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Despite those efforts, the shocking statistic is that the average time taken to process and pay compensation is still longer than the life expectancy of the victim post-diagnosis. None of us should ever seek to defend that or be satisfied while that is the situation; it would be indefensible for any of us to make that case. That is why we want a much-improved system for paying that compensation.
Although I will not be provoked into commenting, I remain open-minded about the options available to the Government if a voluntary basisbest practice and good willdoes not ensure improvement. We are working with many insurers who are alive to the nature of the problem and who, in many cases, are working very hard on it, but if that does not deliver the type of justice that Members of all parties expect, there remain other options, and we are open-minded about them.
Chris Bryant: I am grateful for what the Minister says, and I think that all of us feel that he is moving in the right direction, but it sounded as though he was suggesting that he would have to wait some time to see whether there would be co-operation. Once that period has elapsed, we hope that the swiftness point that he made with regard to others will apply to the Government.
Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend, who has also worked tirelessly on the issue, makes a fair point. What I am saying is that the current processes test victims patience. Hon. Members from all parties should be equally impatient about the way in which, on occasion, victims have been strung along. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey and others spoke about the way in which victims have been let down as a consequence of a long period of tracking down employers, processing and making payments. What I am saying to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and others is that we remain open-minded about statutory opportunities to resolve the problem.
Mr. Wills: Before the Minister moves off the point about timing, and as I share the impatience of everyone in the House with this issue, may I ask how long it will take the Government to make a definitive decision on how to respond to the Barker case?
Mr. Murphy: In the short time available, I shall seek to answer that point. In respect of the Barker case, we are looking for the best legislative opportunity to do something about the matter. There are a number of vehicles currently before the House through which we might resolve the problem of the Barker judgment. Of course, the Compensation Bill is one of them; we are actively considering that. Other opportunities have been speculated on, including a stand-alone Bill and amendments to existing legislation before the House. We want an effective, speedy resolution to the problem. This morning, at a conference held by the GMBmy own unionthe Prime Minister made a commitment, saying that he regrets the Barker judgment. He said:
I'm looking at the moment to see the best opportunity for us to change it... If we can change it, we will. I hope to announce something on this in a couple of weeks.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon that the Government share the frustration so eloquently described by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North and others. We are currently looking across Government at the most effective and speedy way of remedying the gap and the problems created by the judgment. We will continue to hold conversations with hon. Members from all parties. I hope that when we come forward with something, perhaps in the Commons but possibly in the other placespeedy legislation is the most important thingthere will be cross-party consensus on it, so that we can resolve the issue and get a speedy resolution to the issues raised by Barker.
We are absolutely determined to move on the issue and find a legislative solution to the unfortunate and frustrating decision by the Law Lords. We will seek to undertake consultation, as has been requested, but unfortunately time and the speed of developments may not allow that. In closing, I say to my hon. Friends that we will continue this conversation about the best way forward. There is unanimity across the House, and certainly among the hon. Members who turned up here in such great numbers today, on the fact that we must deliver justice, as regards both the timing and the provision of compensation, and resolve the issue of the very disappointing decision of the Law Lords in respect of Barker; act on it, we will.
Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): It has been my practice once a year, roughly speaking, if I can obtain a slot, to raise with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs the concerns of my agricultural constituents, of whom I have a large number. The purpose of these debates has never been to trawl the past, but rather to highlight features of the future that I hope will help the Department to assist those of my constituents who remain hard-pressed.
Clearly, the past year has been difficult for farmers. One of the most difficult parts of the year was the saga of the single farm payments. I am glad to say that, as far as I have been able to ascertain in recent weeks, most of my farming constituents have now received either the 80 per cent. payment or a full settlement. I am grateful for that and I want to put on record that I am grateful for the efforts that Mark Addison has madeas far as I can make out from my correspondenceto improve the situation in the Rural Payments Agency. I have experienced much speedier and more effective responses since he came on to the scene.
There are still outstanding cases that I want to bring to the Ministers attention, and this is a rare opportunity to get directly into his mind. Perhaps he would convey to Lord Rooker the sort of case that still constitutes an exception. The experiences of a couple in my constituency called Mr. and Mrs. Bugler constitute an extraordinary record of the sort of problem that we face. The RPA initially rejected their entire claim on 26 August 2005. It took six months, until February this year, for the RPA to accept that they had a valid claim. I know that it is a complicated process, especially with all the mapping difficulties that unfortunately occurred due to the IT system. The extraordinary thing is that since February that claim has been accepted, but the Buglers still have not received their payment. It is not a trivial claimabout £13,000and they are not rich people. Part of my purpose is to hope that the Minister will scurry back to his Department and ensure that Mr. and Mrs. Bugler receive their payment with all speed, but that problem is symptomatic not of anything like the majoritythank goodnessbut of a substantial minority of my farming constituents. They are in such a position, and I hope that we shall see action to tidy up those cases rapidly.
