HC Deb 04 June 1998 vol 313 cc491-2
6. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

If he will introduce an audit of the volume of forms which need to be completed by farmers. [42727]

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

We already have systems in place to keep the number of forms that farmers need to complete to the minimum consistent with our obligations to observe legislative requirements and to safeguard health and public funds.

Mr. Fabricant

I thank the Minister for that answer, but I think farmers will find it rather complacent, especially as the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), admitted a week or two ago that farm incomes have fallen by 43 per cent. over the past year, and the increase in interest rates will mean a further drop in incomes as the green pound rises. What will the Minister actually do to reduce the burden of form filling by farmers who are already hard-pressed enough?

Mr. Morley

I can tell the hon. Gentleman what we have actually done: we have introduced changes that have so far saved the equivalent of £5.4 million in the reduction in time spent filling in forms. A further £1.1 million in savings is to be found in the coming year, by rationalising forms, pre-printing names and addresses, introducing bar codes and trying to minimise the costs and the burdens for farmers.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Am I right in believing that most of the forms that farmers fill in were introduced by the previous Administration? Does my hon. Friend agree that no one in the farming community minds filling in forms if they are for a purpose, which surely must be to help the small and medium farmers to make a good living? The more encouragement they receive to specialise in niche markets such as organic farming, the better, as that is the way forward.

Mr. Morley

My hon. Friend is right. It is also the case that most of the forms are related to European Union subsidy schemes.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

Will the Minister now accept that farmers are not concerned only about more subsidy—or even any subsidy? More than anything else, they want to believe that they are being treated fairly in comparison with producers from all the other countries from which we import food. Will the hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that the Ministry will set up a study to examine the application and enforcement of rules and regulations placed on British farmers and on farmers in the countries from which we import food, so that British producers can be sure that the hygiene, animal welfare, pesticide and other regulations that affect them are being applied elsewhere, and the British consumer can know that, if she buys imported food, it is being reared or produced to the same standards as apply in Britain?

Mr. Morley

It is important that European rules are applied equally and fairly across all member states. When the industry brings us complaints, we have on occasion asked it to provide information on what it regards as a deficiency in the uniformity of enforcement. The Government will not hesitate to take action in such matters. For example, under Britain's presidency, we have brought forward new measures in the Fisheries Council to improve cross-European enforcement to ensure that the same standards are applied in all member states and that there can be confidence in all countries.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

What submissions did the Minister or his colleagues make on the new integrated administration and control system form and its ridiculous notion of having to remove outcrops from acreage, which is a rather time-consuming and stupid measure?

Mr. Morley

We have considered the IACS form, which is an example in which there has been some simplification, both in pre-printing and in the fact that we are not asking farmers to resubmit full details if there has been no change in the acreage. We are always willing to consider representations on future improvements and the structure of forms—we shall obviously be pleased to look at any such representations from the hon. Gentleman or from farming organisations.