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Islamist Extremism

21. Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): If she will make a statement on her Department’s work in combating Islamist extremism. [99691]

22. Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): If she will make a statement on her Department’s work in combating Islamist extremism. [99692]

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Ruth Kelly): Tackling Islamist extremism has a cross-departmental focus. My Department is leading the Government’s work on engaging with Muslim communities to acknowledge and tackle Islamist extremism at the grassroots. With an expanding network of Muslim partners, we are developing communities that condemn and isolate extremist activity.

Mr. Benyon: In a blaze of publicity the Government set up the Muslim taskforce, which made 64 recommendations. Why have the Government implemented only three of them?

Ruth Kelly: That is a complete myth. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that following the attacks, the Government tried to engage with the Muslim community and set up a process called the preventing extremism together taskforce. Action has been agreed on all but three of the 27 recommendations that were addressed to Government. Indeed, the Government are taking forward action to develop forums against extremism across the country, have developed road shows for Islamic scholars in which 30,000 young people have already participated—the target is 100,000—and, together with the Muslim community,
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have promoted MINAB, the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Body, to regulate mosques and imams.

Mr. Gauke: I congratulate the Secretary of State on her thoughtful speech on 11 October and her desire to develop relationships with a wider network of Muslim organisations. Does she share the concerns of many that the Muslim Council of Britain, in its refusal to participate in holocaust memorial day and its support for extremist ideologues such as Abul Ala Mawdudi, is not helping us to confront Islamist extremism but has instead helped to nurture it?

Ruth Kelly: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. The scale of the threat that we face, both in this country and globally, has increased substantially since 9/11, 7/7 and the terror plots of earlier this summer. It is right that we ask more of our partners in the Muslim community, and more of people of other faiths and none. We face a shared problem, and we need to show real leadership as we ask people to face up to the size of the challenge. They must speak out for our shared values and challenge extremism wherever they find it. I will work with any organisation that will challenge extremism and speak out in defence of our shared values.

The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) asked about holocaust memorial day. I said recently that I found it unusual and surprising that an organisation professing to support our common humanity and to defend our shared values would choose not to support holocaust memorial day. There are signs that the Muslim Council of Britain is beginning to rethink its approach, and I welcome that.

Mr. Shahid Malik (Dewsbury) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will welcome today’s conviction of Dhiren Barot for the heinous plot that he wanted to carry out in London, and that she will wish to congratulate the police and security services. In her magnificent keynote speech on 11 October, she talked about common values—

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Mr. Speaker: Order. I know that these are very important matters, but the hon. Gentleman may put only a brief question to the Secretary of State. He has done that, and now the right hon. Lady will answer.

Ruth Kelly: I welcome the comments that my hon. Friend makes. The recent arrest and trial of the person to whom he refers illustrates the wider point that we in this country face a really severe threat. We must face up to the size of that threat, and continually strive to do more. We must accelerate our efforts to work with the Muslim and other communities, and we need to bring in wider partners to help us do that. We need to be clear about what are this country’s non-negotiable values. Recently, I attempted to define them, but respect—for others, for life and for the rule of law—is at the heart of what British society stands for. It is also at the heart of the mainstream faiths, and it affects everything and everyone in our society today.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should all warmly welcome the life sentence that has been passed today, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik) noted? The judge has made it clear that the person concerned must serve at least 40 years in prison. Should not that be a lesson and a warning to anyone who wants to bring terrorism and destruction to our country and our people?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must have the appropriate security response to the threat that Muslims and non-Muslims in this country face. However, security responses alone are not sufficient, as we must also win the battle for hearts and minds that is the heart and essence of what we stand for. As a country, we must be prepared to welcome people of all faiths, and recognise the real and rich contribution that British Muslims make to our society. We must work with those who want to show leadership to make sure that all can benefit from a safe environment in the future.

