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Single Payments Scheme

4. Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): If she will make a statement on progress in making payments under the single payments scheme. [63730]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I refer the hon. Gentleman to the written statement given to the House yesterday.

Mr. Lancaster: I wrote to the Minister on 4 April giving her notice that I wanted to raise the case of my constituent, Mr. Arthur Adams, who is typical of farmers across the country who have had to sell their grain early at a loss, whose rent was due last month, and who simply cannot afford to buy the chemicals that they desperately need now that spring is here. All of them have one thing common—they still have not been paid. All that I want to know—all that farmers across the land want to know—is when they will be paid.

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for writing to me, as that provided me with an opportunity to look at his constituent's case, which is not the norm. I am afraid that some validation tasks remain outstanding in that claim, but we hope that they will be completed as soon as possible. I remind the hon.
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Gentleman that of course there is, and always has been, a payment window. It was never the case that we hoped or believed that everyone could be paid at the start. Payments are being made as fast as possible.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is aware that Scotland and Wales have managed to ensure that farmers are paid, but farmers in Lancashire are struggling without the single farm payment. Can she ensure that it will be paid as soon as possible? If not, can she guarantee that interim payments will be made, and that farmers will be compensated for the delay?

Margaret Beckett: First, I remind my hon. Friend and other hon. Members that the payment is not late, as the payment window does not close until the end of June. May I also draw to his attention, and to that of the whole House, our announcement yesterday that because of continuing concern about the rate at which the Rural Payments Agency can make payments, we have made work on a system of substantial partial payments a priority?

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): A great many farmers in my constituency in north Hampshire are also waiting for payment under the scheme, and it is causing a great deal of hardship, particularly among smaller farmers. Many of the provisional acceptances received by those farmers are littered with errors—for example, with regard to field boundaries. One of the farmers in my constituency has been given an entitlement for a type of land that does not even exist in north Hampshire. What is the Minister doing to deal with those problems? Does she agree with the statement by a farmer in my constituency that the IT system is in meltdown?

Margaret Beckett: No, the IT system is not in meltdown, but there are continuing problems. The hon. Lady is probably not aware that since September 2004 there have been no less than 100,000 requests for new land to be registered or for changes to be made to the boundaries of land that had in many cases long been registered with the payments system. Indeed, 61,000 changes in registration have been made in the past five months alone. That is a substantial task. It is a substantially greater task than anyone had anticipated when the system was put in hand. That has caused difficulties, but I can assure the hon. Lady both that attempts are being made to resolve those as fast as possible, and that if there are difficulties with the specific information given to a particular farmer, we are trying to encourage contact between that farmer and the Rural Payments Agency.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the statement yesterday. In meetings with my farmers recently, they highlighted the genuine concern that many of them have, particularly the smaller farmers, who are finding it difficult to maintain their cash flow. When does my right hon. Friend expect progress to be made under the timetable for improvements to IT? Would it be possible for the RPA to ensure that farmers dealt with a specific individual? One of the problems seems to be that when they phone,
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they have to go through the whole history all over again. Perhaps we should learn from other agencies, where specific case officers are assigned.

Margaret Beckett: First, it is our intention that all those who are eligible will receive full or substantial partial payments by the end of June. The second point that my hon. Friend makes is a valid and important one. Among the changes that have been brought in by the acting chief executive is a major overhaul of the way in which claims are processed, which gives staff responsibility for individual applications. I understand that previously, not only was there a system whereby staff had responsibility for individual tasks, but the staff involved in dealing with the tasks relating to particular claims were not the staff who were allowed to talk to customers. That is one of the first changes that our new acting chief executive has introduced. I will certainly pass on my hon. Friend's observations, in case the further point that he makes is helpful.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): There seems to be a misconception. It is not just in England and Wales that there are problems with single farm payments. Some crofters in my constituency—I declare an interest here—have still to get their single farm payments, although those will be modest sums compared with payments to farmers in England and Wales. Will the Minister give an assurance that, perhaps with the Scottish Executive, she will look into the systemic problems connected with the single farm payments system?

