FARM inspections must be "proportionate" and have a minimum burden on farmers, or they could be put at a disadvantage according to the National Audit Office (NAO).
Its report into inspections found that bodies were missing chances to share information and therefore the chance to cut costs.
Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said “If English farmers are not to be disadvantaged in supplying our food sector, inspections must be proportionate and with minimum burden on the farmer. That is not happening at present. Oversight bodies miss opportunities to coordinate activity and share intelligence. They also do not take enough account of most farmers’ commitment to good practice which would allow the bodies to reduce redundant activity and unnecessary cost.
“The Department has made some progress in exploring how to streamline farm oversight. However, the net result reflects a gradualist approach. Streamlining needs to be driven with a sense of urgency to overcome the individual bodies’ conservatism in a way that is proportionate to the risks.”
The NAO report found that Defra had made some progress in adopting recommendations from the Farming Regulation Task Force. However, it said that it would not “deliver the scale of change expected” and that farmers considered the rate of improvement to be slow. It also found that Defra had not collected significant data to understand the scale, nature and effectiveness of farm oversight activity.
NFU deputy president Meurig Raymond said: “The findings from the NAO vindicate our response to the Farming Regulation Task Force, in that many farm businesses believe poor co-ordination and the potential for duplication of inspection are systemic problems.
“While we recognise some progress is being made, this report sets out a challenge for Defra to achieve stronger co-ordination among oversight bodies, improved intelligence sharing and collection, and to take account of farmers’ commitment to good practice to help reduce the burden on compliant businesses.
“Following a number of better regulation initiatives, agricultural businesses are looking for regulatory burdens to be lifted as soon as possible. We look forward to seeing how Defra responds and implements the key findings from this report and the Farming Regulation Task Force at a much faster pace.” The NAO report pointed to regional forums, which aim to achieve closer links, better co-ordination and improved intelligence-sharing across regulators, as examples of best practice.
Mr Raymond said: “We will continue to play a full role in supporting these forums to enable farmers to benefit from the spread of best practice and ensure inspections are more targeted.
“However these forums must work alongside other approaches to ensure there is more efficient and effective use of resources. Better regulation must be a responsibility across the whole of Defra, if a cohesive approach to implementation is to be achieved.
“Ultimately, we need to see a co-ordinated effort across Defra to free our farmers from the burdensome regulation that stifles their businesses.”