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Rural Payments Agency

5. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): If she will make a statement on the effectiveness of the Rural Payments Agency. [47597]
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The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): In 2004–05, the RPA met all its key performance targets against a background of considerable organisational change and the introduction of the single payment scheme. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), announced on 31 January that the RPA would meet its 2005–06 commitment for starting SPS payments.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I draw the House's attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests in respect of this matter. I thank the Secretary of State for her reply, but the Department is wallowing in a quagmire with the RPA, given the number and complexity of the schemes involved. This week, Lord Bach said that "the bulk" of single farm payments will be made in March, as opposed to earlier forecasts that 96 per cent. of such payments would be made then. That is a considerable climbdown, given that the Germans are able to pay their farmers on time. Farmers in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have received 75 per cent. of their payments, so when will the Department stop introducing overly complex schemes? The Roman empire was killed by bureaucracy—how long does she think it will take her Department to kill off British agriculture?

Mr. Morley: I thought that Attila the Hun killed off the Roman empire.

Margaret Beckett: As my hon. Friend has just said, he rather thought that it was Attila the Hun who killed off the Roman empire, but we will not go into that. The hon. Gentleman is in error. He is right that it looks as though we shall not be able to make as much as 96 per cent. of the payments in March, which was the original goal, but we hope to make the majority of payments then. He described what was happening elsewhere. Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are paying on a different basis—that of previous entitlement. My understanding is that in Germany, where the circumstances are more similar to those here, the Government will issue entitlement notices to their farmers by mid-February, which is about the same time scale as ours.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): As a DEFRA Select Committee rapporteur on this issue, I note that the software for the single farm payments is being supplied by Accenture, the Bermuda-based former Andersen Consulting. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that while we should pay sincere tribute to the Rural Payments Agency staff for their heroic efforts, the Government and, more important, long-suffering taxpayers are over a barrel on this project as the quoted revenue costs have already doubled to almost £40 million? When are we going to get an effective ICT strategy in DEFRA?

Margaret Beckett: I appreciate my hon. Friend's tribute to the RPA staff who have worked, and are continuing to work, enormously hard and long hours. He was perhaps a little unjust, however. He is right that both the cost and the time taken to put in the schemes are substantially more than originally envisaged.
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I remind the House that the original costs and time scale were established before the 2003 reform negotiations, so they were on the basis of the old CAP scheme. It was inevitable that there would be a change in both the costs and time scale once the new reforms had to be accommodated.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): Pursuant to the right hon. Lady's last answer, will she explain—bearing in mind that her Department was the author of the version of the single farm policy that is being introduced into the United Kingdom—why the additional volumes of work that have occasioned the extra costs to occur, as mentioned by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), and the problems that the RPA has experienced have been a direct result of what appears to be an unanticipated volume of work from a policy that she and her hon. Friends agreed?

Margaret Beckett: It is indeed a policy that the Government decided to implement—and I think that at the time the House shared the Government's view that this was the best scheme to implement as it was the only one to operate on any basis other than simply paying people what they would have got on the basis of the farming that they were doing up to three or so years ago. We did not believe that that basis of payment would be sustainable or acceptable to English taxpayers for many years to come. For that reason, we thought that in the long term this scheme was better for the farming community.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that there were a substantial number of changes. As a result of the new entitlements under the reformed scheme, about 50 per cent. more people are now making claims from the RPA than in the past, and there was a 1,000 per cent. increase in requests either for new land to be registered—land that people had not previously bothered to register—or for the boundaries of registered land to be amended. In the past four months alone, about 52,000 map changes had to be made. Some of those changes came from people who had made previous applications and had said that their land had been registered. There is a genuine problem and it is important to keep on top of it. We are doing so.

Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): As hon. Members have said, there has been a series of problems with farmers who have contacted the RPA over mapping and inaccuracies in letters that they have received. A lot of the contact that farmers have had has been unnecessary and would have been dealt with if the agency had been more efficient and dealt with each issue as it arose. Call centre staff, for example, were not briefed on the issues that farmers were raising with them. Does the Secretary of State intend to apologise to farmers in England for the inefficient way in which they have been treated?

