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We are delighted that the information commissioner has forced the rural payments agency to disclose information about subsidy entitlement. The society asked the agency under freedom of information legislation to disclose whether farmland in West Sussex was being claimed for subsidy under the basic payments scheme, and whether it was subject to cross-compliance.(1) The agency refused to provide any information, and declined to state whether it held any information at all.
The society asked the information commissioner to intervene.(2) It said that, as the Government already publishes information about how much subsidy farmers receive(3), and whether subsidy is claimed on particular land under agri-environment management agreements,(4) it was absurd that the agency refused to say on which land basic payment was claimed, or whether it was subject to cross-compliance.
The society pointed out that, if farmers are subject to cross-compliance in return for subsidies, the public should be able to establish whether particular land is protected by cross-compliance, so that they can make an informed assessment of whether the farmer is in breach of cross-compliance.
Following the intervention of the commissioner,(5) the agency decided to reverse its original decision and disclose the information requested.
Hugh Craddock, a case officer for the society, said: ‘The rural payments agency’s decision to release the data, following the information commissioner’s intervention, is common sense. Everyone should be able to find out whether land is subject to cross-compliance: then they can help by reporting breaches to the agency.
‘At a time of ever diminishing resources for enforcement, the public can act as the agency’s eyes and ears — but there is no point in people reporting potential breaches on land that is not protected by cross-compliance, particularly as the agency refuses to give any feedback when a report is made.’
Hugh added: ‘In view of the agency’s decision in this case, we now expect the agency routinely to disclose whether basic payments are claimed on land, and whether the land is subject to cross-compliance. But it would make much more sense if the agency put this information online, just as it does already for agri-environment scheme funding.’
1 The basic payments scheme is an EU farm subsidy paid on land under the common agricultural policy (CAP). Cross-compliance is the framework of obligations placed on farmers and landowners claiming subsidy under the CAP (whether under the basic payments scheme, or under an agri-environment management agreement). The obligations include a requirement to keep public rights of way open and accessible.
2 The request for information was handled by the rural payments agency under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. Regulation 18 enables application to the information commissioner for a decision under section 50 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 whether a request for information has been dealt with in accordance with the 2004 Regulations.
4 Via magic.defra.gov.uk/MagicMap.aspx
5 The rural payments agency disclosed the information requested following the intervention of the information commissioner. The commissioner subsequently issued her formal decision, finding that the agency had breached the 20-day threshold for disclosing the information. As the information had been disclosed by the date of the decision, the commissioner did not find it necessary to decide whether the agency had been incorrect initially to withhold the information.