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11:00 - 26 May 2005
Audit office gives scathing verdict of incompetence

Government incompetence in translating European environmental regulations into British law has left farmers, businesses and taxpayers badly let down, the National Audit Office said yesterday.

In a withering verdict on the performance of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the NAO says that a series of European commitments have been implemented too late or in the wrong way - leaving farmers and others to pick up the pieces.

The NAO, which acts as Parliament's financial watchdog, said that although there were some recent signs of improvement at Defra, too many mistakes were still being made.

The organisation said that Defra's failings may have burdened farmers with more onerous regulations than those in other EU countries, as well as saddling the UK with "fridge mountains" and other environmental problems.

The NAO also revealed that Defra was the subject of 61 new infringement proceedings by European Commission in the two-year-period 2002-3.

Examples of poor practice identified by the NAO included:

The Pig Welfare Directive. Defra was accused of "gold-plating" the directive by adding costly additional welfare rules that were not required by the EU and that were not followed by other EU countries, leaving British farmers at a competitive disadvantage.

The Ozone Depleting Substances Regulation. Slow decision making by Defra meant there were no facilities for disposing of fridges and freezers in an environmentally acceptable way. The resulting fridge mountains cost 46 million to clean up.

The Animal By-Products Regulation. Guidance notes were only issued a year after the law came into force - leading to "confusion" for farmers needing to dispose of fallen stock.

The Landfill Directive. Huge delays mean that details for implementing the rules in England have still not been finalised 26 months after they were agreed and just weeks before they come into force, leading to "uncertainty for industry which impeded industry preparations".

The Nitrates Directive. A "misinterpretation" of the rules on releasing nitrates into the environment led to lengthy legal proceedings by the European Commission and meant that Defra ultimately had to draw up a second round of implementation to correct the mistakes of the first.

Caroline Jackson, South West MEP and Conservative spokesman on the European Parliament's environment committee, said she was not surprised by the NAO's conclusions. Dr Jackson said: "The NAO is spot on. The British Government is much too quick to sign up to legislation without any understanding of what the costs will be. On top of that they have a habit of taking a very simple text from Brussels - no more than 20 or 30 pages - and elaborating on it enormously in a way that no other member state does. That gold-plating can have a huge cost for business."

Ian Johnson, spokesman for the National Farmers' Union in the South West, said that gold-plating appeared to be "a malaise of the British bureaucrat". He said: "It doesn't seem to matter which government you have - even if you have a sympathetic minister, the officials seem to be more interested in covering their backs than in trying to minimise the impact on the industry. They do make life unnecessarily complicated and it is very frustrating for farmers to see a set of rules imposed on them that are not being imposed on their competitors."

A Defra spokesman acknowledged that the department had "had its fair share of difficulties in the past", but said that lessons were "being taken on board". The spokesman said that higher welfare standards in the pig industry had been introduced for "good welfare reasons", adding that British farmers might eventually enjoy a competitive advantage when the rest of Europe eventually falls into line in 2013. He said the department was "pleased the NAO had identified recent examples of good practice".

The NAO report acknowledged that Defra was responsible for translating around 30 per cent of EU regulations into UK law - more than most other departments.

The report also acknowledged that the EU legislation could be "complex or ambiguous".

But it urged the department to take on a series of recommendations - including proper consultation with those affected - in order to improve its performance.