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Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): We appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman inherited much of the present debacle from his subsequently promoted predecessor. Nevertheless, in the light of the National Audit Office report, the House was entitled to expect that the right hon. Gentleman might do more about the fundamental problems, particularly of personnel and management,
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that led us to where we are. Will he at least give a firm and binding assurance to the House that the methodology for establishing entitlement—that is, the mapping—is robust? Unless he can do so, farmers in Lincolnshire and elsewhere will worry that the problems will continue year on year.

David Miliband: I say two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, there are a number of reports in preparation, including from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and we want to learn the lessons of all of them. To borrow a word from the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), it is a little churlish of him to say that I have not made a statement about the NAO report, when the priority for farmers was to know their financial position for next year. The hon. Gentleman’s second question was about mapping. Of course we want the mapping to be as robust as possible in Lincolnshire, as in the rest of the country.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): From the remarks that he made in his opening statement, the right hon. Gentleman appreciates that several thousand people have still not been paid either fully or at all for 2005, and it seems that several thousand will not have been fully paid by June 2007. A number of those are in my constituency. Will he recognise, as I am sure he personally does, and will he encourage those in the RPA to recognise, that this is not just a financial or a statistical issue, but a human problem? Those are farmers with families to feed and tax bills to pay, so the matter requires his personal attention. I believe him to be a man of good will and I trust that he will be encouraged by the partial support, at least, that he has had from Opposition Members.

David Miliband: I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for his support for the actions that I outlined today. I entirely understand his point that the problem is a human one, not just a problem of calculating machines or computers. If I can give him a glimmer of hope, I can say that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has made it clear that it will look carefully and sympathetically at the situation to which he alluded—that people should be paying tax on money that they have not received. HMRC has been clear that it will consider that. The first meeting that I had as Secretary of State was about the RPA, for the simple reason that it is the most important thing that has to be sorted out, and I continue to have monthly meetings about it. My colleague, Lord Rooker, has weekly meetings both with the RPA and with a wide range of farming and other organisations. It is essential that we get the matter sorted out. We must not promise a false dawn. That is why I said in my statement today that it is a step by step process to rebuild confidence. I am grateful for the way in which the hon. and learned Gentleman has taken that. Let us take those steps and make sure that they are carried out competently, and ally competence to the good will of which he speaks.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): In answer to an earlier question from the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), the Secretary of State
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feared that he might have been unclear. He was not unclear; he was unpersuasive. Why are the problems of the worst Government policy and administrative failure for many years being visited not just on the long-suffering English farmer, but on a range of other bodies which have the bad fortune to fall within the purview of his Department? Did he ever ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer for help for a contingency fund for organisations such as British Waterways?

David Miliband: The discussions that I have with the Chancellor should probably remain as collegial and internal discussions. [Interruption.] That is certainly the way that I would prefer it. Let me address the important point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I am a member of the Government and I support the Government’s economic strategy. Central to that economic strategy is the control of public expenditure, and central to the effective control of public expenditure is the principle that Government Departments take responsibility for the funds that are at their disposal. We have moved to three-yearly budgets, for which there is support in many parts of the House. The important thing is that, except in the most exceptional circumstances, Government Departments work hard to live within those budgets. At a time when we have a comprehensive spending review ahead, we will be able to address in the round the issues of DEFRA’s budget. My judgment is that one cannot support the Government’s economic strategy on the one hand, and on the other, go running to the Chancellor for funds every time there is a problem.It is about being a responsible Government andalso a collegiate Government who recognise our collective responsibilities, as well as our individual responsibilities.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): My constituent, Mr. Colin Evans, of Bartie farm, Dudleston, farms 580 acres, half in Wales and half in Shropshire, very efficiently. The incompetence of what he has been through in not receiving a payment by the end of August is exemplified by the fact that it took two weeks to inspect one of his farms, the process not being accelerated by the inspector’s going to sleep one day in the corner of one of his fields. What measures is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that there is competent co-ordination between the Welsh authorities and the English authorities so that constituents such as mine with holdings on both sides of the border are not penalised? [ Interruption. ]

David Miliband: I did not hear what the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) said from a sedentary position, but it involved the word “exhaustion”. I do not know whether he was referring to me or to the RPA inspectors.

