Feedback is crucial for Doing Better job of tackling red tape

Scottish farmers want less red tape and bureaucracy.

The Scottish Government is committed to look at how best to help farmers free up time to do their job.

The Doing Better initiative, led by Brian Pack, has produced 72 recommendations to take forward the process, and responses to the interim report are now being sought.

On the surface there is a willingness to do something to liberate the farming industry from too much bureaucracy, much of which flows from Europe.

Like every thing else, this is not a simple task. That is why Mr Pack and his team have been anxious to understand the current regulatory system as a starting point.

Society demands high standards of animal health and welfare, food safety and environmental issues, and expects value for money with regards to public expenditure.

Between 2007 and 2011 Scottish agriculture received an average of £639 million equivalent to £120 per Scottish resident in support. This requires public scrutiny, and with it comes a regulatory regime. Red tape is a consequence of that.

The central question is, how should it operate to provide assurance and ensure value for money without being punitive?

In essence, this is what Mr Pack is trying to unravel.

That is why feedback to his interim report is vital. He has opened the door to making changes. It is up to the industry to use that opportunity to make its views felt.

Of the 72 recommendations, the central one relates to major structural reform within the Scottish Government. This is nothing less than the creation of a new body to cover most of the rural and environment regulatory and policy interests, bringing together all the Scottish Government rural and environment directorates together with Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry Commission Scotland, and the Crofting Commission.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency is excluded from the proposal, but the new body would take over specific farm and land manager regulation from the agency.

The new body itself would be customer orientated and focused on helping sustainable economic growth in the rural sector.

However, it is acknowledged in the interim report that this would be a long-term aspiration.

But a single body with a common database is held out as the way forward and one which would eventually bring enormous benefits to farmers, regulators and policy makers.

The boldness of the proposal makes it instantly attractive, and the concept of bringing together a plethora of regulatory bodies into one shop with a clear understanding of what that could mean for the delivery of both inspection and guidance and advice is appealing.

At a stroke it represents a clear articulation of the need to unclutter the public landscape while reducing regulatory burdens for the farming industry.

It might be seen as purely aspirational and, significantly, NFU Scotland did not mention the idea in its initial response to the publication of the report.

But the idea of a more focused approach is not new. The Scottish Environment and Rural Services Initiative (SEARS) between 2007 and 2011 aimed to deliver more holistic services. While the project was not without tangible success, there are questions about the extent the one-door-any-door approach was used by the farming community.

That, however, does not invalidate the need to pursue better ways of delivering services.

In the shorter term it is likely that specific recommendations relating to Nitrate Vulnerable Zones, sheep tagging, identification and registration of cattle, on-the-spot farm checks, and the regulatory implications of CAP reform next year will receive greater attention from respondents.

Additionally the scale of the problem, encapsulated in the number of recommendations, will quickly come to the fore.

But even that should not dissuade individuals from making a response.

These are important issues for the industry as is the need to consider what the report calls official ‘mind set’, which should not be used to impede the development of the bigger picture: a more competitive and sustainable agriculture across Europe.

Equally, there is a need for EU auditors to acquire a greater sensitivity in dealing with Scottish farming issues, and for policy-makers to acknowledge that regulating an industry is more about achieving outcomes than ticking boxes.

There is also an urgent need for a better understanding of what triggers disallowances which currently cost Scotland millions of pounds.