Margaret Beckett: I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's observations. It was also my understanding that although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) said earlier, there is a different system in the devolved Administrations and most of the farmers had been paid, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, not all had been paid. As he will appreciate, I do not have responsibility for the way that payments are made in the devolved Administrations, but I undertake to draw his concerns to the attention of those who do.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): One of my farmers recently tried to take the Secretary of State to court by issuing a summons for her in the Weston-super-Mare small claims court. The right hon. Lady will doubtless be sad to hear that she has been deprived of the opportunity of coming to visit the beautiful town of Weston-super-Mare because of a legal technicality—but does she agree that that farmer, Paul Bateman, typifies the frustration felt by farmers across the country, particularly when he received a letter from the Rural Payments Agency telling him exactly how much he was owed in euros, but no cheque was enclosed with the letter? Would it not have been simple for someone to have signed a cheque, put it in with the letter and got that one out of the way immediately?

Margaret Beckett: No. We are doing everything we can to speed up the payments system. On the validation of claims, identifying the amount is the first step, but I recognise that it is the cheque that really matters. Far more cheques are being issued, and that work will continue. As I have said, our top priority is a system that at least involves substantial partial payments.
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Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): Uncertainty is the politest word to describe the mess which is the RPA. Applicants who have not had this year's claim validated now face a four-week time window before next year's payment application must be made. How can someone apply for help from 2007 onwards with certainty, when they do not know whether they have made a clear application for the current payment?

Margaret Beckett: Whether or not someone has a clear application for this year does not affect the need for people to get in information for 2006. Alongside the work that is being done to resolve the current problems at the RPA, we are trying to make sure that we protect the system for 2006, because we recognise the importance of a smooth transition into that subsequent year.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): Does the Secretary of State recognise that any delays that may occur beyond the end of the payment window in June, which she mentioned in yesterday's written ministerial statement, would be a clear breach of the undertakings on which the farming community relies? Will she now promise that any farmers whose payments are not completed by the end of June will have their interest costs defrayed by the Exchequer? Given that the sacking of Johnston McNeill represented some recognition of the existence of an implementation problem, does she recognise that a policy decision was involved, as we can see from the difference in the payments in England, Scotland and Wales, and that she and her team must take responsibility for that decision? Will she now consider her position accordingly?

Margaret Beckett: No. I have two things to say to the hon. Gentleman. First, it is easy to overlook the fact that in Scotland and Wales not only is there a different basis for payments, but there are far fewer claimants. Nevertheless, payments in Scotland and Wales have not been completely problem free, as was identified earlier in this Question Time. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the ministerial team made a policy decision, for which I take full responsibility, and in the long term that decision will be seen as having been clearly in the interests of the English farming community. Without getting into dispute about the decisions that people in other member states and in other parts of these isles have taken, perfectly rightly and properly, there are already growing concerns in farming communities where a different payment system has been adopted. The hon. Gentleman is comparatively new to his responsibilities, and he might not fully appreciate that the alternative basis—

Chris Huhne: Do not patronise me.

Margaret Beckett: I am not being patronising; I am trying to be helpful. The alternative systems rest on paying somebody what was paid on a farm between 2000 and 2002. Such figures are already substantially out of date, and that will increase as the years go by. There is growing unrest in farming communities about   that being an unsatisfactory basis on which to proceed.
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Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I refer hon. Members to my interest. There is a real human crisis out there, because farmers face a huge amount of debt, and their suppliers are carrying large amounts of credit that they have extended to farmers who cannot pay. Any money will be welcome, and yesterday's announcement takes us in that direction. Will the Secretary of State tell us what she means by "substantial"? What proportion of farmers' entitlement does she expect to pay? Can she give us an accurate estimate of when those payments will begin? Now that she has had to start making executive decisions herself, does that not prove that she has no confidence in Lord Bach, who spent months criticising anyone who forecast this crisis, while failing to grasp the seriousness of the situation? As she has had to intervene now, how can the industry have any confidence in him?

