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Does he find it acceptable that 22,000 claims from 2005 have still not been sorted out? Is part of the problem
that two agencies are involvedthe Environment Agency for the compliance aspect and the RPA for the payments aspect? Please will he ensure that whoever the next Prime Minister is, they make this matter the responsibility of a Minister in this place rather than the other place, so that we can scrutinise that Minister on the Floor of the House?
David Miliband: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words about the work that I have tried to do. I hope she will agree that Lord Rooker has done exemplary work in this area. I am very happy to speak in this House on the successes and failures of the RPA, and it is right that the hon. Lady should question me on these issues.
In respect of the specific point that the hon. Lady raised, from what she said an inference could be drawn by people following this debate that 22,000 people had received no money at all for 2005. That is not the case. I want to make it clear that there remain 22,000 people who have appealed against the level of claim that they have been givenin other words, their claims are being reviewed. There are 24 who received no money in 2005, mainly because of cases of probate, which have always arisen. In respect of the 22,000, of course we want to get the reviews completed as quickly as possible. I was able to report on Tuesday that the number had decreased from 25,000 to 22,000.
The hon. Lady is right to be anxious and passionate on behalf of her constituents to get the money paid. I assure her that I am equally anxious and passionate to do that. I want to do so in a way that is consistent with our 2006 payments, and also with the rules that we have urged on the European Commission for a long time for careful and appropriate payments under the common agricultural policy. We want to stick to those rules so that we can urge them on others.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend, with the help of Lord Rooker, look again at eligibility with regard to commoners associations and grazing on commons? At the instigation of the scheme it was possible for commoners associations to be the vehicle through which payments were made. For some reason that has now stopped, which is causing consternation. I know that other hon. Members are also affected. Will my right hon. Friend look into the matter urgently and report back to me?
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Many English hill farmers are still uncertain about their entitlements under the single payments scheme relating to common land. That applies right back to 2005, bringing uncertainty into 2006 and 2007. That is unacceptable because the hill farming allowance also depends on a properly validated SPS claim. Given that hill farmers are particularly dependent on the subsidy and have marginal financial stability, will the Secretary of State ensure that resources are put in place so that this outstanding issue is dealt with and hill farming can have more confidence in future?
David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman, who follows this matter carefully, will know from previous statements that we have tried to make special provision for the payment of hill farm allowances and related allowances. He said that some groups are living on the margin and I understand what he was saying about the pressures that they face. We have tried to give them certainty about some of the transitional measures that are in place and we will continue to do that. I certainly take heed of his warnings about the need to ensure that this vulnerable group is properly protected.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): My constituency has a number of hill farms and marginal pieces of land. Will the Secretary of State respond to the question put by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), because interest payments are different from compensation? The right hon. Gentleman will know that farmers are under huge pressure financially and in dire financial difficulty. Where payments are long delayed, will he ensure that there are alternative methods of giving some form of financial help, not just by paying interestalthough little has been paid outbut by compensation?
David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman will know that we discussed compensation when I made my statement last June on interest payments. No Government have ever paid compensation and that remains our position. Our priority is to get the payments made. I hope he will not mind if I pick him up for referring to the dire state of the agricultural industry. Although just across the Pennines, I am sure that he is as avid a reader as I am of the Yorkshire Post and will have seen this weeks report of the important information that UK agricultural industry total borrowing had fallen by £253 million in the quarter to March
David Miliband: No, I am sorry but the Bank of England report shows that to claim that the whole of the UK agricultural industry is in a dire state is not backed up by the facts. Particular parts, notably livestock and especially dairy, are having a hard time. However, I gently say to the hon. GentlemanI am sure he will agreethat it is not right to paint a picture of UK agriculture across the piece as being in a dire state. Many parts are prospering and winning in world markets.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): If the Secretary of State is to visit Chorley, perhaps he could leave a little time in his diary to come next door into the Ribble Valley, where he may hear a different story. One of my farmers wrote to me:
how can any business plan for the future, or even a month ahead, without knowing when monies owed to their businesses is going to be paid? Farming is hard enough, with livestock prices the same, or even less than they were twenty years ago.