Margaret Beckett: Over the past year, we made it clear that we were concerned about some of the problems that became evident at the start of last year. It may not be within the hon. Gentleman's memory, but it will be within the memory of many other hon. Members, that it is now more than a year since we were forced to
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announce that we would not be able to begin payments until February. Those problems did arise some time ago and huge amounts of extra effort—including extra staff—have been put in. I remind the House that the IT programme is being monitored by the Office of Government Commerce in its gateway project, and it has said recently that it has been managed very professionally, with very visible ministerial and departmental support.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Now that Lord Bach has cleared up the confusion that he created last week, when he referred to making partial payments, by saying that full payments will be made—as the Secretary of State has just confirmed—can she now tell us what is meant by the phrase "the bulk", which appeared in his press release? Her own just now referred to starting on time. How many farmers will not get their payments by the end of March? Can she confirm that probably tens of thousands will still be waiting well into April for their money, largely because of her determination to introduce that very complicated scheme at the earliest opportunity and to allow 50 per cent. more people to claim the subsidy than ever claimed it in the past?

Margaret Beckett: I would have thought that hon. Members welcomed that increase. I am not aware that there was any confusion. The hon. Gentleman will recall that we have been continually pressed to give assurances that if the RPA were not in a position to make full payments, partial payments would be made. It has always been the publicly stated position that some payments would begin to be made. We hoped that full payments would be made, but if that was not possible, partial payments would have to be made. However, nobody really wanted that, including the farming community, because of the complexities that it would cause.

The hon. Gentleman says that it is a complicated scheme, but that is misconceived. The transition from 11 different schemes with different rules, payment dates and procedures, to a single scheme is complicated, but the scheme itself—once it is fully in place—will be simpler and we envisage that it will reduce the bureaucracy that farmers face by some 15 per cent., as well as giving an estimated £400 million to £500 million a year in extra income to the farming community in the longer term.

Avian Influenza

6. Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): If she will make a statement on recent development of her Department's contingency plans in the event of a national outbreak of avian influenza. [47598]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): We laid the latest version of our contingency plan before Parliament in December. Our response to avian flu is kept under constant review.

Mr. Waterson: I appreciate that a register has now been introduced for poultry farmers with more than 50 birds, but what is being done to keep smaller poultry
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farmers in the loop as the situation develops? Does the Minister have a contingency plan to loosen the rules on free range animals if it becomes necessary to order farmers to bring their poultry indoors?

Mr. Bradshaw: On the hon. Gentleman's latter point, we are cognisant of the concerns, not only in the free range industry but across the industry, and if we wound up measures to prevent spread, in the event of an outbreak in this country, we would have a proper risk assessment and wind them down as soon as it was safe to do so afterwards, to avoid an unnecessary impact on those producers.

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, we put the threshold at 50 because all of our veterinary advice suggests that it is the larger flocks that are more likely to be infected and then create the size of viral load that is more likely to spread. There are more poultry keepers in this country than at any time since the second world war. Although we have not made it compulsory for people who keep fewer than 50 birds to register, we are advising them to do so to make the transmission of information easier.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): We must stop the virus mutating so that it can be transmitted from human to human, but it is likely to do so in those who are exposed to the virus—the workers in the industry. What discussions is the Minister holding with colleagues in other Departments to ensure that all workers in the poultry industry are vaccinated as soon as possible?

Mr. Bradshaw: We are working closely with the Department of Health on that. Recently, I met representatives of the poultry workers' trade unions. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the main danger—indeed, the only danger—to human health is for those who live or work in close proximity to infected birds. We have far better biosecurity in this country than in parts of the world where the disease is endemic. For the most impact on trying to prevent mutation, or reassortment, we need to get a handle on the outbreaks in south-east Asia and other countries. In Turkey, as he will know, there are some small back-yard flocks where people actually sleep with their birds and have very intimate contact with them. As far as I am aware, that does not happen in this country.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): The report of the independent review on avian quarantine recommends that reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction be used as a method to detect avian influenza. Will the Minister confirm that it is his intention to use that system to detect avian flu? Bearing in mind what he has just said to my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) about small poultry-keepers—people such as me—surely it is worth having more than a voluntary register, which after all is still not open and will not be until 28 February, as people are more likely to bring their poultry into their own homes, thereby risking infection if information about the risk is not given to them.

Mr. Bradshaw: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not have the level of intimacy with his birds that I described as being commonly the case in other parts of the world.
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It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman recommends that we take a less proportionate and more bureaucratic approach to the poultry register. I thought that his party favoured better regulation, but clearly not. We think that we have taken a sensible and proportionate approach, which is supported by all the farming unions and industry representatives, including those with small flocks and hobbyists. In answer to his question about the tests used for avian flu, we shall certainly investigate the usefulness of the test that he described but the best test is still a post mortem based on a sample from an infected bird.

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