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The new CAP has done much to mitigate these problems. Farmers are now freer to produce according to market rules. The environmental damage caused by overproduction and intensification has been reduced, and farmers are encouraged to pay more attention to environmental standards and protocol. It is worth noting in passing that many of us had hoped that there would be further serious steps forward in reducing this. News over the past two days has not been promising, although whether it would be within the ambit of the debate for the Minister to comment on that when he replies, I do not know. I leave it to the Chair.
Unfortunately, the way in which the Government introduced the policy of the single farm payment was an unmitigated disaster, both for Mr. Walton and for the many thousands of farmers across the country who received late payments. The decision how to distribute the payments was left to individual EU states. As we all know, the Government decided to introduce the dynamic hybrid system. Up till 2012, payments would be based upon a combination of historic and regional average payments, with the regional average component increasing each year.
The historic reference amount would be calculated on the basis of the livestock and arable aid claims submitted for the farmer in the years 2000, 2001 and 2002. To allow the industry time to adjust, historic payments would be gradually phased out and flat rates phased in, with the historic payments worth 90 per cent. of the total amount for 2005. This rule and its implementationthe choice made by the Governmenthave led to Mr. Waltons downfall. Because he did not claim the £100 per acre payment to which he was entitled in 2000, he has lost out to the tune of £15,000 over the past three years, despite the fact that during 2000 the farm remained in his control, he was eligible for the payment and he did, in fact, farm the land.
In 2005 Mr. Walton submitted an application for a stage 2 SPS appeal to the Rural Payments Agency. He was given the opportunity to make an oral presentation to a hearing on 4 November of that year. Unfortunately, the single payment appeal panel decided to uphold the decision reached by the RPA. That was later confirmed by a Minister.
I am not asking for a miracle this afternoon. I understand that the Minister is constrained in what he can do, but I trawled through the appropriate European Council regulation No.1782/2003 to see whether there was any scope for helping Mr. Waltonand I was heartened when I discovered that in certain extraordinary circumstances, the historic reference years could be moved, by just one year or by all three. The relevant years could therefore be 1997, 1998 and 1999. Paragraph 4 of article 40 states:
Force majeure or exceptional circumstances shall be recognised by the competent authority in cases such as, for example
a number of cases are listed, including severe ones such as the death of the farmer, long-term professional incapacity of the farmer, and a severe natural disaster gravely affecting the holdings agricultural land. However, it was clear from the wording of the regulation that the list of examples was not meant to be exclusive, and there was some discretion for the authority concerned.
For a small farmer with a relatively small holding, affected as my constituent has been by a technicality, when the failings of the agency to which he had to appeal were many and manifest, affecting thousands of farmers across the country, it seems demonstrably unfair that the rules should be applied in pernickety detail in his case, whereas the agency was able to flout the rules, fail to make payments, and cause inconvenience and suffering throughout the country. The case required a certain amount of leeway to recognise the circumstances, but that leeway was not given.
I have read articles 40 and 44 of the regulations, and it seems to me that those could cover commercial arrangements between a farmer and a company, if the authorities so desired. I ask the Minister to re-examine Mr. Waltons case, use his best offices and those of his civil servants, contact the RPA and see whether there is some way in which Mr. Walton, a small farmer struggling to make a living, could have an injustice righted.
Sam Walton is of maturing yearsalthough if he is watching this on parliamentary television, he will doubtless be grossly offended by my saying so. He is a remarkably youthful looking man, of course, because of his years of working as a farmer, but it is fair to say that he is older than the average farmer. Mr. Walton has worked hard all his life and contributed enormously to east Yorkshire life. He is an extremely popular figure with those who know him. However, he has been caught out by an administrative difficulty that was no fault of his own. In fact, he had gone to every possible length to ensure that he was being prudent and cautious, by speaking to civil servants before acting.
I hope that the Minister can look into Mr. Waltons case again and ensure, as much as possible, that agencies such as the Rural Payments Agency consider such cases more humanely. If those agencies were run with exemplary efficiency and fulfilled their every requirement to the letter, it might be more understandable that they should apply the rules to the letter when they penalise small farmers. When agencies are not run in that way, it makes it all the more difficult for people such as Mr. Walton to accept the palpable injustice with which they have been treated.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I welcome this opportunity to respond to the comments that the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) has made on behalf of his constituent, Mr. Sam Walton, with the reference to the Rural Payments Agency.
By way of background, the single payment scheme was implemented as part of the 2003 reforms to the common agricultural policy, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, which were the biggest reforms for 30 years. There is a consensus in the House that we want to move away from payments for production. We do not want to see those hideous mountains of butter being dumped on developing countries markets or those countries then seeking financial support from us. That is not the way to carry on.
We introduced a major reform, but there will be further reforms. Later this year, there will be the common agricultural policy health check, on which the
Government have been actively involved in discussions with the Commission and other member states. We are pursuing what we set out in our vision for reform of the common agricultural policy, moving away from subsidies and using public money for public goods.