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Rural Payments Agency

3.33 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the single payment scheme administered by the Rural Payments Agency. The House will recall that in my written statements of 9 May and 5 July and in my oral statement of 22 June, I said that the well-rehearsed difficulties in the administration of the 2005 SPS would create challenges for delivery of the 2006 scheme, and I promised to keep the House informed of developments. On this occasion, as on every other, I would like to reiterate the apologies that I have offered already to farmers on behalf of my Department, and my commitment to remedy the problems.

Today I can report progress with the 2005 scheme, and plans for the 2006 scheme. However, the interim chief executive of the RPA and I are clear that much more needs to be done to learn the right lessons from the National Audit Office’s recent report and to build on the helpful guidance that I am sure we will see in the forthcoming reports from the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Public Accounts Committee, the Office of Government Commerce and the Hunter review.

As I mentioned in my written statement on 5 July, the total amount to be paid by the RPA for the 2005 scheme will not be known for certain until the last claim is completely validated and necessary corrections are made. However, the latest estimate at 3 November puts the figure at £1.528 billion, of which more than £1.516 billion—in other words, 99.2 per cent.—has now been paid. Some 110,244 claimants have received a full payment and a further 4,756 have received a partial payment and are awaiting their top-up.

The combined total of 115,000 represents 98.5 per cent. of the revised estimated total claimant population entitled to a payment of 116,661. All but 50 of the claimants still awaiting any payment are currently calculated to have a claim value of less than €1,000. Those 50 are all difficult cases, involving issues such as probate or business liquidation, which would be challenging in any year. Dedicated teams are in place to deal with those cases, and the other outstanding payments, as soon as possible. Similarly, on hill farm allowance payments, some 95 per cent. of claimants have received a full or partial payment, and a dedicated team is exploring all avenues to make the outstanding payments as soon as possible.

During October the RPA moved the bulk of its processing staff to detailed validation of the 2006 claims. Initial validation of those claims has been undertaken over the summer and has gone relatively smoothly. The same can be said of the 2006 round of eligibility inspections. However, the difficulties involved in completing the 2005 claim processing have inevitably impacted on the 2006 payment timetable. I am sure that everyone in the House wants claims paid in full assoon as possible. I understand that, and the new management of the RPA are dedicated to build stability and predictability into the system so that full claims are delivered in an efficient and timely way.

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However, the interim chief executive has reported to me that he cannot guarantee that the agency can deliver full payments within the payment window for the 2006 scheme. Neither he nor I believes that it is acceptable to expect farmers to wait until next June or beyond for payments. I have therefore agreed with the RPA a challenging formal performance target of paying 96.14 per cent. of valid 2006 claims by 30 June 2007, and it is determined to do all in its powers to deliver on that. However, in addition, I have also decided to pursue a partial payment plan.

Our aims can be simply stated. First, we want to maximise the number of payments to farmers that arrive on a timely and predictable basis. That means making full payments where possible and partial payments where necessary. Secondly, we want to minimise the risk of late payment penalties and disallowance. Thirdly, we want our decisions this year to help the RPA to establish a new and sound footing for the delivery of the single payment scheme in the future. I have therefore agreed with the RPA that where full payments are not possible in the early part of next year, partial payments should start in mid-February for eligible claims above €1,000. The RPA estimates that the process will take around three weeks. Payments will be made for not less than 50 per cent. of claim value. This reflects the level that EU regulations permit without diverting significant resource away from, and therefore delaying work on, validating claims for full payments.

Needless to say, I will be keeping the situation under close review, but the interim chief executive of the RPA has set out for me, and for Lord Rooker, the basis on which he is confident that partial payments can be made, and we believe, in part on the basis of the partial payments experience in May this year, that the money will be delivered.

The single payment scheme and its administration has caused distress to farmers. The only way to make good on this year's problems is to improve the management of the system so that confidence is rebuilt. I have said clearly that this will not happen overnight, but I believe that the staged approach that I have set out is the only one that is prudent and responsible, and I commend it to the House.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): May I first remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests? I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for considerable prior sight of it, and for fulfilling his promise to make a statement in the autumn.

