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I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that it is part of my job to visit rural areas and farms in my working time as well as during holidays and at weekends. Certainly, that has been my practice
for the past six weeks, and I intend to continue itincluding this Saturday, when I shall visit a farm in Northumberland.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the depth of depression and despair in rural areas. I do not underestimate that at all, nor the damage that has been done to the Departments reputation among farmers. We are pursuing an ambitious and shared programme with farmers and farming communities to develop British agriculture, with strong supplier networks and so on. I am as keen as he isif not more soto ensure that that relationship is strengthened rather than weakened. That can happen only when the difficulties at the RPA are overcome.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome my right hon. Friends statement and further apology. I also welcome the flexibility that he is displaying in trying to clean up the mess. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) is right to say that we must not be derailed from securing further changes in the CAP. If the French and their allies see that the reforms are failing in this respect, it would play into their hands and we would return to the production subsidies regime. That would be unacceptable, as it is entirely the wrong way to help agriculture.
I do not want to prejudge the Select Committees approach to the matter, but no one has satisfactorily explained why there were so many more claimants. Is it not time to define much more carefully which people really are farmers and who needs the help? In the past, money seems to have gone to entirely the wrong people.
David Miliband: My hon. Friend makes some wide-ranging points. I can assure him that we will continue the drive to reform the CAP and it is important to make the link with the World Trade Organisation negotiations.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, I think that the usual practice is that the House should be informed as soon as possible when information comes to hand about issues that have been raised. I have just been passed a note about the statements appearance on the website, about which the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) was so concerned. The instructions were that the statement should appear on the website as I gave it, and I asked my officials to check that that happened. I gather that the statement was released to the House, to Government and Opposition Whips and to Mr. Speaker at 10 am, in accordance with the usual procedure. However, I shall certainly check that further.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that this countrys food producers and farmers operate in a very competitive environment? Many make scarcely any profit on what they produce. I genuinely thank him for the modest gestures that he has announced today, with additional interest to be paid to farmers on money owed to them, but can he give a firmer assurance that farmers will receive their payments on time next year? Otherwise, we will be putting them at a serious disadvantage in the European context. Is it not a pity that we cannot decide these matters for ourselves, without reference to Europe?
David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman asks for certainty about next years payments and it is right that we prepare for all eventualities. We must make sure that the legal and other infrastructure is ready to make party payments, if necessary, but I hope that he will agree that it would be premature to commit to party payments now. Equally, it is right that I come back to the House in October with a written or oral statement to report on what the RPA chief executive has said about the prospects for full payments. If full payments for the 2006 scheme cannot be made at an appropriate time in 2007, it is clear that party payments will have to be the answer.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I genuinely welcome the spirit in which the Secretary of State made todays statement, and I am especially grateful for the apology that he made. Does he accept that farm incomes have fallen dramatically in the past five years and that farmers make payment claims in good faith? Although they may not wish to receive the subsidies, they come to rely on them.
The Secretary of State did not respond to what my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) said about the alleged appalling and deplorable behaviour of RPA staff in Newcastle. Although I gather that most farmers in Vale of York have now received their money, they were at their wits end because, even as late as March, they had received none at all. Does he agree that RPA staff showed an utter lack of respect for their clients in partying and calling farmers names in the way that has been alleged? I hope that disciplinary action will be taken and that, if necessary, staff will be dismissed.
David Miliband: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind remarks and for reminding me about the question raised by the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). I apologise for not responding earlier and am glad to have another opportunity to do so.
The allegations are very serious, but there is an important distinction to be drawn. The hon. Lady implied that the whole office in Newcastle was at fault, whereas the hon. Member for East Surrey made it clear that most of the staff are hard-working and that only a minority indulged in antics that bring the RPA and the whole of public service into disrepute. Of course the behaviour is appalling and must be taken in the most serious possible way. I can tell the House that one member of staff has been dismissed, and that a number of others face severe disciplinary action. The behavioursome of it alleged, but much of it substantiatedis completely unacceptable and needs to be dealt with in the most serious way.
