Spin doctors distort deregulation report on farming

Misleading claims about the content of a report by the Government's Better Regulation Task Force on the impact of environmental regulation on agriculture overshadowed its publication on 15 November. 1 The report expressly rejects claims that the UK implements EC legislation more zealously than other Member States, and that UK farmers are more heavily regulated than their main continental competitors. It makes important recommendations on groundwater, waste and the pesticides tax. But its most radical proposals are for a stronger advisory role by the Environment Agency and privatisation of some inspection functions.

The report was requested by the Prime Minister after the farming summit in March where he announced an initial set of deregulatory measures (ENDS Report 302, pp 26-28 ). The Government's response, due in the New Year, may prove a crucial test of its green credentials in the face of deregulatory demands by the farming lobby.

The report was prepared by a working group of the Task Force whose membership will, to say the least, have inclined it to be sympathetic to the farming industry. Of its four members, one is a director of two farming businesses; the second, Lord Haskins, is a director of a farming business and chairman of two food companies, Northern Foods and Express Dairies; and a third is a director with Whitbread. The fourth, David Slater, is the former head of HM Inspectorate of Pollution.

It appears to have been a pre-publication briefing by Lord Haskins, chair of the Task Force, which prompted garish newspaper accounts of the report. "Brussels red tape 'stifling' British farming" was how The Times introduced its report. The Daily Telegraph went further with its headline: "EU red tape 'is ruining our farmers': Task force blames 'over-zealous' Britain."

According to the Telegraph, the report concluded that "farmers have been driven to the brink of bankruptcy by over-zealous adoption of European Union red tape." It was also claimed to paint a "nightmarish picture" of farmers struggling against "some of the strictest" environmental controls in Europe and "pestered by inspectors descending 'in hordes' to enforce them."

The newspaper went on to quote Lord Haskins as saying: "We have been too eager to adopt Brussels proposals before others do, and we tend to be much more prescriptive when we incorporate them into British law....Government has, through regulation, placed British farmers at a disadvantage against foreign competition."

All this was music to the ears of the National Farmers' Union, which said that the report vindicated its concern about red tape and "gold-plating" when EC legislation was implemented in the UK.

A particular concern of the NFU is the 1991 EC Directive on nitrate pollution by agriculture, which was implemented inadequately by the UK. Under pressure from the European Commission, the Government will soon have to designate substantial parts of lowland Britain as nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZs) (ENDS Report 287, pp 4-5 ).

The NFU is campaigning to have the designations kept to the minimum possible, and in the long term wants the Directive relaxed. It asserted that Task Force report "concurred with the NFU that the target level of 50mg per litre set by the Directive...is 'unnecessarily demanding'," and indeed Lord Haskins said this in his interview with The Daily Telegraph.

All this was nothing but spin. The Task Force report actually provides little or no evidence to support the comments made by Lord Haskins and the NFU or in the subsequent newspaper coverage - and in places completely contradicts them.

One key passage concerns the implementation of EC legislation. According to the report, "there is a perception amongst farmers - and the wider public - that the UK transposes European legislation faster and more thoroughly than other Member States, that it introduces additional elements into the law when transposing (so-called gold plating) and that it then enforces the resulting law more strictly."

The Task Force's own conclusion could not have been clearer: that these charges are "not supported by the evidence." The UK, it points out, occupies only a mid-table position as regards the timely transposition of EC Directives.

Moreover, it says, "the perception of excessive regulation from Brussels may have been caused by British delays in implementation which have now led to a number of Directives being brought in concurrently to avoid legal action."

One of these is the Directive on nitrate. A second is the 1980 Directive on groundwater protection, which was not applied to farming in the UK until last year. A third is the 1979 framework Directive on waste, whose application to agricultural wastes is still awaited two decades later.

The report also knocks firmly on the head the idea that UK farmers are uniquely tightly regulated. "Environmental regulations are generally more stringent in the northern Member States than in the UK," it says. Six Member States have tougher policies on controlling phosphate pollution of water and farm manure, six have designated their entire territories as NVZs under the nitrate Directive, and four have pesticides taxes.

Neither does the report say, as Lord Haskins and the NFU suggested, that the nitrate Directive is "unnecessarily demanding". It merely observes that this is a "key complaint" by others about the Directive.

Although the report at times gives the impression that farmers are being visited by "hordes" of inspectors, a close reading shows that very few of these are environmental regulators.

An annex, for instance, lists the bodies which inspected one mixed farm over the last year. There were at least six types of inspection by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), visits by the Inland Revenue, Customs & Excise, the Health and Safety Executive, local authorities and the police, as well as visits by five farm assurance schemes. Beside these the inspection or inspections carried out by the Environment Agency were of limited significance.

Indeed, the environment agencies' inspection statistics suggest that most farms are unlikely to see an officer for many years - though the point eluded the Task Force.

The only notable extra contacts in recent years will have arisen from the groundwater regulations, affecting some 14,000 farms across Britain, and the NVZ regulations, affecting around 8,000. Record-keeping requirements were introduced by both regimes, but they pale into insignificance alongside those imposed by MAFF.

That said, there can be little dispute with the report's conclusion that there has been a "considerable increase" in regulation of farming in recent years - covering food safety, animal welfare and worker safety as well as the environment.

"For many years prosperous, heavily subsidised farmers could afford the costs of compliance," the report says. That is no longer so for most - though the main reasons, as Lord Haskins acknowledged, are world over-supply of agricultural commodities and the strong pound.

