Forum aims to lift farms’

Policy adviser for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) East Anglia Alex Butler-Zagni examines a weighty topic for farmers

ASK any farmer what could be done to make their life easier, and their business more competitive, and tackling red tape will be high on the agenda.

Agriculture Minister Jim Paice acknowledged the need to free farmers from excessive regulation when he launched the Farming Regulation Task Force in 2010.

And it was a theme that Defra Secretary of State Caroline Spelman returned to at the NFU annual conference in February, saying she “wanted farmers to be farmers, and not form fillers.”

One of the key issues the task force identified, when it reported in May last year, was the need to cut back on unnecessary and duplicate farm inspections.

Lots of different agencies can carry out on-farm inspections, whether it’s the Rural Payments Agency checking on good environmental and agricultural conditions or trading standards officers ensuring the farm is complying with relevant legislation.

One of our members’ main concerns is that there has been little coordination or sharing of information between these different agencies. We have heard from farmers who have had four inspections in six months, some of them lasting a week or more, with little or no prior notice.

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Now thanks to a local joint initiative established between farmers, inspectors and regulatory bodies, farmers in Suffolk should start to see some improvement coming through this year.

The East of England Farm Inspection Forum aims to identify more practical ways of working together at a local level. This is about better regulation and not less regulation.

It was set up by the NFU and local authorities, establishing a network of farmer representatives working with trading standards officers from each county. The aim is to bring together all the organisations that carry out farm visits. In our region this includes representatives of Assured Food Standards, the Environment Agency, the RPA and the Animal Health Veterinary Laboratories Agency. (AHVLA)

The forum has close links with the Defra On Farm Inspections Steering Group and it has four main aims:

n To build better understanding between regulators, assurance schemes, farming organisations and farmers within East Anglia;

n To look at ways of more effective and efficient delivery of regulation;

n To put forward ideas on improved ways of working;

n To ultimately reduce the number of inspection visits to farms and make more effective use of time.

Caroline Spelman paid tribute to the progress such NFU-led regional networks have made during her conference speech, when she announced that the Government wants action to reduce unnecessary and duplicate inspections.

Key to this is encouraging inspectors from different agencies to work more closely together, exchanging information and intelligence as part of a drive towards a risk-based approach for farm inspection visits.

A key principle is that farmers can ‘earn recognition’ by, for instance, belonging to a farm assurance scheme. This can be taken into account by other agencies when prioritising their inspection schedule.

In East Anglia progress is being made in other areas as well. The NFU and farmer members of the forum had highlighted the need for a livestock premises inspections guide, to help farmers self-assess their farming businesses against the rules or to help them prepare for an inspection.

Suffolk trading standards officers have now produced a guide, which NFU members can download from the NFU website.

AHVLA has also agreed to take the lead on coordinating the literature and resources that are sent to new animal keepers, reducing the burden on local authorities and cutting down on duplication of paperwork.

There is still much to be done, and forum members are committed to working together to build on what has already been achieved for the long-term benefit of everyone involved.

The forum is holding its next meet at the NFU regional office on 22 March and farmers can find out more by looking at or contacting me on 01638 672100.