and look at one bit of it that relates to their remit. Defra could be so much more efficient if it had just one field force.”

Key points of interest

  • Agriculture is affected by 182 different Acts of Parliament, statutory instruments and other forms of regulation – far more than any other sector
  • There are more than 150,000 farm inspections in England each year, 45% of which relate to bovine TB
  • The main aims of regulation are to protect and improve the environment, achieve high food standards so we can compete internationally, and secure animal health and welfare
  • Moves to a new regulatory regime should happen during the post-Brexit transition period  

Technology

Dame Glenys says this should be aided by better use of technology, such as satellite and data analysis, to help with pre-inspection assessments.

She also suggests there should be a closer tie-up between Defra agencies and farm assurance scheme inspectors, to improve efficiency. And the industry should be more closely involved to generate a “greater sense of shared ownership”.

The report also recommends that Defra and its agencies be given the right range of powers to properly enforce regulations, while maintaining a sense of proportionality.  

“With the APHA, it’s virtually criminal proceedings or nothing, with the local authorities being the prosecuting authorities,” she said. “We should not be criminalising farmers for relatively trivial matters. It devalues the criminal law and is hugely disproportionate.”

Past failings

Dame Glenys acknowledged that past attempts to cut red tape had been far from successful, but this, she said, was because the UK was still bound by the rules of the EU.

“To make seismic changes, you need a really good catalyst,” she said. “Leaving the EU, endorsed by the fact we have a secretary of state who is up for change, provides that catalyst.”

Defra secretary Michael Gove said the case for change was “compelling”

“The interim findings of this independent report will be a key consideration in the plans for our future Environmental Land Management scheme, for which an effective regulatory regime is crucial,” he said.