I’m not quite sure how I feel about the news that civil servants at DEFRA are campaigning for a trial four-day working week. After all, like many farmers, my working week often becomes a seven-day affair because of the time it takes me to respond to DEFRA’s requests for information about multiple aspects of my farm business.
Whether that be details of the crops that I plant or the cattle and sheep that I move around, breed from, buy and sell at market or send to slaughter, the forms all have to be filled in.
A total of 1,300 members of the Public and Commercial Services Union, which includes staff from DEFRA and the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), have called for a pilot scheme to test the benefits of a 20% reduction in their working week (without loss of pay) on their productivity and levels of stress.
I suppose, provided what is left of my rapidly diminishing basic payment arrives on time, I should wish them all well. After all, it can’t be easy to feel “productive” in a DEFRA department that sends me the Annual Sheep and Goat Inventory and then has to send me endless reminders to persuade me to complete it and get it back by a required deadline.
And can you imagine the levels of stress involved working a five-day week in the mapping department of the RPA and having to create a new 0.001 hectare field parcel number on a map because I need to accommodate a shepherd’s hut I’ve just bought as a diversification project?
But, given that so much of the work that DEFRA civil servants do is paper-based in an increasingly digital age, it is possible to imagine that productivity could be greatly increased using computers to do most, if not all, of the work currently done by humans. DEFRA has multiple agencies, but why shouldn’t computers run Countryside Stewardship for Natural England, enforce Nitrate Sensitive Area regulations for the Environment Agency and oversee the bovine TB cattle testing regime for the Animal and Plant Health Agency?
I have no objection to the activities of any of these DEFRA agencies, but if productivity can be greatly increased to allow civil servants a four-day week or even less, I wonder if any of them could be spared to come out onto farms?
We could reconvene a free advisory service whereby civil servants visit farmers to help them with their form filling and advise on best farming practice and the adoption of modern techniques and computer technology in our own farm offices. Perhaps, then, we farmers could also enjoy a four-day week, no cut in pay, better productivity and reduced stress?