The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) raises an important point. Farmers’ land plots do not recognise some of the geographical lines that exist in our United Kingdom. I will find out for him the nature of the discussions that take place between the RPA and the Welsh authorities. The Welsh authorities are taking an historical approach based on early-1990s payments. For reasons that we can go over another time, the English authorities are not taking that approach. I will drop the hon. Gentleman a line, if I may, about how the English and Welsh authorities are co-ordinating their activities.

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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): The Minister said that he does not believe that the damage being done to farming is irreparable, but it is certainly recurring, and there are only so many punches that British farming can take before it is completely knocked out of business. I was delighted that he told my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) that he will consider interest payments for those farmers who get themselves further into financial difficulties, through no fault of their own, because they have not been given full payment. Will he also consider actual costs to farmers, particularly if they have to pay arrangement fees and commercial rates of interest? Finally, can he reassure us that this will be the last time that he will feel it necessary to come to the House to make such a statement?

David Miliband: On the hon. Gentleman’s last point, it would not be appropriate for me to say that I will not keep the House informed. I have made two written statements and two oral statements. When I first joined the Cabinet, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House gave me this advice: “If you’ve got difficulties or problems in your Department, make sure that you’re open and honest with the House of Commons about it.” I think that it is right to come to the Floor of the House to report on progress, notwithstanding, Mr. Speaker, your right to say that you are tiring of my voice and my appearances here.

The hon. Gentleman speaks in a dedicated way for the farmers in his constituency and elsewhere. He is right that there are difficulties in British farming—or in English farming, which is my responsibility—but I hope that he will reflect on the following point. When the Bank of England published last week its latest figures on the finances of the farming industry, the National Farmers Union put out a press release saying, “Let’s recognise the strong financial performance of many parts of British farming shown in this report.” It did not say, “Let’s thank the Government for the strong performance of many parts of British farming”, but “Farmers deserve credit for the way they are innovating and working and winning market share both at home and abroad.” I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is in none of our interests to cover over the problems that exist, but equally we must not talk down the many successes in British farming.

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): Surely we should start from the premise that this is not the Government’s money but farmers’ money, and it is the Government’s duty to get as much of it as possible to them as quickly as possible. The Minister has said that there is nothing in the regulation that prevents more than 50 per cent. from being awarded as an interim payment. Can he tell the House what will be the target amount for farmers’ interim payments and what criteria will affect the decision on their quantum?

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David Miliband: It is obviously taxpayers’ money that is paid to farmers on the basis of their historic payment and their acreage. I would be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with further details of the EU rules. I have said that a minimum of 50 per cent. should be paid and that the EU rules require a high level of validation before partial payments can be made. There are then specific limits on what proportion of the payment claim can be made. I have been clear in stating that we will not pay less than 50 per cent. and that every partial payment must, in accord with the EU rules, be at least that. As I said, I would be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with more detailed information about the precise way in which those rules operate.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): I remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. No doubt the Secretary of State is a reader of the Yorkshire Post and is aware of its campaign for interim payments to be made by the end of the year, rather than February, as announced today. Farmers in the Republic of Ireland have not only received interim payments already, but expect full payment by the end of the year. Does not the Secretary of State realise that farmers, particularly hill farmers in north Yorkshire, also have to buy Christmas presents for their kids?

David Miliband: Of course I recognise that. I said in my statement that we sought to balance a variety of factors: first, getting timely and efficient payments to farmers; secondly, minimising the risk of late payment or disallowance; and, thirdly, getting the Rural Payments Agency on to a stable footing. I would have thought that those three factors would be acknowledged throughout the House. Frankly, a December payment cannot be justified on that basis, and February—three months earlier than this year’s payments—strikes the right balance. I have tried to explain clearly the basis on which that date was chosen.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Farmers in the Kettering constituency and across Northamptonshire will be bitterly disappointed at the ongoing problems with the Rural Payments Agency. Can the Secretary of State offer any assurance that minor changes in applications will not lead to disproportionate delays in receipt of payments?

