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19. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): If he will make a statement on the safety of British soldiers in Iraq. [60976]
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The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): I am deeply saddened by reports of a bomb at a United States-Iraqi facility near Mosul in Iraq. I understand that there are numerous casualties, although the situation is still developing. Such attacks not only identify the threat to our troops and those of the coalition but highlight the barbarism of terrorists who go to sickening lengths to prevent the progress of democracy and security in Iraq. We will not be cowed by the actions of the minority, nor will our troops. We will not leave under such threats, and we will stay in Iraq as long as the Iraqis need us. We will take all necessary measures to protect our own troops.

Mr. Robertson: I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, but the whole House will find it depressing. It has been said in Iraq at a senior level that if

The Secretary of State disagreed with that comment, and he has access to far more information than I do. However, it is fair to say that the situation for our troops in Iraq is dangerous. Can he not give the House any further assurance than the answer that he has just given?

John Reid: First, on the question on the situation in Iraq, it was not me who denied that there was a civil war in Iraq but everyone to whom I spoke, including President Talabani, Prime Minister Ja'afari, the Foreign Minister, Defence Minister Delami, Al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Tariq Al-Hashimi, the leader of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic party and, indeed, Ayad Allawi himself in private on the very day that he said something different in public. I have only conveyed the position presented to me by politicians from a range of backgrounds. Nevertheless, the point is not to argue about the definition of a conflict but to accept that as a result of deliberate provocation and the terrorists' intentional aim to provoke a civil war that is neither imminent nor inevitable there has been an increase in sectarian killings leading to a situation that no one can regard with complacency.
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In that situation, as regards British troops and the area under our control, less than 3 per cent. of the terrorist attacks are carried out in our four provinces. Indeed, 14 out of the 18 provinces of Iraq are relatively unscathed by terrorist attacks. That is not to diminish the significance of the four areas where there are such difficult attacks. Today, again, we have seen some of the horrendous consequences of that. Finally, rather than be divided by the provocation of sectarian violence, the best thing the Iraqi politicians could do is what they are doing: come together in unity to form a Government of national unity. That should give heart to us all.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): Will the Secretary of State comment on reports about increasing Iranian involvement in anti-coalition activities, including the supply of improvised explosive devices, infiltration of the security forces, and the training of insurgents, all of which pose increased risks to British forces? Can he again assure the House that there will be no premature withdrawal of forces for domestic political reasons? If the answer to the question "Who won the Iraq war?" becomes "Iran", that would represent a catastrophic strategic failure.

John Reid: On the first point, I can do no better than repeat what I have said before about the linkage of the bombs that have in recent times been discovered in the south of Iraq. We believe that they are linked through Hezbollah to Iranian influence, though we have no concrete evidence that they are linked to the Iranian Government. The Iranian Government deny such linkage and we have made it plain that there should be no role for any country bordering Iraq other than to support the democratically elected Iraqi Government.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, I can give an assurance, as I have done all along and did again today, that we will hand over to the Iraqis when the conditions on the ground permit. We will not stay one day longer than we are needed and wanted by them, but we will not leave one day too early against their wishes or under threat. The only thing that is achieved by continuing terrorist activities is to delay the day that the multinational forces withdraw, not to expedite it.

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Rural Payments Agency

3.32 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if she will make a statement on the Rural Payments Agency.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): In my written statement to the House on 16 March, I told the House that the Rural Payments Agency had advised me for the first time on 14 March that it would no longer be possible to make the bulk of single payment scheme payments by 31 March, and that in the light of this unacceptable situation a new chief executive would be appointed. I fully understand and share the anxieties that these events will cause to the farming community, and deeply regret that this unacceptable situation has arisen.

I received an initial report from the acting chief executive, Mark Addison, on the situation at the RPA on 21 March. There are substantial problems facing the RPA in getting SPS payments out to farmers—much greater than had previously been reported to Ministers. As I know the House and the farming community would expect, speeding up those payments remains the overwhelming priority of Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers and of RPA staff. However, it remains essential that actions taken now in response to these problems are carefully considered but also sure-footed, to avoid making the problems still worse in the future.

