EU aid scheme is burden on UK growers

Growers are becoming so disillusioned with the way the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) is running the Producer Organisation (Aid) Scheme that they are questioning whether it is worth the bother.

This is the claim made by chairman of the NFU's board of horticulture Richard Hirst, who said in a letter sent out to NFU members earlier this month: "The amount of work and checks and double checks that are being asked of our growers are now starting to cause producer organisations (POs) to question whether they actually want to be part of this scheme going forward.

"It's really asking some pretty basic questions that are a bit of an insult to their intelligence."

The scheme was set up in 1996 when the EU Fruit & Vegetable Regime was introduced as a way for POs to get EU funding to develop environmentally friendly production techniques and improve the quality, marketing and value of produce.

The funding - which has to be match-funded by growers - is available to fruit and vegetable producers throughout the EU and brings in millions of pounds to the industry every year. POs and growers must undergo regular checks and put in regular claims to ensure that they are spending the money appropriately - and Hirst says that these checks are putting undue pressure on them.

"(The RPA) was originally very helpful in making sure the claims are right - now it's the opposite."

He added: "My view is that the UK position is starting to disadvantage our growers compared to other member states. I expect they are getting more help than we are and if growers are starting to think the scheme is not worth being part of then we are potentially handing more of our market to those abroad who are being supported."

Processed Vegetable Growers' Association (PVGA) chief executive Martin Riggall agreed.

He said: "A couple of years ago we had an inspection in this country by European auditors and had some criticisms - now the RPA feels under threat from a clawback from Europe and they are just scared to put a foot wrong."

"I know of one PO which is on the point of saying it's not worth the hassle. It has almost reached the conclusion that it would rather not have the money than go through the hassle and risk - the penalties (for improper conduct) are incredibly penal."

Chairman of the British Carrot Growers' Association Martin Evans, who earlier this year represented English POs at an international conference in Europe, added: "The European audit did put a lot of pressure on the RPA, so it is taking things very literally.

"Last year we were asked to produce quotes for a carrot washer we purchased - not even the final invoice, but the just the quotes for the price of the machine that we asked for in 2002. What that would have accomplished I do not know.

"But we must not get away from the fantastic work the fruit and vegetable regime has done.

"It's something we need - especially as food security becomes more of an issue."

Hirst also expressed concern that Defra has yet to start work on a new national strategy for the scheme, which is supposed to come into effect next year.

He said: "The new applications have to be submitted by 15 September. I think the timescale for getting this done is becoming extremely tight.

"I hope this doesn't put undue pressure on POs and is not another example of the horticulture industry in the UK being disadvantaged."

An RPA representative said: "Over the past two years the EU has required a number of changes in how the Fruit & Vegetable Aid Scheme is run in the UK. As a result, the RPA has introduced revisions to the checking procedures of producer organisations and operational programme expenditure.

"The RPA has worked closely with the industry to resolve issues arising from this and will continue to do so."


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