In the Hot Seat: Red tape tsar Richard Macdonald

Richard Macdonald tells FW how he plans to create a new culture of farming regulation

• What is your role as leader of DEFRA’s regulation task force?

I’m charged by ministers to produce a report next spring on how to improve the regulatory interface between farming, food processing and the government, which includes DEFRA. It goes from health and safety to environmental policy to labour rules.

It’s complicated by the fact that many regulations come from the European Union, which has created about 40 inspection regimes and thousands of regulations.

I am looking at how to regulate in a better way, how to make things more simple by removing unnecessary legislation and looking at areas where things are already being done in private business to avoid duplication.

• Such as?

Dairy hygiene inspections are one area. There are 11,500 carried out in England every year by government inspectors. Every single one of those dairies is part of a farm assurance scheme which has dairy hygiene inspections as part of them – why not do it once?

• Are there really regulatory problems or are farmers complaining unnecessarily?

I have been one of the vocal critics of the amount of red tape in farming. Farm minister Jim Paice took the view of put up or shut up.

I’m not sure it’s anyone’s fault that we’re in this situation. I just think it’s evolved over time, partly out of a response to the thinking that’s come out of Europe and because politicians have been working on a very precautionary basis – BSE shook everyone’s confidence about regulatory frameworks.

A combination of things meant people brain-dumped everything they had into the regulation and guidance.

One thing we need to do is keep it simple. We need to look where we can convert 200 pages of legislation to two pages. I have also been asked to map out overlaps.

There are only so many ways farmers can throw muck into a river, so let’s think of it from the farmers’ angle. And where do we already have a market solution – if a processor or supplier is already inspecting, often to a tougher standard than state inspections – then why are we duplicating?

Most assurance schemes such as Little Red Tractor have a higher spec than other government schemes.

• A lot of farmers are unhappy with farm assurance schemes. Will you keep the Little Red Tractor?

I think the Red Tractor scheme is important. It’s part of a farmer’s ability to sell products.

I can understand why they don’t like it and I don’t disagree with them, but many people can’t sell grain or cattle unless it’s farm-assured. Retailers want assurance. It’s not for me to say I like or don’t like it, but if it’s there for a commercial reason then let’s use it.

• What are the biggest obstacles to the task force’s success?

EU rules. It will be bloody difficult because Europe is difficult. The thing is to find solutions and offer potentially different ways to do things.

We need to be able to say we are still delivering outcomes and producing safe food but show there are better systems we could use. Part of that may mean me going to Brussels to at least pave the way and say here is a better way of delivering the same outcome the directive wanted.

• Gold-plating of EU rules has frustrated farmers. Will we see a different approach to interpreting EU policy from now on?

I have been given information on all the forthcoming legislation to be discussed in Europe. Caroline Spelman is not approving any new legislation unless it’s being forced upon DEFRA by Europe. We need to look ahead at what could be coming down the line, though. There’s no point in doing a snapshot of what’s going on at the moment and hopefully improving things, then in a year’s time there’s new legislation that takes us back to where we were.

This job has two parts – to improve what we’ve got at the moment and to look at how we should regulate in future, from engagement with the industry or post-implementation reviews. A large part of this will be creating a new culture of how we regulate.

• What guarantees do you have from DEFRA that ministers will listen to your recommendations?

“I have 100% assurance that the ministers will listen” – Richard Macdonald
I have 100% assurance that the ministers will listen. They know it’s an important job and cutting legislation is a central plank of what’s come out of the cabinet.

How much [DEFRA minister Caroline Spelman] will act on will depend on the quality of the solutions we come up with. We’re having regular meetings with ministers to ensure our ideas are keeping in touch with reality.

• Will government budget cuts help or hinder your job?

Help is a cruel word because there’s a lot of pain in DEFRA departments at the moment around job cuts.

The budget cuts are powerful drivers that are making this different from previous attempts to better regulate. Ministers are very determined to trust businesses more and have a lighter touch on regulation and government officials respond to what ministers want.

One of the key aims of the Curry Report was to cut red tape. Why did it fail and why will this review be any different?

The Curry Report was a huge success and it changed the culture of the industry.

If you go through the 110 recommendations then 100 of them have stuck and changed the way we work. Where the report – and subsequent reports on regulation – failed, was because the political climate wasn’t as serious about better regulation.

There also wasn’t the financial pressure and some of the other reports that have come out made sweeping generalisations about legislative problems. I want to make sure I can give something ministers can act on – let’s be precise about things like NVZs and cattle movement restrictions.

• When are we likely to start seeing results?

The task force is meeting this month we are looking to see where we can make quick wins. If we can make recommendations now then we will do.

The final report will come out some time from February and I hope we can start making changes as quickly as possible.

• What will success look like?

Farming and food businesses have everything – people can kill themselves, there are chemicals on site, the public can wander on the farm – there’s every risk you can think of.

We use what’s already in the private sector and, wherever we can, look at opportunity there’s real recommendations?????. I think the EU element will be complicated and it’s important we don’t lose sight of that.

• The NFU has said in the past week that it wants tighter border controls around imports. Can farmers really ask for more legislation when they expect other rules to be taken away?

I’ve had lots of jokes levelled at me saying that I want more legislation on society but not on me. There’s an element of that which brings a smile to my face. But I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t think there was a legitimate argument to say farmers are heavily regulated and there can be a better way to do it.

In the same respect, farmers will have to accept if they are trusted more, then we have to be less tolerant about the real bad eggs.

• Are you in a difficult position considering your previous role as director general of the NFU?

I haven’t seen any conflicts so far. It’s 10 months since I finished my NFU role and I have tried a variety of new things since. If there are any conflicts then it’s with my new responsibilities, not my old ones.

I hope people who know me, see I’m being objective and I can look at an individual issue without carrying baggage. My past and present jobs give me a rich experience and enable me to answer questions.

• DEFRA has already said it wants to streamline some processes by moving form-filling online. How are you going to be able to achieve that without universal rural broadband?

I don’t know yet. I’m going to meet the Rural Payments Agency in the next couple of weeks to talk about it. If you don’t have broadband you could have a third-party agent doing it for you. I need to look at all the options.

I’m hardly an IT guru but even I know it’s easier to do it online. In practice we should be doing it that way and, if there’s a way of only submitting information once online, it makes a greater deal of sense. But we have got to cater for big business down to the one-man bands.

Rip Up Red Tape – How to have your say

• You can submit your suggestions of the red tape you would like to see ripped up to the DEFRA website.
• You can also write to: Task Force on Farming Regulation Area, 8D Millbank, DEFRA, Nobel House, 17 Smith Square, London SW1P 3JR
• Alternatively you can post your suggestions on the Farmers Weekly forums or send us a letter
• You have until Sunday 31 October to get in touch

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