David Miliband: The best commitment that I can give the hon. Gentleman and the House is thatthe RPA wants to pay validated payments in the appropriate way with the minimum of fuss and the minimum of disproportionate or other difficulties. That is the best that I can say: it wants to get on with its job and to carry it out as effectively as possible.

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Point of Order

4.27 pm

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to return to the matter of outstanding answers to Home Office questions, which I raised with you last Thursday. You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that I had tabled a parliamentary question asking how many questions tabled before the summer recess remained unanswered when we returned on 9 October. At that time, I had not received a response, but I have now done so. The answer was that 86 questions fell into that category. Given that you, Mr. Speaker, had intervened and raised your concerns with the Home Secretary, I have two further anxieties. First, 86 questions took at least two months to answer. Secondly, a question that would reveal the Home Office’s failure to comply with the Home Secretary’s commitment has taken the best part of month. The House was thus unaware of that failure until now, so I would be grateful for your continued involvement in this matter, Mr. Speaker, and your advice on how best to take it forward.

Mr. Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point of order. My first bit of good advice is that he should be the first Member in the new Session to visit the Table Office to put down a question or several questions if he wishes. I must also be fair to the Department and the Home Secretary. It has come to my attention that some hon. Members have tabled as many as, or even in excess of, 100 questions to be answered. That is unfair to any Department, because it puts a terrible pressure on officials who are already working hard to clear a backlog. I understand that that is not the hon. Gentleman’s problem, but I appeal to hon. Members who are tabling large and substantial amounts of questions to Departments to bear in mind the fact that dedicated staff have to sift through all those questions, which have to be answered and which add further to the backlog. I will continue to keep an eye on the matter.

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Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill [Ways and Means]

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Pat McFadden): I beg to move,

When transferring regulatory functions from one regulator to another, it may be necessary to provide in an order to transfer assets and liabilities from the old to the new regulator. Without further provision, a transfer could, in some circumstances, result in inappropriate tax consequences for the transferor or transferee that would arise solely because of the transfer. Clause 6 tackles those unwanted consequences. It allows the Treasury to make tax provision by regulations in relation to a transfer of property rights and liabilities under an order in part 1. That will ensure that the transfer does not give rise to a tax charge or confer a tax advantage on the transferor or transferee. The resolution authorises the relevant provision.

4.31 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Why was not the resolution presented earlier? It is extraordinarily odd to introduce it before consideration of Lords amendments when nothing has changed.Part 1 has existed throughout our deliberations and always intended to create the circumstances for transfer. The tax provisions would therefore always have been necessary.

Mr. McFadden: When we reach the debates on the amendments, we can discuss the changes that have been made to tax provision. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will find that amendments were proposed to make some changes to the tax provisions in the Bill after it left this House. I hope that that clarifies matters.

Question agreed to.

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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(6) (Programme motions),

Question agreed to.

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Orders of the Day

Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I inform the House that privilege is involved in Lords amendment No. 19. If the House agrees to the amendment, I shall arrange for the necessary entry to be made in the Journal.

Clause 1

Power to remove or reduce burdens

Lords amendment: No. 1.

4.33 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Pat McFadden): I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

The amendment makes explicit what was implicit in the draft of the Bill that left this House. The ability to remove sanctions for doing or not doing something in the course of an activity does not permit the removal of sanctions from unlawful and criminal activities such as drug dealing or people trafficking. In other words, the amendment makes it clear that only lawful activities would be affected by orders carried through for better regulation purposes. It is therefore a safeguard against inappropriate use of the order-making power. It would ensure that any change to sanctions for unlawful activity could not be delivered by an order under the Bill, but must be made through an alternative route.

It is possible by order to repeal offences, or to reduce or remove sanctions for offences, which affect the carrying on of any lawful activity. This is not new; it was possible under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 as well. It has been shown to be a useful power in delivering better regulation and the provision will ensure that offences can be repealed and that sanctions can be reduced or removed when they are considered no longer to be targeted or appropriate. The Bill also carries over the ability under the present Act by order to replace sanctions with new sanctions, or to create a new offence that is punishable on indictment up to a limit of two years’ imprisonment.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It is a great pleasure to return to the Bill—

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): No, it is not.

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