Defra to consult on softer approach to farm inspections

Farmers are to have their say on proposals for a new industry regulator that would also offer practical advice, guidance and incentives for good practice.

The government is expected to consult in early 2019 on recommendations for a new single regulator in place of five Defra bodies and local authorities. It follows a wide-ranging review which reported its findings on Thursday (13 December).

See also: Plans laid out for a single farm inspection body

The final report by Dame Glenys Stacey concludes the regulation of the farming sector – with its one-size-fits-all rules-based approach – is far too inflexible. Leaving the EU provides the opportunity to do things differently, it says.

Rather than numerous inspectors able to impose automatic sanctions, the new regulator would work alongside farmers to encourage best practice. Local advisers would visit farmers to explain how to make improvements in areas such as biosecurity, soil quality or animal welfare.

Better technology

The report, which was commissioned by Defra secretary Michael Gove, also recommends better use of technology as part of the inspection process. Satellite data and drones could monitor field margins and other public goods delivered by farmers, it suggests.

Dame Glenys said farmers could expect fewer and less onerous inspections if her recommendations were adopted. Increasing the use of remote surveillance would make inspections more efficient for the regulator and less burdensome for farmers, she said (see New regulator can ‘save farmers time and money’, below).

“As things are, farmers are subject to a number of pernickety and sometimes nonsensical rules. There is little practical advice or guidance given to ensure compliance. Instead, automatic financial penalties have become the norm when at times they are unfair.”

Recommendations

  • A new independent regulator for farming
  • Simplified registration of farms
  • Straightforward risk-based approach
  • Tailored guidance and advice to farmers.
  • A trusting relationship with the sector
  • Modern technology to help inspections

(Source: Dame Glenys Stacey)

Responsible farmers

Swingeing sanctions were sometimes justified, said Dame Glenys. But a supportive approach often delivered better results. The large majority of farmers want to farm responsibly but some need guidance, advice and support to do that, she added.

NFU president Minette Batters said the recommendations had the potential to deliver a regulation and inspection regime that was fit for purpose – while promoting a culture where regulators and farm businesses worked together.

This was one change needed for farming to become more productive, profitable and sustainable, said Ms Batters. But it should not be rushed.

“Time is needed to detail how this system would look, how it is funded, its governance and what the impact would be on farm.”

Country Land and Business Association president Tim Breitmeyer said a more flexible, proportionate and supportive system would help farm businesses operate profitably and productively – without being submerged in red tape.

“We recognise the need to demonstrate good practice and high standards in partnership with the government. A new system must ensure current codes of practice and assurance schemes are built upon to effectively demonstrate and drive best practice.”

New regulator can ‘save farmers time and money’

An independent regulator for agriculture has the potential to save farmers time and money – if it is established properly, believes Dame Glenys Stacey.

“Farmers will become more productive if we get this right,” she told Farmers Weekly. Harnessing technology could streamline the inspection process – helping to reduce costs and making it more efficient, she added.

Existing cross-compliance inspections were convenient but often resulted in disproportionate penalties. They were also unfair because farmers who claim CAP support could expect to be inspected more often than those who don’t.

A more tailored approach would bring benefits all round, said Dame Glenys.

A new regulator could adopt a similar approach to retailers who already used computers, cameras and infrared technology to obtain and monitor information about issues such as livestock lameness, carcass quality and animal health.

It was also important the new regulator produced and worked to a single set of standards which were easily understandable, showed how they applied to each individual farm and explained why it was important farmers adhered to them.