The hon. Lady is right that many farm incomes are under pressure and the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) made the same point. However, I think that she will accept that the farming industry has different sectors, some of which are doing better than others. In addition, some sectorssuch as the poultry sector, most obviouslyare not involved in payments at all. It is important to recognise that we are not dealing with a single picture, but the message that I want to give is that British farming is important, for the countryside and for the whole country. We all benefit from a strong farming sector and it is incumbent on the Government to do all that we can in that respect. She is
right that farmers want to be able to compete and win in world and domestic markets. If necessary, they should be paid for the public goods that they deliver, but their pride lies in producing products that people want to buy.
Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I apologise to the Secretary of State for my late arrival, but I was still chairing the Select Committee when he began his statement. Farm workers in my constituency are being paid off and farmers threatened with legal action for debt. I have referred many cases in which no payment has yet been made to Ministers in his Department, and to the Minister of State in particular. May I plead with the right hon. Gentleman to make it his business to ensure that the RPA makes payments to the people involved within days?
David Miliband: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his clarification and give him an absolute assurance that the 2,300 larger payments of more than €1,000 are our priority. However, the picture that he has painted previously of the relationship between some of his constituents and the banks is not repeated all across the country. We have been in touch with the banks, as have farmers leaders, making the very strong case that viable businesses should not be penalised for their difficulties with the RPA.
Secondly, I was told recently by the chairman of the Devon county National Farmers Union that hundreds of forms for 2006 are being returned on the grounds that they are inaccurate or otherwise deficient. I am becoming increasingly concerned at the triviality of the grounds for returning these forms and particularly concerned about the fact that the condition placed on the grant of interest for payments made after 30 June is the weasel expression,
where it is the fault of the Rural Payments Agency.
Many hon. Members will know from their surgeries that delays in payment are often the result of inquiries that turn out, on examination, to be very trivial, easily resolvable and providing no proper basis for returning the form in the first place. Will the Secretary of State give a clear instruction to the RPA that it should take a robust view of the basis on which forms should be returned and of the whole question of fault when it comes to the payment of interest?
David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that some forms are returned for what may seem like a small matterif a form is not signed, for example. At one level, that is incredibly annoying, but at another level, it is obvious that a form has to be signed. If a signature is missed out at the end of a form, it can cause problems, and a surprising amount of the traffic is about unsigned forms, though there may be other reasons.
In respect of interest, we have responsibilities to the Exchequer, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will
take it from me that the spirit as well as the letter of my commitment today is acknowledgment that the payments should have been made in the 1 December to 30 June window. It would be wrong of me to give a blanket commitment and it is important to include the point that it must have been the RPAs fault. We start from the position that the non-payments were the fault of the RPA for the system as a whole, and I will ensure that we adopt a judicious approach to the problem.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I am glad to hear the Secretary of State say that he will look carefully into cases where mistakes were made not by farmers, but because of the RPA. One farmer in my area had to take out a loan of £30,000. Will he receive the interest payments on the loan that he had to take out, as he has been paid 90 per cent. of his claim only recently? Can we imagine what the House would hear if the Secretary of States salary and expenses were not paid for several months? If that happened, he would know exactly how much an arrangement fee for loan costs or how much interest has to be paid on borrowings that were taken up. Can the Secretary of State understand the anger of farmers who missed out as a result of a shambles that was made by people other than themselves? Nor is it only a matter of farmers feeling frustrated; some of them have become ill because of the stress that they suffered because of the fault of the RPA. Will he give an assurance that, if farmers can prove how much they have paid in interest and arrangement fees as a result of this shambles, they will be reimbursed that money as well?
David Miliband: I understand the hon. Gentlemans passion and the even greater passion of his constituents over this matter. It is part of the deal for farmers that they should expect efficient service from a public service organisation that is working for them. I appreciate that, but it is right for me to stick to what I said earlier todaythat the interest will be calculated on the basis of payments outside the payment window of 1 December to 30 June. We intend to ensure that that is done in the appropriate way.
