Government officials spend their days fretting about whether they are complying with European regulation, it’s time to take back control by leaving
A supermarket promotes locally-grown produce Photo: ALAMY
By George Eustice, Minister of State for Farming
11:09AM GMT 23 Feb 2016
Soon after becoming Farming Minister, my ministerial box contained a submission where I was asked to sign off the final appeal decision relating to a farmer’s support payment for the year. His wife had always done the paperwork on the farm but she had sadly died of cancer. With everything going on in his life, he had missed the deadline for submitting his application form. At each stage of the appeal process, people said the same thing: that they felt tremendous sympathy for the farmer but due to strict EU rules he must forfeit his entire payment for that year.
I disagreed, so sent back an instruction to pay him. He had just lost his wife and, after all, deadlines are arbitrary. A few days later, a group of worried looking lawyers and officials trooped into my office to explain the intricacies and risks of the EU regulations and to invite me to reconsider. Then we argued about it for the next six months.
The reality of working within EU law is that trying to do the simplest of things becomes curiously complicated and often impossible. Some 80 percent of legislation affecting DEFRA comes from the EU with about 40 percent of all EU regulations affecting the UK falling within its remit.
“There is only one way to get the change we need, and that is to vote to go, because all EU history shows that they only really listen to a population when it says No”
It is all pervasive: how many farm inspections there must be in a given year; what proportion of those inspections must be random; how much a farmer must be fined if he makes a mistake; how much he should be fined if he makes the same mistake twice; the precise dimensions of EU billboards and plaques that farmers are forced to put up by law; the maximum width of a gateway; the minimum width of a hedge; the maximum width of a hedge; what type of crop must be grown over the hedge; whether a cabbage and a cauliflower are different crops or should be deemed the same crop. The list goes on forever and it’s stifling.
Compliance with this plethora of farming regulations is enforced through a complex and rather dysfunctional system of penalties called “disallowance”. Auditors working for the EU Commission can levy fixed percentage fines against the government on the entire CAP budget for perceived breaches in the enforcement or administration of regulations. When there is disagreement, there is a mediation process but it is designed so that the Commission holds most of the cards.
The combined effect of having complex, all pervasive regulations and a draconian and unpredictable system of fines creates an atmosphere of perpetual legal jeopardy in a department like Defra. Every farming minister is condemned to hear the words “disallowance risk” every day of their working lives. No one really knows where they stand because it all depends on what a particular auditor on a given day might retrospectively decide. However hard we try to abide by the rules, it is inevitable that the British tax payer will be routinely stung by fines. This makes people risk averse and afraid to consider doing things differently or to try something new.
“Politicians go through phases of blaming the civil service for these problems…That’s unfair. They are not making it up”
Politicians go through phases of blaming the civil service for these problems, accusing them of “gold plating.” That’s unfair. They are not making it up. This country is hit by fines of around £100 million a year for a multitude of trivial, perceived mistakes – few of which actually matter much in the scheme of things. In addition, the government has already changed guidance so that all EU directives must be copied out word for word and introduced a system of regulatory budgets. Gold plating is not added by our own civil service but by EU auditors.
Of course, we can and do argue for reform of the system and will continue to do so but when you have 28 member states, each with completely different agricultural structures and each with totally different political make ups, coherence will never be a strong point of a Common Agricultural Policy.
And what of the farmer whose wife had died of cancer? I overruled everyone and paid him. What would you have done? Perhaps we will all be fined. But we don’t need to put up with this sort of nonsense anymore. There must be a better way of doing things. I see exceptional talent and technical expertise within Defra but it is constrained and hindered by the EU. Rather than being free to construct new ideas and fresh ways of doing things, our policy officials spend their days fretting about whether they are complying with this or that regulation. If we have the courage to take back control, we would be free to think again and could achieve so much more for farmers and our environment.