I am concerned, however, about 2006 single farm payments for west Dorset farmers. I am grateful for the ability to send in blank claim forms, as I am sure other hon. Members in rural seats are. That has certainly helped some who would otherwise have been stymied by mapping and record problems. It is clear that there is good will in this process on the part of the current management of the RPA, but there is still considerable evidence of confusion.
Without dwelling excessively on this particular set of constituentsalthough it usually does happen that when something goes wrong one year, it turns into a problem during the nextI should say that since they completed their 2006 application in May, they have since received six letters of acknowledgment. Three were from the
customer service centre and three from the operations director, which were dated between 18 May and 31 May. That in itself is neither here nor there: who cares about letters of acknowledgment? But it suggests that there might not be tight administrative control of the 2006 process yet.
I sat through discussions with some of my farming constituents a few weeks ago, during which I was told tales of the difficulties people have had in getting their 2006 forms into reasonable shape, given the uncertainties generated by outstanding problems in 2005. I am extremely conscious of the fact that an organisation hit by endless difficulties is not the one best placed to deal with the difficulty of making up for 2005 and 2006. I hope that the Minister will do everything in his power to assist the RPA in clearing up 2006, by paying further attention to the staffing of the RPA if necessary, so that we do not have a repeat of 2005.
From my constituents point of view, that process will be materially assisted if Ministers take steps to change the culture of enforcement in relation to cross-compliance. I shall give the Minister an example of what I am talking about. I have no difficulty with the concept of cross-compliance: it is necessary. However, much depends on the spirit in which it is enforced. I cite the case of Mr. and Mrs. Newman in my constituency. They had a livestock inspection in February 2005. There is nothing wrong with that: such inspections are needed. However, the results were not conveyed until October and there is much wrong with that. People should not experience that sort of delay. It would not normally take more than three months, so an excess of time elapsed before they were told the results.
That, however, is not really the essence of the problem. The essence of the problem was the attitude taken to discrepancies. For example, they had made a mistake in that there was a zero where there should have been an O . I accept that zeroes and Os are not identical items and that that was a mistake, but when an agency such as the RPA has made the number of mistakes that we have experienced during recent years, it does not behove it to make complaint about a constituent who has placed a zero where there should have been an O.
A second complaint was made: the letters UK were missed at the start of two tags. That was not the fault of the Newmans. The British Cattle Movement Service had issued the tags incorrectly, but it became a cross-compliance issue. I do not want to continue the tedious litany of the various bits and pieces that afflicted these constituents. When one goes round west Dorset, one hears from farmer after farmer about little irritations of this sort. Such irritations can lead to severe worries, especially if people have not received their single farm payment, or are dealing with bankers who are getting more and more impatient. I know that the Minister is a perfectly ordinary and decent human being from past experience, and if he were in the condition that I have described, he would feel the same. People get irritated, worried and cross because they try to iron things out and they cannot do so.
In this case, my constituents tried to get the problems ironed out from October. They did not even get a reply until March, which rejected the appeal on the ground
that these were two genuine defects of cross-compliance. They appealed again and the RPA has now given up on the three ear tags without UK on them, but is still insisting on the zeroes and Os. However, the RPA has said that there will be no penalty. That is lunacy. It is not the way to run things. There ought to be a culture of acceptance of de minimis problems with cross-compliance and I am afraid that someone somewhere, very close to the top, has quite reasonably given out instructions saying, This is all very important and we have to have it shipshape. We must not have fraud or impropriety so be very careful that these things are done right. However, they did not add, But do please exercise some common sense. Dont go for the de minimis, go for the substantial things. I can see from the Ministers body language that I have made my point so I shall not continue to dwell on it.
My next point is made to me repeatedly by farmers in west Dorset and it concerns a lack of symmetry. Traceability is everything with meats and livestock, and is clearly high on the agenda of DEFRA agencies. My farmers understand why that is; we have all been through enough in the past 10 to 15 years to know why that is. However, in the supermarkets in my constituency, and, I expect, in any other, one finds on the counter meat from Brazil. There is nothing wrong with meat from Brazilthere is nothing wrong with Brazilbut that meat is not traceable. I doubt whether it is remotely traceable. That sort of asymmetry causes real angst for my farmers. I hope that DEFRA will start to consider in more detail whether we are asking so much more of our farmers than of farmers in other parts of the world as to make it an uphill struggle for our farmers to compete, and how we can deal with that.
I draw to the Ministers attention the extent of the continuing anxiety about bovine tuberculosis in west Dorset. I know that the Ministers colleague who deals with these matters has recently announced the good news that TB figures throughout the country have, slightly mysteriously, reduced, and we welcome that, although I must say that I do not think that there has been any noticeable reduction in west Dorset. We all understand the reasons for the free movement controlsmy farmers are certainly living with thembut there is a continuing sense that action must be taken reasonably speedily to address the causes of the disease. DEFRA needs to take us from the investigation, study and consideration that has been going on for a long while to some specific, well-organised action that involves proper testing. Now that polymerase chain reaction testing is available, we need to see it being used. We need to see effective action being taken, so that my farmers can begin to think that the future will be TB-free. That is of real concern to them.