Mr. Stephen OBrien (Eddisbury) (Con):
I am grateful for the circulation of the statement, which has enabled me to catch up with the two paragraphs that I missed at the beginning. Many farmers in my area who have undergone intense stress as a result of these problems will be disappointed at the fact that the Foreign Secretary is not in her place alongside the Secretary of State, as they regard her as primarily culpable. The stress is compounded because, in addition to the welcome partial interest payments just announced, the Secretary of State has made a fair admission of liability on the part of the Government. I hope that he will now look seriously into examining claims for the full consequential losses that flow from the incompetence of the Government and their agency. Certainty is, as repeatedly mentioned, a key matter for farmers in an increasingly uncertain and harsh competitive world. Many farmers are finding that the uncertainty surrounding their 2005 payments has undermined any certainty about the basis of their next payments, so they cannot plan, they cannot have the right discussions with their bank managers and they
cannot move forward with any confidence. That is what farmers need and I hope that the Secretary of State will now give us a decent assurance.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that, in dealing with questions of fair compensation on normal principles, the redress should be for actual loss? As was made clear by several of my hon. Friends, that is not the basis on which the Secretary of State is proceeding. He is trying to mitigate the loss. I do not want to be churlish, but I am not impressed by his apology. The fact is that people who have suffered losses should be paid full compensation, not only for interest payments but for the dislocation to their business. I have to tell the Secretary of State that I do not think that his statement and answers today are at all adequate for the purpose.
David Miliband: The Government have legal commitments in respect of payments under the single payment scheme, which apply between 1 December and 30 June. Where we failed to meet those legal commitments, it is right for us to pay the interest. That is the right basis for proceeding in this matter and it has been the basis for doing so in the House for many years.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): This is a most unfortunate episode, as the Secretary of State and all the farmers in my constituency know. I welcome his decision to pay interest on outstanding costs to farmers, but when he looks ahead to reforming the Rural Payments Agency, will he consider giving it a positive duty to ensure that farmers receive all that they are entitled to? We have already heard about some of the rather trivial reasons given for not paying, so placing a positive duty on the RPA to do more than simply administer the system would be very helpful.
Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): As chairman of the all-party dairy farmers group, I would like to inform the Secretary of State that 72 Members have signed up to it, which shows the level of feeling on both sides of the House about protecting our dairy farmers. I want to ask him two questions. First, will he apologise to my Shrewsbury dairy farmers for the lateness of their payments and consequent stress caused? Secondly, will he give an assurance that similar delays will not occur next year?
David Miliband: Indeed, a cross-party group. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I would be more than happy to meet his group. As to the apology and next years commitments, I think that he was in his place to hear my statement earlier, in which I openly and clearly dealt with both points.
David Miliband: Shrewsburys farmers certainly have my apology. I can feel a press release coming out already about how the hon. Gentleman has winkled or even dragged a specific apology to Shrewsbury farmers out of a recalcitrant Secretary of State. Shrewsbury farmers have my apology, but it would be wrong for me to say that they have a greater apology than farmers anywhere else. Nevertheless, they have my apology and my commitment to pay them as efficiently and quickly as possible next year and for subsequent years.
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is with some regret that I have to make this point of order about what was said during questions this morning. It started when a journalist at The Times reported me as calling for a boycott of British strawberries, which is something that I never did, and that journalist was kind enough to write a note confirming that I never called for such a ban. That is not a matter for the Chair, but I should like to draw your attention to the fact that, when I was standing in the queue for the Table Office, the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), whom I have told that I would make this point of order today, was standing in front of me. He tabled an early-day motion that suggested that those words were true, although I was able to show him the note from the journalist to prove that they were not true.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) was unhappy with the truth of the comments made by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), and was rightly brought to order. What I should like you to do if possible, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is to insist that those very high standards of truthfulness and honesty on which we insist in the Chamber are also applied outside it, with particularly reference to early-day motions.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I cannot get involved in the individual point that the hon. Gentleman makesI am sure that he will resolve it in his own waybut I certainly confirm that Mr. Speaker and, indeed, any occupant of the Chair expects the highest possible standards of behaviour in every aspect of our parliamentary life.
[Relevant documents: the Fifth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 558, on the UK deployment to Afghanistan, and the Governments Response thereto, and the Sixth Special Report from the Committee, HC 1211.]
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