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Confidence and cutting red tape

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IT IS nearly four years now since the then minister for food and farming, Jim Paice, made what Defra's press department described as a ‘bureaucracy busting promise’ to reduce red tape for farmers and food processors, and nearly three years since the committee charged with advising the Government on how to do this came up with more than 200 recommendations to help it to fulfil that aim. In making its recommendations, the Farming Regulation Task Force, chaired by Richard Macdonald, a former director general of the NFU, argued that successive governments had been overcautious in their approach to regulation, suggesting that ‘in some instances we have become slaves to the process of regulation and lost sight of the outcomes we have been trying to achieve.’ It recommended that Defra and its agencies needed to establish ‘an entirely new approach to and culture of regulation’ and that they should involve and trust industry more in developing and applying appropriate solutions. To bring about this culture change, it urged ministers to ‘lead from the top’, suggesting 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 accepted more than three quarters of the recommendations made by the task force and subsequently asked the committee to monitor progress in implementing them. The committee, which is now being disbanded, has just produced its final assessment of what has been achieved1 and, while it is clear that it believes that progress is being made in some areas, in others it feels there is some way to go, particularly in ensuring that the changes being made are felt at farm level. As Mr Macdonald puts it in a letter to ministers which prefaces its report, ‘Working closely with Defra we see first-hand the action the Government is taking. However, what is also true is that much of the work is foundation laying and that the full impact of many internal initiatives is still to be seen and felt out on farm. Often where positive changes have been made they seem under-appreciated. So, we remain concerned that those who do not see this work first-hand do not feel a difference and do not realise what Defra is trying to do and has achieved.’

While the task force's original report was notable for its enthusiasm, bordering on the gung ho at times, its swansong report seems tinged with an air of ennui. It was never altogether clear what culinary delight the committee had in mind when it talked about breaking eggs but, if it was a soufflé, it seems it is still waiting for the soufflé to rise.

No one could disagree with the aim of reducing unnecessary bureaucracy and the report gives a number of examples of where, although it might not be appreciated, this is starting to be achieved. At the same time, there is a fine line between over- and underregulation, and in determining what might be considered necessary; the difficulty comes in deciding where the line should be drawn. Some of the recommendations in task force's report, such as avoiding duplication of effort, sharing information and digitising and simplifying reporting systems always made sense; so did recommendations for taking a risk-based approach to regulation, provided, that is, this is based on a clear understanding of what the risks are. Other recommendations, such as those concerning changes to the six-day standstill rules, were worrying in terms of disease control and were rightly put on hold. As the parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee emphasised when considering (and largely endorsing) the recommendations in 2011, ‘regulatory reform is not an excuse for a bonfire of regulation’ (VR, October 1, 2011, vol 169, p 346). Similarly, Mr Paice pointed out that the aim of the exercise was to reduce the burden imposed by regulation, not regulation itself. He also made the important point that, where the principle of ‘earned recognition’ was applied, it really did have to be earned.

There is obviously scope for new ways of working. However, a robust, effective, clear and independent system of regulation will always be important as far as food standards and safety are concerned, and remains essential if confidence in the system is to be maintained. That much was made clear by last year's horsemeat in ‘beef’ products scandal, as it was by the BSE crisis some two decades before. Meanwhile, as it seeks to improve the inspection regime, and make it more efficient, the Government must take care to avoid any suspicion that it might be doing so simply to cut costs. This is particularly important at a time like the present when departmental budgets are known to be tight. The Government must continue to make every effort to reduce unnecessary red tape where possible but, in doing so, must be careful to ensure that confidence in the system is not undermined.

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