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Reducing red tape

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LAST July, Jim Paice, the food and farming minister, set up a ‘Farming Regulation Task Force’ and asked it to come up with ways of reducing red tape for farmers and food processors. He asked it to take a bold approach and it has clearly taken his request to heart. In a report submitted to the minister earlier this week, the task force, whose members were drawn from the industry, ‘caricatures’ government thinking on regulation by suggesting that ‘successive administrations have been cautious, prescriptive, fearful of EU infraction and possessive of implementation’. As a result, it says, ‘in some instances we have become slaves to the process of regulation and lost sight of the outcomes we have been trying to achieve.’

The task force advocates ‘the opposite’ approach, in which the role of government should be to ‘set the strategic overview, but then minimise its involvement’. Its report makes more than 200 recommendations, some of which are aimed at achieving this broad shift, while others are concerned with simplifying regulation in specific areas.

Defra and its agencies, the task force says, ‘need to establish an entirely new approach to and culture of regulation’, based on a stronger partnership between government and the farming and food-processing industries. ‘Government must trust industry, must involve it in the development of non-regulatory and regulatory solutions, and must set the framework for industry to take responsibility. Where regulation is used to resolve a problem, the department and its agencies must change the focus from process to outcomes – from the “culture of tick-box regulation” to delivering real results.’ It says that government inspection and enforcement must become more efficient and effective, and that Defra and its agencies need to establish a system of ‘earned recognition’ that enables regulators to reward good practice with less frequent inspection.

Few would argue against reducing unnecessary bureaucracy and making compliance easier, and recommendations in the report for avoiding duplication of effort, sharing information and digitising and simplifying reporting systems clearly make sense. It also makes sense to take a risk-based approach, although this depends on having a clear understanding of what the risks are. However, there is a fine line between under- and over-regulation and some of the recommendations, such as those relating to animal movement controls, are likely to prove more controversial. As the Madders report pointed out five years ago, current movement controls are too complicated and need to be simplified (VR, August 12, 2006, vol 159, p 189). However, whether lifting the six-day standstill imposed when animals are moved between farms is the right way forward is debatable, not least because, unless accompanied by rigorous isolation of brought-in animals and careful veterinary animal health planning, it could increase the risk of disease being spread. Similarly, suggestions aimed at reducing the recording required for movement of animals within county parish holdings could hinder efforts to trace animals in the event of a disease outbreak.

Regarding meat hygiene controls, the task force argues for a less prescriptive regime. It suggests, among other things, that the Government should press the EU for early decisions on changes to meat hygiene and TSE rules, and implement these quickly, and that competent meat processors who have earned recognition should be able to source meat inspection services from accredited private sector providers. It also suggests revisiting regulations relating to antibiotic failures in milk, and renegotiating the requirement to destroy milk from TB reactors. Although the report suggests that burdens on business can be reduced without compromising food safety, it does not address how such changes might be viewed by consumers.

Commenting on the task force's report earlier this week, Mr Paice made what Defra described as a ‘bureaucracy busting promise’ that work would start immediately on reducing red tape and announced the creation of a new panel to challenge current thinking. The Government would be looking closely at the proposals, and would publish an initial response in the autumn and a full response early next year.

The recommendations will have to be considered carefully. The task force says in its report that ministers should ‘lead from the top’, suggesting that concerns that its recommendations would contravene EU law or be difficult to implement are ‘overcautious and evasive’ and that ‘To really make progress, to set and lead the agenda, you will need to break a few eggs.’ In fields like food safety and animal health it is important to ensure that not many eggs get broken and, if they do, the result is an omelette, not an egg that has been scrambled or ends up on someone's face.

■ The task force's report is available at www.defra.gov.uk/food-farm/farm-manage/farm-regulation/

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