SERIOUS CONCERNS over the Rural Payment Agency’s cross-compliance inspections have been raised by one of the RPA’s own non-executive directors, who also heads up Britain’s largest farming business.
Christine Tacon, general manager of Farmcare and a member of the independent group overseeing DEFRA’s farm strategy, said cross-compliance inspections are proving to be far from the light touch promised by policy makers and urgently require the introduction of some proportionality.
“Talk at the top of a light touch is welcome, but we’ve not seen much evidence, so far, that the talk is reality. The inspections are being imposed in a totally black and white manner.”
At one Farmcare 2000ha (4900 acre) unit RPA inspectors spent one month measuring everything, she said. “And I mean everything. They were particularly upset a small area had not been planted with an energy crop, and that at another point the 2m margin had gone down to 1.5m.”
For Farmcare to spend the same time checking measurements would need two people employed at a cost of £100k, she said.
Another example of the tough line being taken is the 2000 letters already sent out to farmers indicating a breach of cross-compliance of the Cattle Identification Records, even though they could relate to animals that were dead well before cross-compliance existed, she said.
The Environment Agency is also using the “aged and discredited” RB209 fertiliser recommendations as their inspection bible, which could put every wheat farmer in breach of cross-compliance, she said.
“The penalty matrix only allows for one warning letter before moving into financial penalties. If we continue to be inspected as rigorously as they have started, none of us will be getting the full payment in five years time,” she warned.
“We need urgently to introduce a degree of proportionality into inspection. There is a huge difference between a wobble on a plough, and a total disregard for putting in a 2m margin, and between an incomplete historic record (from before cross-compliance existed) to inventing twin calves to cover a mistake in registering a passport.”
Part of the problem was there was no approved process for the rules to be overruled, she said. “Until we have this the European Court of Auditors will measure the inspection regime against the black and white rules too.
“We also need immediate clear advice on what can be accepted as legitimately working outside a rule book, such as RB209, and an amnesty for errors in Cattle Identification Records,” she said.
An RPA spokeswoman refused to comment on the detail of Mrs Tacon’s concerns, but said they had been noted by the agency. DEFRA also declined to comment.