Christopher Booker's notebook

By Christopher Booker, Sunday Telegraph
Last Updated: 11:25pm BST 31/03/2007

It's time Defra tried a bit of mud-slinging
Last week a Commons committee produced as damning a report on a Government department as anyone could remember. After investigating the incredible shambles made by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and its Rural Payments Agency over the handing out of subsidies to farmers, under the EU's new Single Farm Payment scheme, the MPs suggested in diplomatic language that the three people ultimately responsible for this "catastrophe" - including the former secretary of state, Margaret Beckett, and her former senior civil servant, Sir Brian Bender - should resign.
It was Mrs Beckett who decided to opt for the unworkably complex system which has so far cost 500 million, of which 305 million must be paid by us taxpayers in fines to Brussels. Yet, far from being sacked for such embarrassing incompetence, as we all know, Mrs Beckett has been promoted to become our almost equally embarrassingly incompetent Foreign Secretary.

One group of people who would not have been surprised by this horrendous saga were our 350,000 farmers, who have come to recognise over the years that Defra, in everything it does, displays an incompetence beyond imagining. To those who suffered through the foot and mouth crisis in 2001, arguably the greatest act of Government maladminstration in our history, the chaos over the Single Farm Payment was par for the course. So arrogant and high-handed are Defra's officials, so remote from the everyday realities of farming, that there is no question farmers ask of them more often than: what planet are they living on?
A tiny vignette of this was the bafflement of Robin Page, a Cambridgeshire farmer, who last year received five booklets from Defra, totalling 243 pages, on the workings of the new payment scheme. He also received three booklets, totalling 42 pages, from the Environment Agency, on new rules laid down by the EU for the disposal of agricultural waste.
One of any farmer's regular winter duties is cleaning out his ditches. Since time immemorial, this simple if arduous task has involved shovelling mud from the ditch and chucking it on the bank. Under EU rules, however, a farmer must now ask the Environment Agency's permission to dispose of "waste" in this fashion, without having to pay 20,000 for a "waste management licence". Armed with this "exemption", Mr Page was told by the agency that he must spread his "dredgings" nowhere but "on the bank".
According to Defra, however, if "dredgings" are placed any nearer to the ditch than "two metres", this is an offence under the new "cross-compliance rules", for which the farmer can lose part or all of his subsidies. So, according to the agency, to put the mud anywhere but on the bank is a criminal offence (fine up to 5,000), while under Defra's rules this means losing the subsidy.
When I asked Defra and the EA to resolve this conundrum they insisted that there was no contradiction. It was simply a matter of placing the mud on the bank, so long as this was more than "two metres" from the ditch.
Fine. Have any of these officials ever actually stood in a deep ditch, trying to throw heavy shovelfuls of wet mud more than six feet? I thought not.
This may seem wholly insignificant compared with losing 500 million over the payments disaster, let alone the many other blunders by Defra which get reported in this column. But it reflects the same dissociation from reality that characterises Defra's mindset at every level, from top to bottom.
In the same week that those MPs called for Mrs Beckett's resignation, Defra hit back by quoting a Cabinet Office "Capability Review" commending it for the great strides it had made since 2001. According to Defra's new permanent secretary, Helen Ghosh, "as a result of this Strategy Refresh, Defra now has a clear sense of direction built around a new mission of 'one planet living', supported by high level goals", which are "delivered through high impact policies".
One planet" Ms Ghosh and her colleagues may be living on, but it certainly isn't the one on which Mr Page is clearing his ditches.