Unless this issue is pretty speedily addressed, more and more of my farmers, afflicted as they are by the RPA problems, will begin to feel that they do not want to continue, as I fear a lot of them have in the past year, and will continue to sell out. In west Dorset, farming is not a marginal activity; it is central to our agri-industries, tourism and the whole life of the place. That depends not only on the number of acres being farmed, but on the number of farmers engaged in farming. We
do not want TB to be a basis for reduced animal welfare and farmers going out of business.
I hope that the Minister and DEFRA understand how far the severe problems of the past few years mask what could be a hugely optimistic set of trends. I hope also that alongside curing the administrative problems, DEFRA will help to advance the positive causes that many of my farmers are queuing up to take part in. There is enthusiasm for local food and organic food, which is reasserting itself in the marketplace, and for non-fuel crops, all of which offer huge potential to west Dorset farmers over the next few years. However, there is little sign at the moment of real, positive encouragement from the Ministry. It is not that Ministers have said the wrong things, but that there is not much sense of them coming forward and preaching the gospel of the trends of our timesof local food, organic food and non-fuel crops. I think that that is because in recent years, Ministers have become beleaguered by all the administrative difficulties.
Goodness knows I can understand how that has happened, but there is an opportunity, if the administration can be got under control, to generate an optimism that will in turn generate a kind of investment and enthusiasm in the industry that could offer us a farming scene in west Dorset that will be much healthier in five or 10 years than it has been for the past 10 years. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will cure the administration problem and stress the optimistic trends.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Barry Gardiner): I am delighted to respond to the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). It is three years since the last in the series of annual debates on agriculture in west Dorset, and he has finished his speech today much as he did then, when he said:
I may be a ludicrous optimist and, indeed, the fact that I am talking about agriculture in the area of west Dorset at all suggests that I probably am, because the pessimists do not believe that it will exist in future.[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 5 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 100WH.]
Three years later, it is still there, and I take from his remarks a great deal of comfort that many of the issues raised in the five years preceding 2003 have not surfaced again, at least not in the same way, in this years debate. That shows that, for all the beleaguerednesshe is right to point out the problems that farmers have faced in past years and this year with the RPAthere is beginning to be a sense that in farming generally and, I trust, in west Dorset, there is a sense of direction and purpose, which has resulted from the radical changes that have taken place, which he mentioned in his speeches in 2002 and 2003.
The farming industry in west Dorset represents a key element of the rural economy and way of life. There are nearly 4,000 holdings, which employ 7,200 people. Just as was true last time the right hon. Gentleman raised these matters in the House, we need a thriving and profitable farming industry to do three things: to produce our food; to safeguard and enhance the landscapes we cherish, with which his constituency is
so particularly blessed; and, increasingly, to respond to the fundamental issues of biodiversity loss and climate change facing us.
We have taken some big steps forward towards building a sustainable future for farming in the past few years by working in partnership with the farming industry. The right hon. Gentleman has previously paid tribute to the work of Don Curry and the Curry review. The partnership is founded on our joint strategy for sustainable farming and food, which is a long-term plan for the development of the industry, and provides a framework for farmers to succeed in what has always been a fast-changing world. At its heart is the concept of reconnection: reconnecting farmers with their markets, reconnecting the food chain with the environment, and reconnecting consumers with the countryside and how their food is produced.
The strategy remains one of the Government's key priorities, and is backed up by significant new resourcesan additional £500 million, at least, in the past three years. It is being taken forward by Government and industry partners in the south-west, and has specifically helped farmers in Dorset through initiatives such as the rural enterprise gateway, which provides free business support for rural businesses in the area, including farmers.
I turn to the new single payment scheme, which is the most important development in agriculture policy in generations. It has reduced 11 bureaucratic common agricultural policy schemes to one payment linking compliance and environmental, public and animal health standards, and it leaves farmers to produce for the market, rather than concentrating on producing for subsidy. It has been assessed that the improved flexibility and reduction in bureaucracy will, once the scheme has bedded down, be worth a potential £100 million in extra income to farmers in England alone.
Of course I recognise the sort of problems that the right hon. Gentleman has brought to the attention of the House this morning. It would be wrong of me to comment on the specific cases. Although I am not in the habit, as he suggested, of scurrying back to my Department, I shall walk at a sedate pace and ensure that the messages are passed on to my noble Friend Lord Rooker.
Payments began, as the Government promised, in February, but they did not flow nearly as fast as the Rural Payments Agency forecast. A number of short and longer-term measures were put in place to help to rectify the situation, including the appointment of a new acting chief executive for the agency to strengthen its leadership. Those measures proved useful in speeding up the full payments, but we could not be certain that all applicants would receive a payment by the end of the regulatory payment window on 30 June. In May, the agency made a significant number of partial payments to a majority of applicants who were yet to receive a full payment.
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