That is the point. If people who work for the Rural Payments Agency were told that they were only going to get part payment of their salaries and that they would not know when they were to receive it, would that focus their attention on ensuring that the moneys that farmers are owed are paid on time?
David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman could actually be quoting from what I said when I first came to this job last year about the imperative of giving farmers confidence about how much money they will get and when. I completely agree that they are absolutely right to say that basic business planning depends on basic competence on the part of DEFRA and all its agencies. I am in complete agreement with him about that. This year, as promised, farmers received 70 per cent. of total funds paid out by the middle of March, compared to 15 per cent. last year, but they are right to continue to want 100 per cent. as fast as possible and the hon. Gentleman will not be able to outbid me in the rhetoric he applies to the importance of getting that done. As for future campaign visits to Ribble Valley, I look forward to taking on many of the marginal Conservative seats in a future election.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): May Iunusuallycommend Lord Rooker for his excellent and welcome policy of holding meetings for Members of Parliament? I am a farmer, an interest which I declare, and receive the single farm payment, so two weeks ago I telephoned the Rural Payments Agency in Newcastle where a charming young lady told me, Im afraid theres a huge backlog of pre-populated forms for the single farm payment yet to go out, so Ill send you an empty one. I eventually received my form but it was only half filled in, so I am afraid that the Secretary of State must acknowledge that the RPA system remains poor. I know the process is not easy, but the system remains poor so I hope he will tell the House that he will examine it very carefully.
David Miliband: I shall certainly draw to Lord Rookers attention the hon. Gentlemans kind remarks. My noble Friends surgery meetings for Members of this place and of the House of Lords are an excellent innovation. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are real issues to be tackled, in respect of not just the pre-population of the forms but the other data, which are constantly being updated and some of which I referred to in my written statement on Tuesday. We will not be satisfied until we have a system that accurately delivers stable, reliable, competent payments to farmers at the right time of year. That is what we are trying to deliver.
Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): Even though I come from south of Watford, I, too, am an avid reader of the Yorkshire Post. The Secretary of State may have overlooked the front page headline in yesterdays edition: British farmers £90 million worse off in subsidy fiasco.
When the Secretary of State took over his role about a year ago, he brought to it a refreshing candourhe started going round apologising for the rural payments fiascobut we have recently learned that the Governments performance during the year that he has been in charge has actually got worse. If he goes on like that, he will be Foreign Secretary by July. Does he remember telling the Royal Show last year that he would find it difficult to look farmers in the eye until the single payment scheme was properly sorted out? When does he expect to look farmers in the eye? To put it another way, when does he expect to be able to start using the gents toilets at farmers events rather than the
ladiesfor fear of meeting angry farmers in the gentsand, finally, does not the fact that he does so show how little he understands the nature of farmers wives?
David Miliband: I know that a special unit has been set up at Tory central office to track my activitiesclearly it is being taken to rather ridiculous lengthsbut since the hon. Gentleman asks, and although this may be shocking to the House, at the National Farmers Union I actually used the gents toilets. As it happens, at the gents toilet I met a farmer from Wales who subsequently entered into correspondence with me [ Laughter. ]
I am afraid that I would urge the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) to stick to matters of fact and policy for the future, although his question has helped to enliven the proceedings. The population at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions can only increase on the back of what he said.
I wish I could remember rather more accurately what the hon. Gentleman actually asked. He alleged that the situation now is worse than it was a year ago. I utterly refute that. Given that 70 per cent. or so of payments were paid by mid-March compared with 15 per cent. last year, I do not understand how he can describe that as a step backwards.
The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Ian Pearson): We have a range of policies and practical measures to help individuals adopt lower carbon lifestyles. We will soon be launching a web-based CO2 calculator, which will allow people and households to find out their CO2 footprint.
Jessica Morden: I very much welcome the Ministers response. It is important that we as individuals are encouraged to monitor our carbon footprint and to reduce it by doing things such as recycling, but it is also important that we know the impact and the effectiveness of different recycling methods. Will the Minister support the campaign for real recycling in its calls for an audit of the different recycling schemes in use across the country?