The Task Force says it "soon found that there were no easy deregulatory targets. Public concern about health and the environment means that the scope for extensive deregulation is limited." It says that the priority should be to help farmers comply with existing regulations rather than to create new duties, despite the "continued evidence of significant environmental pressures from agricultural practices" on air, climate, water, soil, landscape and biodiversity.

Major recommendations include:

  • Legislating: The Task Force was told by the European Commission and others in Brussels that representatives of UK farming interests "are less effective lobbyists on environmental issues than other countries." It urges the Government and farming bodies to get their act together and ensure that EC proposals are practical and enforceable.

    The report also recommends that the UK should not implement EC Directives ahead of other Member States or indulge in gold-plating, and be "less prescriptive" in transposing them - though it offers no evidence of gold-plating or undue prescriptiveness.

  • Nitrate Directive: While noting the "key complaint" about the 50mg/l limit for nitrate in water set by the Directive, the Task Force concluded that "this level has too much support elsewhere in Europe for there to be any hope of change."

    Instead, it recommends that the focus should be on assisting farmers "in the 40% of Britain which will be designated" as NVZs - the figure confirming the likely scale of the forthcoming designations.

    The Government has just increased the rate of grant-aid for new manure and slurry storage and handling facilities on farms within NVZs from 25% to 40% in a bid to increase the poor level of uptake (see p 41 ). The report suggests that grants might also be provided for repairing existing storage facilities.

  • Groundwater Directive: The Directive's main impact has been on the disposal of spent sheep dip chemicals, which have caused some devastating pollution incidents in upland watercourses in recent years. The report argues that "a bureaucratic licensing procedure, which involves an £80 fee, is not likely to encourage responsible behaviour" by farmers - and indeed the number of authorisations issued to date is only a small fraction of those anticipated by the environment agencies.

    The Task Force acknowledges that licensing may have to continue "in the short term" - as it must for the UK to comply with the Directive - "but ultimately the best solution would be for such environmental measures to be incorporated into farm accreditation schemes." This is not the only recommendation which effectively amounts to privatisation of regulatory responsibilities (see below).

    In the meantime, the report recommends abolition of the licensing fee for sheep dip. In England and Wales, the annual fee payable by farmers with groundwater authorisations was scrapped by the Prime Minister in March.

  • Waste framework Directive: The Government promised after the farming summit that proposals to extend normal waste controls to "non-natural" agricultural wastes, as required by the Directive, would be issued for consultation this summer - but, as before, the commitment has not been met.

    The only waste streams addressed by the Task Force are pesticide containers and farm plastics. On the first, it urges that officials should work with industry to develop effective disposal solutions, including on-farm incineration.

    On farm plastics, it recommends that "there should be a greater onus on suppliers of plastics to make collection arrangements and then to dispose of the waste safely." A national scheme of this kind collapsed three years ago after some suppliers ended their financial support (ENDS Report 265, p 12 ), and while a couple of local schemes have since sprung up the Government has so far rejected a "producer responsibility" solution.

  • Integrated pollution prevention and control: In March, the Prime Minister deferred the application of the IPPC regime to intensive pig and poultry installations until 2007 - the latest allowed under EC rules. Charges payable by operators were also slashed.

    The Task Force wants more. It proposes that intensive livestock units should be regulated by local authorities rather than the Environment Agency on the grounds that even lower charges would be payable. It also recommends that inspection charges "do not exceed those elsewhere in the European Union" - which could mean anything between several thousand pounds and zero.

  • Pesticides: The report does not consider the merits of a pesticides tax against other ways of reducing pesticide usage or the environmental impacts of pesticides. It simply recommends that the proposed pesticides tax should be shelved, "subject to a voluntary agreement which will effectively reduce the use of pesticides and other chemicals by farmers." The pre-Budget report left the issue still up in the air (see p 6 ).

  • Environment Agency: The Task Force wants the Agency to give priority to helping farmers to avoid pollution rather than prosecuting them for offences. It recommends that any funding or other obstacles to an expanded advisory role should be tackled in the quinquennial review of the Agency which is now getting under way.

    However, the report does not even raise as an issue whether this might compromise the Agency's role as a regulator, and whether advisory work would be better carried out by other bodies for this reason.

  • "Independent" inspections: One of the report's more radical proposals appears to have been inspired by discussions between the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Scottish Food Quality Certification on ways of reducing the burden of farm inspections. They are considering how the requirements of the official Scottish code of practice on preventing farm pollution might be incorporated into inspections by the certification body.

    According to the report, this might not only reduce the number of inspections, but also provide information to regulators on which to develop risk-based inspection programmes. The Task Force recommends that all regulatory bodies should work with the private sector to the same ends.

    Again, important issues raised by this proposal are not discussed in the report - among them the environmental expertise of food certification bodies, which masters they would be serving, and the wider implications of privatised inspections - including public access to environmental information.

  • Farm environmental plans: The report is critical of MAFF's effectiveness as a sponsor of agriculture and communicator of new regulations to farmers. "Few farmers actually use" the three MAFF codes of good practice for preventing soil, water and air pollution, which are "incomprehensible to many farmers", it says.

    There has also been a shortfall in advice on compliance since the free advisory service provided by ADAS was abolished by the Conservatives. The Task Force urges MAFF to consider generous grants for the preparation of farm environmental plans covering soil erosion, waste management, pollution prevention and conservation.

    The proposal is similar to that made by the Environment Agency in its new consultation paper on agriculture - but the Task Force does not discuss another Agency proposal that payments to farmers under the countryside management schemes should be conditional on their compliance with the three codes of good practice (ENDS Report 309, pp 43-44 )

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