EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan has promised to introduce a fairer Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) penalty system which reflects the seriousness of any breaches.
In a speech to EU Farming Ministers on Monday, Mr Hogan outlined his plans for simplifying the CAP, something he identified as a priority from the start of his tenure.
After hearing frequent complaints from farmers across the EU about the proportionality of the penalty system, the Commissioner said he had asked his officials to look at how the regime could be simplified.
The main objective will be to ensure penalty levels ‘reflect the seriousness or otherwise of the breach of the rules of the scheme’, a recurring bugbear among farmers in areas like sheep EID.
Mr Hogan said: "In this regard, I want to see particular attention paid to fairness for farmers with small holdings, for whom the application of high penalties may well compromise their very viability.
"Of course any review of the application of administrative penalties must reflect the need to maintain sound financial management of what is, after all, taxpayers’ money.
"But I believe that an appropriate balance can be struck between the needs to protect public money while, at the same time, applying a more proportionate system of penalties."
Mr Hogan also confirmed his commitment to reviewing CAP greening after the first year of the new regime. UK farmers and their administrations have been calling, in particular, for a review of the burdensome three-crop rule.
He intends to present a package of changes to CAP greening measures ‘before the summer of 2016’, although changes resulting from it will not be introduced until the 2017 claim year.
In another potentially significant move, Mr Hogan outlined plans to introduce ‘preventive preliminary checks’ to reduce errors in CAP application processes.
The checks will allow national administrations to identify problems with applications, so ‘even up to 35 days after the final date of submission, farmers will be allowed to make corrections without the application of any penalties’. Mr Hogan said.
Mr Hogan said: "This measure should take away a lot of the fear and uncertainty linked to filling out forms and the ever present fear of fines and disallowances which many farmers experience."
Country Land and Business Association president Ross Murray welcomed the proposals but said it was 'frustrating that it will take so long for changes to be adopted'.
"It is critically important in the meantime that claimants have clarity on changes in good time, and also that the Rural Payments Agency exercises flexibility as far as possible to allow for any honest errors made in 2015 and 2016 submissions," he said.
“A review of the greening rules should include recognition of environmental enhancement beyond the requirements of the Basic Payment Scheme.
"It should also acknowledge the importance of multi-annual crops, which is underestimated under the current scheme.”
NFU Scotland Chief Executive Scott Walker welcomed Mr Hogan's 'acknowledgement that his simplification agenda must benefit farmers and not just the bureaucrats'.
“While progress is being made, our arable growers will be deeply disappointed with the timescale for changes to Greening measures within the new CAP with no proposals coming forward until next year and no changes until 2017," he said.
"That will simply compound the frustration that growers already have with regards to Greening due to the unnecessary gold-plating built into Scottish rules by the Scottish Government.
“On the up side, we strongly support the proposal to change the administrative penalty system for direct support.
“The concept of preventative preliminary checks to allow problems in initial aid applications to be rectified up to 35 days after the deadline of submission without farmers having to suffer penalties also sounds helpful."