We must not underestimate the extent of the problem faced by our rural communities. Any Member of the House who has any farming constituents must have real evidence of hardship in their farming communities. There has been a 50 per cent. increase in calls to the Rural Crisis Network; farm borrowings are up by £379 million in just one year; the RPA’s extra administration costs were £46.5 million, which is more than two years’ worth of hill farm allowance; and of course the Government have set aside £131 million for EU penalties.

The statement was an opportunity for the Secretary of State to respond to the National Audit Office report, which found a huge number of errors in the calculation
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of entitlements. It is increasingly obvious that manyof them are human errors, such as incorrect data entry—no doubt a consequence of large numbers of temporary staff. The report found that the previous Secretary of State knew that the project was off course as long ago as June 2005, yet decided not to use the contingency plan but to plough blindly on. She eventually decided to use partial payments in April 2006, 15 months after I told her that they would be necessary.

Whatever faults the previous chief executive must have, it is clear that no one person could be responsible for that catalogue of incompetence, but it appears that no one else is prepared to be accountable. Will the Secretary of State tell us what is being done to correct all the existing overpayments and underpayments, and when that exercise will be completed? When does he expect the remaining top-ups to be paid? He boasts that 95 per cent. of hill farm payments are being made, but that still leaves 700 of the most hard-pressed farmers without the payment. When will that process be completed? Will next year’s hill farm allowance payment be delayed by the delay in the rural development programme?

Most importantly, will the Secretary of State tell the House what the errors were that caused him to set aside that £131 million? Are they connected to the changes made in April to speed up the process, including the use of an area disregard? If he was not setting that money aside, would the cuts of £200 million to his budget still have been necessary?

As for this year, any payment is better than nothing, but the admission that payments will not be completed in the window to the end of June next year is an admission of failure. Will the Secretary of State confirm that this is money to which all farmers are entitled as a result of the ending of price support—a form of compensation? Rather than claiming to have set the agency a “challenging...performance target” of 96.14 per cent., will he admit that in fact that was the target set by the EU before penalties are levied?

If farmers can be paid in full, we all welcome it, so can the Secretary of State confirm that as a result of his statement every farmer will have received a full or partial payment by mid-March? However, does he understand that what he is offering is in stark contrast to the position of farmers in Ireland or France, who are already being paid, and in Scotland and Wales, where payments will start in December? English farmers will yet again be disadvantaged by the Government. Why cannot partial payments be started in December? Why is the Secretary of State restricting the proportion to50 per cent.? What was wrong with the 80 per cent. used this year?

For the third year running, fruit, vegetable and potato growers are planning their crops without having their authorisation. Will the RPA ever be able to give them the full and accurate information that they need to make their plans?

It is easy for the Secretary of State to look at the issue dispassionately from a distance. Indeed, he constantly speaks of a “single planet”—but sometimes we think that that must be Mars. Farmers live in a real world: they have real bills to pay, and animals and families to keep. For many of them, this payment is their whole net income. Yes, of course, in time they will
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have to live without it, but they need time for transition. They have a Minister who sounded a lot better than his predecessor, but who, with this statement, has yet again let them down. I urge him, even now, to withdraw the statement: instead of being Scrooge, pay by Christmas day.

David Miliband: Let me go through the eight or nine points that the hon. Gentleman made. I am sure that we are completely united on two things. The first is that none of us underestimates the problems or hardships involved. Secondly, about a third of the way through his questions, he asked whether farmers were entitled to full payment. Of course they are entitled to full payment, and it is the Government’s job to deliver it to them in an efficient and timely way.