Our reform was the biggest for 30 years. Administering the scheme is a major operation, with annual payments in England of a total value of £1.5 billion being made to about 110,000 farmers. Under the scheme, farmers have greater freedom to farm to the demands of the market, as subsidies are no longer linked to production, and environmentally friendly farming practices are better acknowledged and rewarded. That is of benefit to industry and public alike. Unlike the Scottish and Welsh decisions, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which will be linked to historic production, our decisions are area based and will provide the flexibility that, in todays world, is so important in responding to market decisions.
Under the regional model of the scheme that has been adopted in England, all payment entitlements within each of the three English regions will have the same value by 2012. However, Ministers have recognised that it takes time for farmers to adapt their businesses to the new subsidy regime, so the scheme was designed with a period of transition. During the transitional period to 2012, a declining element of a farmers payment entitlement will be based on his average subsidy receipts during the single payment system reference period from 2000 to 2002.
Inevitably, there will be some farmers whose production was lower than usual during one of these reference years. The EU rules make certain provisions in that regard. Farmers whose production was adversely affected during the reference period by force majeure or exceptional circumstances could elect to omit the affected years from the calculation of their reference amount. However, the EU rules do not allow affected years to be omitted where the reduced production is the result of a business decision by the farmer.
Unfortunately, Mr. Waltons circumstances arise from a business decision that he made, for understandable reasons, in 2000 when he elected to allow a third party to grow crops and claim the associated subsidy payment on his land. That had the consequence of reducing the value of his entitlements under the single payment scheme. I understand and sympathise with the difficulties that Mr. Walton now faces as a result of earlier decisions, but the Rural Payments Agency applies EU provisions as flexibly as it can and is unable to operate outside those rules.
Farmers who disagree with an RPA decision on the SPS have the opportunity to challenge it via the appeals process, which includes the referral of cases to an independent appeals panel whose members come from the industry rather than Government. A claimant has the opportunity to present his case directly to the panel, which then examines all the facts of the case to see whether the RPA has correctly applied the legislation and its published scheme rules in the circumstances. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that the panel cannot make recommendations outside the regulations.
The hon. Gentleman has made a reasonable request on his constituents behalf. He referred to the regulations and asked whether there is scope to consider flexibility within them. It is not often that an hon. Member brings such a case to the Floor of the House. The hon. Gentleman clearly feels that there is a case to answer and he has made his case very reasonably. I agree to his request and undertake to ask officials in my Department and in the RPA to look through the case bearing in mind what he has said, the regulations and their scope. Officials will be able to see from the record what he has said and which issues he has raised, and I shall ask them to cross-check those matters with his constituents claim.
The hon. Gentleman discussed the RPA; let me discuss the wider issues. My first speech in this House after being appointed by the Prime Minister last June was a response to the inquiry of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs into the SPS and the RPA. You can imagine, Madam Deputy Speaker, how I spent the weekend before that Monday debate. I repeat what I said then: we did not, by any stretch of the imagination, get the system up and running correctly. The Government have been severely criticised about that, and we have accepted that criticism. It is now our job to ensure that the RPA provides a better service, and it is recovering. Farmers have the right to expect an agency that is committed to delivering.
Jonathan Shaw: I do not want to build up false hopes. The hon. Gentleman said that his constituent is a popular man; if we can get some responses for his constituent, the hon. Gentleman will be an even more popular Member of Parliament than I am sure he already is. My colleagues in the Labour party will, no doubt, send me letters from his constituency after reading those comments.
We want to ensure that the agency recovers, and we believe that it is recovering. A number of steps have already been taken to improve the level of service that the RPA can provide. The RPA has taken measures to reduce the proportion of its staff who are on short-term contractsa situation that has been criticised by the Select Committee and the Audit Commission. That is an important and necessary step to stabilising the work force. Together with a comprehensive programme of staff training, it is part of the long-term strategy to deliver improvements in the quality of service provided by the RPA.
IT systems have been enhanced to make it easier for one member of staff to deal with a farmers entire claim. It became clear, over a weekend, that too many staff were dealing with one particular farmer. We have changed that system and there are significant improvements under the leadership of Mr. Cooper. There have been some encouraging signs of progress.
The Rural Payments Agency met the first of its targets for SPS 2007 payments, to make 75 per cent. of full payments by value by the end of March, some five weeks ahead of schedule, and figures published today show that 90.5 per cent. of the fund£1.312 billion
has been paid to more than 99,000 customers. That means that the RPA has met its second target of making 90 per cent. of full payments by value by the end of May. The agency is working hard on completing the processing of the outstanding claims as soon as possible.
Although improvements have been made, we all recognise that we cannot and must not stop there. Ministers are committed to working with the agency to ensure that the scheme delivers and continues to improve for the
future and, most importantly, for the customers that it servesEnglands farmers. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing this case to the Floor of the House, and I undertake to accede to his request to have another look to ensure that everything that could possibly have been considered was considered at the time. I will then write to him.