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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I seek the help of the House. There are two ministerial statements to follow, in addition to the resumed Budget debate, and I would very much appreciate single brief questions and short answers.
Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): The Secretary of State has made it clear that she regards the situation as unsatisfactory. Will she assure the House that the right approach is being taken in moving from production subsidies to payments for public goods? Is not the important thing now to ensure that farmers and landowners have a good idea of the new timetable for when payments will be made before June?
Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that the key issue now is to give farmers as much certainty as we can. Nothing would be worse than to give them information that was less than reliable. I would also say to my hon. Friend, as I should have said to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) a moment ago, that we are in touch with the banks. They understand that the payment window runs until June, and they have hitherto given us no indication of any difficulties that they had not anticipated.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): In the light of the fact that the Select Committee, which I have the honour of chairing, has twice warned of the potential failings of the RPA and its computer system, may I seek an assurance from the Secretary of State that all reasonable requests from my Committee for full disclosure of information about this debaclethis failure of communication between officials and Ministerswill be complied with in any subsequent inquiry that we might hold to try to unearth what has caused this complete mess?
I can certainly give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. He knows that I have sought to keep him, as well as those on the Opposition Front Benches, fully informed of developments as they have unfolded. Hon. Members may not realise that we had already planned a long-term review of the RPA, or that it was scheduled to begin as soon as the bulk of the payments had been disbursed. I have now announced that review formally, to make it public, and we shall proceed with it as fast as we can.
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Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): As has been said, Scottish farmers have already received their single farm payments. May I assure my right hon. Friend, however, that they derive no satisfaction whatever from the situation in England? They understand, as she does, how vital those payments are to the incomes of working farmers in England. Indeed, she has pointed out that failure to receive them could result in people being pushed above their bank borrowing limit. She has undertaken to keep the House informed of developments. Will she make a statement on the matter after the Easter recess?
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that under the old integrated administration and control scheme introduced by the previous Government, each form was dealt with by a single official in a single payment centre? Is she aware that under the new system each form is divided into tasks, so it is not merely shuffled between officials but between centresat the mercy of a failing computer system, which has managed to wipe off all the hill farm allowance payments for my constituency? Can we not revert to a system that gives the farmer accountability and the official efficiency, and liberates us from the tyranny of the computer?
Margaret Beckett: I always listen with great care to the right hon. Gentleman's observations, and frequently find great wisdom in them. I assure him that one of the reasons Ministers decided to commission a long-term review of the RPAalthough we had not announced itwas our considerable concern that although there is no doubt that the organisation is customer-focused in that the staff care about their customers and are working hard and trying to do their best, its systems are not remotely customer-focused. That is one of the issues that I hope that we will address, perhaps even in the short term.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Obviously, the situation is most regrettable, and I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the measures that she has announced this afternoon. Will she consider paying interest or financing costs for farmers beyond the end of March, if those arise because of late payments?
Margaret Beckett: I cannot give that undertakingalthough, as I said, we are keeping the whole position under review, not least because the official payment window runs until the end of June. Although I understand the concerns and anxieties of farmers, my hon. Friend will know that extensive discussions have been held with people's banks, more are due, and there has been more than a year's notice that there would be some delay and payment would be made later in the window.
Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con):
Does the right hon. Lady agree that it might take a long time to recover from this managerial collapse and put the Rural Payments Agency on a sound footing? The most immediate problem is the hardship that will
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undoubtedly be suffered by many blameless farmers, who have no idea what they will do about the loss of this vital income over the next month or two? Does she accept that it is not good enough to say that interim payments will be kept under review? Her first priority must be to try to put in place some manual system that will get out interim payments as quickly as possible to people who will otherwise probably be forced to abandon their farms.
Margaret Beckett: I assure the House, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman, that that is being carefully considered. He will understand that there is no wish to do anything that will disrupt the likelihood of the majority of payments going out. I have instructed the acting chief executive that the large number of people who have an almost minuscule entitlementon the whole, new claimantsshould not be his priority. In so far as possible, he should perhaps worry slightly less about some of those for whom the level of the payment might not be a matter of immediate desperate concern. The whole focus of the RPA's attention should be on those who need the money, about whom the whole House is concerned.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): What steps are being taken to reduce the welfare dependency that seems to be exhibited by many farmers? Does she agree that we have not seen the Tories so excited for quite a long time, and that only when they are trying to get their snouts and those of their friends in the trough do we see them so motivated?
Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend has long been a critic of the system of farm support in this country. I know of his concern for ordinary people facing difficulties, however, which he will extend to people in any circumstances. In the longer term, the purpose and effect of the overall reforms of the common agricultural policy introduced in 2003 will be to link farmers more closely to the market and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) said a few moments ago, to put public money in payment for public goodthings that the market will not reward.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I think that the right hon. Lady will know that the entitlement statements being sent out do not show the methods of calculation. That means that the individual farmer cannot check whether the final figure is right or wrong. Will the right hon. Lady please examine the position?
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Will the Secretary of State agree to meet a delegation of farmers from Shropshire? Is she aware of the suffering that has been caused over many months by the Government's dithering, delay and incompetence?
As I have said, regular meetings are scheduled with stakeholder representatives of the farming community. I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand, however, that the priority of Ministers and
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officials is to concentrate all our efforts on making payments. Of course we will keep the House and all Members as well informed as we can, but getting the money out is the priority.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): When the south Staffordshire farmers who were reassured by Lord Bach's Oxford speech talk to me of Crichel Down, and ask what has happened to the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, what do I tell them?
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