I fear that the hon. Gentleman is labouring under a misapprehension about the £131 million referred to in the National Audit Office report; he suggested that it was somehow responsible for, or related to, cash cuts. We are using what is referred to, in Government budgeting, as a non-cash provision, which means that the Government are making allowance for future claims on the sum. It is designed to be a prudent provision, and it precedes the normal audit work done by the European Union. There has been no such demand for £131 million, and I do not think that it is in the interests of hon. Members on either side of the House to talk up the potential for penalties further down the road. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the £131 million referred to in the NAO report is not related to the £200 million deficit with which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working.

The hon. Gentleman asked why I described the96.14 per cent. target as challenging. I did so because the chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency reported to me that there was no chance at all of the RPA’s delivering full payments to all farmers by the date proposed. The hon. Gentleman is right that, as I have said on many occasions in the House, 96.14 per cent. is the minimum level below which late payment penalties are incurred. He asked about Ireland and France, and they, of course, are paying 50 per cent.

The hon. Gentleman asked why we are not paying80 per cent. I referred in my statement to the importance of the EU regulations on the subject. He will know that over the past 10 or 15 years, hon. Members on both sides of the House have thought it important that the EU should have proper regulation for the disbursement of EU moneys, especially in relation to the common agricultural policy; we have been arguing for that. I am sure that he does not want to query the provision of that level of rigour.

The reason for specifying 80 per cent. this year is that when the Agriculture Council discussed the issue in 2003, and considered the first year of the new scheme, which is 2005, the Commission said clearly that it would regard 2005 a transitional, exceptional year—a year in which it would be flexible about how partial payments were made. We used that flexibility to deal with the circumstances that arose last May, which all of us wish had not come about. The reason for the 50 per cent. target is that that reflects the EU regulations, to which I think hon. Members on both sides of the House are committed.

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The hon. Gentleman asked about starting the payments in mid-February. The advice from the RPA is that it will take the agency about three weeks to deliver all the payments. He asked whether mid-February plus three weeks means payment by mid-March at the latest; that is a calculation that I and others can make, and we are happy to confirm that that is the advice from the RPA.

Finally, I assure the hon. Gentleman that nothing in my statement was meant as a “boast” about the performance of the RPA or the Department, and I would certainly be surprised if that is how it came over. The blow to farmers has, of course, been the most serious result of the failures of the RPA, but there is also the blow to the reputation of the Department, and it is very important to put things right as effectively as possible. However, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that farmers have said to me, time and again, that the most important thing about this scheme year—the 2006 scheme year—is that they are not given promises that are not delivered on. That is why I put such stress on timeliness, and on the confidence of the RPA’s chief executive; when he says that partial payments can be delivered in February, he knows that they can. I hope that farmers will recognise that it is right that we should proceed step by step, secure in the knowledge that each step is a safe step. That is better than raising their hopes only to dash them later.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement of a partial payment plan for 2006. I recognise that it may be unrealistic to expect to deal with 80 per cent. of payments by Christmas, but it is clear that if only50 per cent. of payments are made by mid-February, that will be a real, continuing blow to the farming community. Will he pledge to do everything possible to ensure that the Rural Payments Agency treats the target as a minimum threshold, rather than a glass ceiling? Given that such late payments will againcause enormous cash-flow problems—they totalled£23 million last year—will the Secretary of State use his good offices with the banks to ensure that farmers’ credit needs are accommodated? Will he pledge, too, to ensure that provision for rural stress networks is more than adequate?

Will the Secretary of State assure us, in the light of his announcement that 5 per cent. of hill farmers have yet to receive this year’s hill farm allowance, that next year’s hill farm allowance claims will be processed separately from the single payment scheme, so that it is not delayed again? In his update on the 2005 scheme, the Secretary of State did not update the House on his discussions of disallowed expenditure with the EU, so will he do so now? We very much regret the formal announcement, although we are not surprised that there is no guarantee to meet the payment window in June 2007. Will he assure us that if there is any European Commission disallowance for the 2006 scheme, the cost overruns will be met from contingency funds, and will not result in cuts to the core DEFRA budget, such as crazy cuts to flood defence and animal disease prevention budgets?

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