Comment: CAP reforms begin to resemble Doctor Who story

A creature with interchangeable heads that speaks a language all its own ' the CAP, or perhaps one-time Doctor Who Jon Pertwee as Wurzel Gummidge. Picture: Getty
A creature with interchangeable heads that speaks a language all its own ' the CAP, or perhaps one-time Doctor Who Jon Pertwee as Wurzel Gummidge. Picture: Getty
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IT MIGHT just have been a hangover from a recent trip to the European Commission in Brussels but, watching the big Doctor Who 50th anniversary episode on Saturday, I couldn’t help but think there were quite a few similarities between the show and the recent common agricultural policy (CAP) reform.

Granted, one is an unbelievable flight of fantasy populated by weird ideas, laws and characters that bear little resemblance to anything that ever happens in the real world – while the other is a television show.

However, it would probably be fair to say that the ability to suspend disbelief and not to prod some of the details too closely is a key approach in living with either of them.

I was definitely picking up similarities between Doctor Who and the CAP – not the least of which was the fact that, by the tail-end of last week after all the constant media coverage, I probably wasn’t alone in wishing I could pop off to another dimension simply to avoid all the hype.

Then there’s the regeneration thing. As soon as one Doctor “dies” – or comes to the end of his contract – there’s another, slightly different one waiting to take over, complete with a new series of quirks and foibles that, although we probably hate them at first, we all come to know and love.

That’s certainly the case with any new CAP as well, although suggesting we might love much of it could be going a bit far.

However, as far as getting the new CAP package knocked into shape, it’s beginning to look increasingly likely that we’re going to need the services of a Time Lord to get the all the remaining issues sorted out before a new scheme has to be up and running by the year 2015.

For, despite the fact that most of us will probably have lost count of the number of occasions it has been announced that the CAP package has “finally been agreed”, in truth farmers aren’t really much closer to knowing how the package will affect their individual businesses today than they were when the whole reform process began three years ago.

One can only speculate that the Scottish Government’s Rural Payments & Inspections Directorate will face an equally difficult task in getting the computer programmes and mapping requirements in place before a new system is introduced.

Of course, what already looks like re-interpretation and a tightening up of some of the agreements by the Commission as it writes up the implementation legislation isn’t making anyone’s life any easier – last week’s apparent scuppering of Scotland’s plans to use stocking densities as means of directing payments to those that wear
wellies rather than slippers being a case in point.

The other crucial “time” issue will be how to stop the next few months turning into one big land grab. For, although it looks like it will be necessary for producers to have triggered their so-called “golden ticket” by having submitted an Integrated Administration & Control System claim for 2013 – or having other clear evidence of trading in that year – it looks like entitlements will actually be based on the area claimed in 2015.

And that means that, to all intents and purposes, the door has been left at least ajar – if not wide open – for speculators. Already there have been signs that estates have been scrabbling to take land back in hand to secure area payments for themselves – and there can be little doubt that any hint of a loophole will be thoroughly tested by someone out there.

But these are just the start of a whole host of issues that have to be addressed. How will we split the country up for area payments – and what rate will these be set at? What do we do with all the naked acres? How much cash should be moved from Pillar One to Pillar Two? How do we deliver internal convergence and what do we do with coupled support?

The list goes on and it’s becoming clear that the greater degree of freedom given to the way in which the CAP regulations are implemented at regional level has delivered a Tardis-like creation which is much bigger on the inside than it looks from without.

So, the race is on to turn a scheme that looks like science fiction into something that will help a minority race on the edge of the civilised world survive the tremendous upheaval they are about to face. Is there a Doctor in the house?