Over the years I was with the BBC people asked me what it took to successfully interview people.
They probably hoped for a great insight into the world of journalism, but were disappointed when I said that I was good at what I did because I was curious about people. We all are nosy to different degrees, and the compulsory publication of figures for who got what from the CAP is a charter for us to know more than we should about the financial affairs of friends and neighbours.
Since the list came out via the DARD web site there can be few of us who did not have a look to see who were the big recipients of CAP payments – and a few of these were big indeed. Take away the obvious that the criminals who target rural areas can wrongly see this as a list of people likely to have a house full of money, and there is still a lot wrong with publishing this list in such detail. It is hard to see what is gained by giving names, addresses and post codes, if the idea is simply to let taxpayers know how CAP funds are spent.
As a taxpayer I might like to see more about the salaries of others paid from the public purse, but this only seems to happen when people leave their jobs and there is publicity about the generous redundancy packages they receive. If a suggestion were made that people on welfare payments, and those are a contentious issue in Northern Ireland now, should have the details, including their address made public, people would rightly see this as an invasion of privacy. Yet farmers alone as individuals, as opposed to limited companies, are deemed fair game to have their business affairs made public.
The roots of this lie with the Labour government when Margaret Beckett was the DEFRA minister after the Fischler reforms were agreed. She promised to make this information public, and the UK set about persuading other member states and the European Commission to make this an EU-wide policy. This was implemented, on grounds of that over-worked term, transparency, for the general public. The legislation was then challenged by two German farmers, who claimed it breached their right to privacy in dealings with the state. This was upheld by the European Court, forcing the Commission to drop this legislation, other than for limited companies. However Brussels does not like being defeated, so it made minor changes to the legislation and has now reintroduced it, confident that it is beyond legal challenge.
The Commission stance is that taxpayers who contribute £30 billion plus a year to the CAP have a right to know how that money is spent. That is a fair point, but it could be argued for all public expenditure where the same detail about individuals is not expected. The information is now on line, making it much easier to search by post code, or for the biggest recipients of payments. The big failure however with all statistics is when they lack context. Looking at a farmer receiving a large single payment income will provoke inevitable reactions. These will include claims that farmers are feather-bedded and getting rich because of big subsidies. The real situation, as farmers but not necessarily the general public know, is that for many the single payment, particularly for beef in the 2013/2014 CAP year, only served to reduce losses rather than leave a profit.
The figures would mean a lot more if an attempt were made to link them to farm incomes. Instead all that people can see is a headline figure, and they are unlikely to ask why, if farmers are so rich, they are in many cases driving ten year old cars and worrying about paying their bills. It is unfortunate that when the European court case was won by the German farmers, member states allowed the Commission to change its rules to keep the legislation in place. It might have been a Labour government idea in the first place, but the Conservatives have been just as keen on getting this legislation back into place. Farm lobby groups risked being accused of having something to hide if they tried to oppose it, so the Commission got its way unopposed. All farmers can to is make sure they explain to people, at events like the Open Farm Weekend, the huge gap there is in agriculture between income and profit.