Sunday, April 06, 2008

Farm subsidy disclosure angers farmers

The Farmers Union of Wales has attacked the decision of the EU to make all farm subsidy receipts public from next year. While farmers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland already have their single farm payment details displayed on the devolved administrations' websites, it is intended to add full names, addresses and postcodes to the published details.

One objection is that this information could be used for criminal purposes such as identity fraud. It is also argued that such information is commercially sensitive. For her part, farm commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel argues that 'This is taxpayers' money, so it is very important that people know where it is being spent.'

The NFU's SPS adviser said that one key concern was whether the data was accurate. In the NFU's experience there were many inaccuracies. For example, a shortfall in the 2005 payment might be added to 2007 to give an inflated figure. (Strictly speaking, this is not an inaccuracy as it reflects the amount paid, but it could still be misleading).

He also complained that such information could raise the 'unwarranted' interest of the taxman, although I would have thought that if farmers have made an accurate declaration of their income there should not in principle be a problem. It has been argued, however, that the Revenue sometimes misuse their power to investigate the affairs of individual taxpayers.

The issue here is to balance conflict considerations such as transparency and privacy. Transparency is highly valued by economists and public policy analysts, while privacy is a value deeply embedded in British culture. For the information currently made available by some member states, visit Subsidies

Of course, the fundamental concern of some farmers is that more information could lead to more public demands for the abolition of subsidies. However, the relatively diffuse interests of consumers and taxpayers have always been overcome by the more concentrated interests of farmers. For all the criticism they sometimes receive from some farmers, the main farming organisations have done a very effective job of looking after their members' interests.

I was interested to read a letter by a farmer in Farmers' Weekly criticising the recent House of Lords report that called for farm subsidies to be ended. The writer makes the complaint that we are governed by 'intellectuals' which is news to me. I think what he really means is the political class.

He does make the valid point that farmers have become price takers because of the growth of retailer power. The remedy here would be effective competition policy rather than perpetuating subsidies, although politically this is not that easy to achieve.

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