Margaret Beckett: I entirely share the view that the hon. Gentleman expresses. I fully recognise that there is a human crisis in the farming community, and that is why we are doing everything we can to resolve it.

The hon. Gentleman asked what we envisage as a substantial partial payment. We are working on the basis of roughly 80 per cent. of the claimed amount. I think that that is recognised as being substantial, and substantially helpful. I cannot tell him at the moment when the partial payment system that is being worked on will have been validated and will be able to run. However, if it would be helpful to him and to other hon. Members, particularly Front Benchers and the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the acting chief executive could come to give a briefing with his technical experts. I know that Members will want to raise particular technical issues arising from their experience and the questions of their constituents. The best thing is for them to get those answers from those who are charged with making the day-to-day executive decisions.

Finally, let me say how much I regret the hon. Gentleman's observations about my noble Friend. I have every confidence in Lord Bach. Had it not been for his assiduous work and continued pressure, we might not even now have had such a clear picture of the scale of the difficulties.

Mr. Paice: Does not that make my point? The Secretary of State cannot have her cake and eat it. The    more she tells us of Lord Bach's greater involvement, the greater is his responsibility for the crisis that we are facing throughout the country, and there is even more reason why he should go. If she is not going to meet fully the window that she keeps talking about by the end of the June, how much will the British taxpayer have to pay in penalties to the European Commission for that failure?

Margaret Beckett: In fact, as I have already said, we do anticipate making all those payments within the window. That is the task on which the RPA is currently engaged. Of course I understand that there is genuine distress, concern and, in many quarters, anger at these difficulties, as well as genuine anxiety for many in the farming community. However, that does not justify looking for a scapegoat in the form of an assiduous and hard-working Minister. I do not believe that
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Conservative Members, or any other Members, really think that this is Lord Bach's fault or that he should go—they just cannot think of anything else to ask for.

5. Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): If she will discuss with the European Commission and member states requiring publication of single farm payments under the common agricultural policy. [63731]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I am pleased that a number of member states have followed our example in publicising details of payments under the common agricultural policy, and I would certainly encourage others to do so in respect of the single payment scheme.

Martin Linton: Given that the Commission is publishing its Green Paper on transparency in May, why does my right hon. Friend not lead the way by introducing complete transparency for single farm payments under the CAP? After all, this is £1,600 million of public money, and every other Department has to identify contractors. Why should farmers be any different?

Margaret Beckett: As my hon. Friend is aware, we have shown transparency in publishing broadly the amounts of the payments that are being made. I can assure him that in the fullness of time the payments for subsequent years will be published and released. That is an example that has been followed in several other member states. We are pursuing openness, but doing so with a regard for personal privacy in making available the general information, as opposed to a much more specific set of details.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): It is incredible that the Secretary of State managed to get through the whole of the previous answer without saying when the payments will be made. As she will be fined by the European Commission beyond a certain date, what has she told it? When will the payments be made to farmers, and when will the last payment be made?

Margaret Beckett: I do not tell the European Commission anything different from what I tell the House. The Commission is familiar with events and has been kept informed about the steps that are being taken. Like the House, it has been told that we anticipate making the payments by the end of June.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Is it correct that farming has been singled out uniquely as the only business in receipt of EU funds that must have the amounts published? I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. Are farmers the only people who are taxed on prospective EU funds which they have not yet been paid?

Margaret Beckett: I cannot answer the first part of the hon. Lady's question because she asks me about matters for which I have no departmental responsibility. However, I would anticipate that the answer depends on whether a freedom of information request has been made. There was such a request for us to publish the moneys that went to the farming community. They are
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public funds and I would be surprised if the hon. Lady argued that that should not have happened. If she feels that there are other groups in receipt of EU money to whom the same rules should apply, she, or those who think like her, should consider making a freedom of information request on that basis.

I am afraid that I have forgotten the second part of the question.

Miss McIntosh: Tax.

Margaret Beckett: Farmers are not expected to make tax payments now on single farm payment claims. Any payment on account that is sought would be based on previous subsidy receipts. That position must be the same for any business.

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