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Busting bureaucracy

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LAST May, on publication of the report from the Farming Regulation Task Force, Jim Paice, the food and farming minister, made what Defra described as a ‘bureaucracy busting promise’ to work to reduce red tape for farmers. Judging from the Government's response to the report, which was published last week,* the minister is holding true to his word.

The task force was set up by Mr Paice in July 2010 and asked to find ways of reducing bureaucracy for farmers and food processors. Chaired by Richard Macdonald, a former director general of the NFU, and with members drawn from the industry, it was asked to take a bold approach, which it duly did. Its report made more than 200 recommendations, calling, in particular, for ‘an entirely new approach to, and culture of, regulation’, based on a stronger partnership between government and the farming and food processing industries. It urged ministers, too, to be bold in their approach, suggesting, among other things, that ‘To really make progress, to set and lead the agenda, you will need to break a few eggs’ (VR, May 21, 2011, vol 168, p 522).

The Government announced last week that it has accepted more than 150 of the task force's recommendations and that it is actively considering 31 more. A Defra press release swashbucklingly announced that ‘the farming industry is the first to benefit from the Government's pledge to slash red tape which hinders business efficiency’; this will be done by developing ‘a raft of measures to free farmers from the shackles of unnecessary burdens, help their businesses become more competitive and so provide a boost to the economy whilst still ensuring environmental protection’. It also announced that the task force chairman is to chair the implementation group that will be taking the recommendations forward.

No one wants to encourage unnecessary bureaucracy or prevent industries being competitive, but it will be important not to get too carried away with all this. Regulation is often there for a purpose. As the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee pointed out in a report last September, ‘regulatory reform is not an excuse for a bonfire of regulation’ and ‘the wider social and environmental benefits of regulation often substantially outweigh the costs to businesses and regulators’. While generally enthusiastic about the task force's proposals, the select committee also made the point that ‘a firmer evidence base will be needed, including detailed risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis, before Defra makes changes to regulations concerning high-risk areas’ (VR, October 1, 2011, vol 169, p 346).

Also in September, the chairman of the Food Standards Agency, Jeff Rooker, wrote to the task force's chairman. He drew attention to the importance of maintaining consumer confidence in food, noting that ‘only by maintaining and building consumer confidence can industry grow and protect its markets, both in the UK and internationally’ (VR, November 12, 2011, vol 169, p 510).

Of concern from an animal health perspective is a recommendation from the task force that the six-day standstill imposed when animals are moved from farm to farm should be dropped and replaced with a system based around isolation units on farms. The standstill was introduced after the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001 and is intended to reduce the risks of disease spread. Defra reports that subsequent epidemiological modelling has indicated that ‘effective on-farm separation has a broadly similar impact on the spread of exotic disease to that of standstills’ and that it has asked the industry to come up with a workable approach that is affordable and enforceable. The key word in all this is ‘effective’ and any such plans must be carefully evaluated in practical terms.

More generally, a risk-based approach to regulation, based on the principle of ‘earned recognition’, seems sensible. However, as Mr Paice pointed out at last year's BVA Congress, such recognition really does have to be earned, with a clear demonstration that standards are being adhered to (VR, October 1, 2011, vol 169, p 346).

In what appears to be a gung ho climate, there is a need to advocate a degree of caution. Busting bureaucracy is all very well, but it is best not to break too many eggs in the process; there is a need to ensure that animal health, public health and animal welfare are protected, and that consumer confidence is maintained.

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