Mr. Addison's report identified some initial steps to take, which should enable us to speed up payments without losing sight of the need to manage properly the disbursement of a large sum of public money. These are the initial steps that I have sanctioned: focusing resources in the RPA on making the 2005 payments as fast as is legally possible; removing disproportionate checks from the payment authorisations system to speed up the flow of payments once claims have been validated; prioritising work on the validation of claims to release the maximum value of payments as quickly as possible as opposed to the maximum number of claims, which is an action that will mainly benefit historical customers; centralising key mapping work at the most productive office, Reading; reviewing what further steps can be taken to simplify the process to allow decisions to be made later this week; strengthening the RPA's capacity in key areas; and changing the RPA's structure to streamline command and control.

The Minister with responsibility for sustainable farming and food—my noble Friend Lord Bach—and the RPA's acting chief executive have invited senior representatives of the industry to weekly meetings, the first of which took place on 22 March, so that close contact can be maintained. They will also urgently engage with the banks and other key stakeholders. The team at the RPA is central to the success of those steps. I am confident that with Mark Addison at the helm we have the right people in place for the job, and their work and commitment remain key to delivery. The staff of the RPA have worked with absolute dedication throughout,
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often in the face of considerable difficulties, and I know that the whole House hopes and expects that they will continue to do so.

Mr. Paice: I remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members' Interests, and I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. In a newspaper produced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that landed on the doorstep of every farmer in the country just six days ago, the headline stated, "Full payments on track for farmers". I hope that the Secretary of State is ashamed that that happened.

As the Secretary of State has rightly said, the first priority in this debacle is to get the money to the farmers who desperately need it. Tens of thousands of decent, hard-working family farmers were promised their payments, which in many cases cover up to one third of their income. In time they will need to stop relying on such payments to support their businesses, but this is the first year of painful transition. Will the Secretary of State tell us how many payments will now be made by the end of March? Exactly when will all the outstanding payments be completed? What is she doing about all the non-validated entitlements, and will she confirm that they will be paid on the same time scale? Will she consider making an interim payment for everyone who cannot receive the full amount by the end of March? That could be done manually, even if the computer cannot cope. The delays are costing the industry £10 million to £12 million a month. Will the Government repay the interest on any related loan until the RPA issues the payment? Will the Secretary of State seek a derogation from the EU to delay the 15 May deadline for next year's applications? The RPA should not be sending out next year's forms instead of last year's money.

We also need to know how the crisis arose. Given the continuing mapping problems and other issues, the crisis was obvious to us all, yet throughout those months the Government told us that we were scaremongering and that the targets would be met. In January Lord Bach told the Oxford farming conference that 96 per cent. of payments would be made by the end of March. In the same month, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report stated:

Lord Bach called that report "shoddy" and said:

On 2 February the Secretary of State told this House that the 96 per cent. target would not be met. Three days later, Lord Bach told me in a letter that he still expected "the bulk of payments" to be made, although he went on to tell Farmers Weekly that "the bulk" meant more than 50 per cent. Just a month ago the Secretary of State told the National Farmers Union conference:

That is some plan!

If Ministers were misled by the chief executive of the RPA it is right that he should go, but that does not absolve Ministers from this catalogue of incompetence
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and ministerial denial. This House and the industry are entitled to an apology, because the chain of accountability reaches the top. It was the Secretary of State who decided, rightly, to introduce a complicated hybrid scheme, but then opened it up to 48,000 new applicants, with 360,000 new parcels of land that had not previously been receiving support. Then, to make it worse, she rammed it into place in the first year of the three-year window—and that is where the problem began. But even Germany and Denmark, which also have hybrid schemes, paid almost all their farmers months ago.

Sacking a civil servant is not the end of the matter. Ministers knew that there was a problem because they reduced the targets, but they appear to have done nothing until I challenged the Prime Minister two weeks ago. What questions were asked? How many Ministers actually went to the RPA to see what was happening? Did nobody have the gumption to ask why farmers were reporting so many problems? The Government's usual "blame somebody else" line will not wash. Lord Bach criticised others for saying what was abundantly clear to everybody, but he was wrong. A Minister who truly had his finger on the pulse of farming would have seen this coming and prevented it from happening. He has lost all credibility in the industry for which he is responsible, and he should go. This House and, more importantly, the farming industry deserve better.

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