IT has already been 23 months in gestation, which I am told is one month more than an elephant takes to produce another elephant, but Brian Pack’s foray into the red tape jungle might yet produce something more useful for farmers than a large mammal.
When he was asked to have a look at the amount of regulation and bureaucracy surrounding agriculture, Pack would have already had a good idea there was a lot of potential in such a review. He had, after all, headed up the largest agricultural co-operative in Scotland, where issues such as cattle passports and movement registers were part and parcel of the business.
In his first commission from the Scottish Government, Pack provided his thoughts on the most appropriate shape, from a Scottish perspective, of the next Common Agricultural Policy. Anyone who understands the minutiae of European policies also has a barrowload of knowledge on the amount of paperwork that inevitably accompanies them. This understanding alone must have provided a big plus on his CV for the red tape review.
In addition, he has a reputation as a “good guy” with a sound understanding of how the agricultural industry works – and, more importantly, where it does not work. The tag of “good guy” is not a throwaway description: he is one of the best communicators in the business and at many a meeting I have listened to him entertain farmers with his throwaway lines while at the same time getting a more serious message across.
But heading a review of red tape is not a task to be taken lightly. When he was first asked to look at the bureaucratic burden in January 2012, it was possible for him to look south and see a former chief executive of the English NFU, Richard Macdonald, had just completed a similar task and had come up with some 220 recommendations.
When Pack was appointed, I suggested he arm himself with a copy of the Macdonald report and give it a “Scottish makeover”. I admit now that I misjudged the man.
It did not look good as the agricultural press approached the briefing. We had received an embargoed copy of the report 24 hours earlier and the diligent among us had read the 72 recommendations but even they had been daunted by the 170-page document.
As we gathered, we joked about its length and the large number of proposals he had already gathered, as well as the timescale of the review. Last week’s document was merely an interim report, with the final production not being presented to ministers until next June. No-one mentioned elephants’ breeding cycles but the thought was there.
One of the press pack remarked on the front cover of the report, which shows an outline of Scotland covered with lots of jargon words and problem areas for farmers such as disallowances, error rates and compliance. The agri hack with the artistic bent remarked it provided a memorable image. Pack pointed out that there had been problems even in this, as the original design had pasted “fraud” over a certain geographical area and there might have been repercussions, so it was replaced with a less accusatory word.
At the conference itself, Pack was upbeat and optimistic. Yes, it could make a change for the better if the recommendation were taken on board. Yes, most were possible with a change of mindset and a better awareness of consequences when policies are put in place.
We chivvied him on whether any changes would be made, because politicians are good at saying they want to get rid of red tape but they also want bullet-proof policies and their civil servants provide them with these in either gold-plated or plain armour styles. Just to prod him a little more, we threw in the fact that the Macdonald report has, so far, elucidated very little action from Defra,
Pack was relaxed in his response and gradually I realised that here was a man who had been given a task which would’ve consumed many of smaller stature and less intellectual capacity. He could have done a skim job and produced a few easy winners. Instead, he and his small band went right into the innards of the system and produced a wide range of proposals that could make a difference.
It may seem a strange recommendation, but here we are entering a season of goodwill and present-giving. Farmers could do worse than get someone to give them a copy of the report. It is written in English – and by that I mean readable English. It is full of interesting facts behind the build-up of the red tape mountain and how it could at least partially be demolished.
Furthermore, it is free.