Ian Pearson: We are constantly trying to improve the quality of recycling in the United Kingdom. The current recycling effort is roughly equivalent to taking 3.5 million cars off the road. We have made significant progress over the past 10 years, but we need to do more. The waste strategy, when it is published shortly, will take significant further steps forward.
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that the key to individuals action on these issues is individuals understanding of them, and that the concepts of carbon footprints and carbon emissions are quite difficult for many people to comprehend? Does he agree that the fact that the terms carbon dioxide, carbon, and greenhouse gas emissions are used interchangeably by his Department and others does not add to peoples understanding of the issues? Does he agree that there is a need for consistency in the use of terminology and in the use of measurement?
Ian Pearson: My hon. Friend has a point when he says that the Government talk sometimes about carbon, sometimes about CO2 and sometimes about greenhouse gases. It would be helpful if we could have more consistency and talk about carbon dioxide. Interestingly, the research work that we have done tends to suggest that people understand the concept of CO2 and a carbon footprint. That is why we have launched the Act on CO2 campaign. The work that we did before we launched it confirmed that that has a resonance with people, but my hon. Friend is right to say that we need to take steps to make it easier for people to measure their CO2 footprint. That is what the new web-based calculator that we are launching soon will do.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband): In January, I visited New Delhi and Mumbai and met the Minister of Environment and Forests. We discussed how to strengthen our bilateral co-operation on climate change and issues relating to future climate change agreements. I am pleased to say that that Minister also attended the G8 plus 5 Potsdam conference on biodiversity and climate change in March, where I had a further opportunity to discuss these issues with him.
Gordon Banks: I thank the Minister for his response. Does he agree that international agreements are the only way forward when it comes to our goal of tackling climate change? Does he also agree that the UK has a responsibility to ensure that the developing nations do not go down the same faulty road that we did when our economies were developing? Does he accept that the opportunities offered by climate change technology allow a great possibility of a boom in the UK economy?
My hon. Friend makes an important pointa point that I have discussed with him beforeabout the potential for new industry and new employment in the environmental sector. Perhaps it is not well known that India is one of the top promoters of renewable energyespecially wind energy. I hope that we can take forward our work on technology transfer to developing countries. I know that that is one of the top five issues that the Prime
Minister has put on the table for the G8 plus 5 summit in Germany, which the Indian Prime Minister will attend.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Barry Gardiner): Support is provided in many ways, both for the fabric of rural community buildings, including village halls, and for those who are responsible for running them. Over the past five years, through a variety of DEFRA programmes, including the rural social and community programme, the aggregates levy fund and the rural enterprise scheme, DEFRA has invested more than £10 million to support a wide range of rural community assets.
Ms Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, not least because I have an unusually high number of village halls and community centres in my largely rural constituency. They are used by a variety of voluntary and community groups, who are often nowadays the lifeblood of their communities. Will my hon. Friend give a commitment to the House that he will work with the Cabinet Office to ensure that those groups can continue their valuable work, thereby ensuring that they make full use of the investment that has been made in our community centres and village halls?
Barry Gardiner: I am very glad to be able to reassure my hon. Friend that we intend to continue to do precisely that. The rural social and community programme provides funding for a diverse range of local projects in the manner that she suggested. Of course, in the light of recent announcements, we may need to look afresh at how best we can maintain other community facilities such as former grammar school buildings, for which the Conservative party no longer seems to have a use.
Wednesday 23 MayOpposition Day [12th Allotted Day], there will be a debate entitled Independent Inquiry into the Conduct of the Scottish Parliamentary Elections, followed by a debate entitled Effectiveness of the DTI. Both debates arise on an Opposition motion. There is also expected to be a statement on the energy White Paper.
I want to make two brief statements. First, I draw Members attention to the fact that the House agreed last night the dates appointed for the tabling and answering of written questions and for any written ministerial statements in September. We will remind the House about that in due course, but questions can be tabled on 3, 5 and 10 September for answer on 10, 12 and 17 September respectively.
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