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Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, whose enormous experience of government made him a very appropriate person to open this debate.

When dealing with the government Statement on Tuesday, the Minister appeared somewhat surprised that the opinion of my agricultural acquaintances—
 
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I declare my interest for the second time today as a farmer—was rather less complimentary than he appeared to think that it ought to be. I hold up a paper to demonstrate why that is so. The Minister recognises it instantly as the March version of Farming Link from his Department. It came out with a survey requesting information on the quality of the service that it provided a fortnight after it was announced that the payment system was broken down, with the headline:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Bach): My Lords, it did not come out a fortnight after 14 March. It was being distributed both before and after 14 March, and we are putting out a correction to the headline, of course. I should be grateful if the noble Lord would just keep to the facts.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister, but my copy arrived after the announcement was made. That may be due to vagaries that are beyond his control. This is part of the problem: so much is beyond the Minister's control.

During the debate, the Minister sought to make some capital from the fact that independent service agencies were a Conservative Party invention. That was a perfectly reasonable thing for him to do. In discussions on this subject, the Minister has said from time to time that they are independent agencies, so if they give assurances that all is well, that should presumably be instantly accepted by Ministers. I would not have commented on their independence had I not found the remarks made by the Minister's honourable friend Mr Bradshaw in a debate in Westminster Hall yesterday. He states:

What is the independence of an agency if the head of the organisation can be instantly removed? But that is not what I want to talk about today. I merely make the point.

It is fortunate that I am following the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, because he was discussing problems of mapping, which is probably at the heart of this whole disastrous affair. I am sure that no one wants to be in this Chamber today having this debate; we would all prefer that the need had not arisen. I refer to the experience of one estate owner, and the noble Earl says that the problem goes back a long way.

The estate owner's experience began in September 2003. Version one of the maps ran to some 32 pages, of which only three contained no
 
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errors. The necessary corrections to the remaining 29 pages were duly made and returned. Version two of the maps was sent in September 2004. He was told that it was the final version and that any adjustments would have to be made on the IACS 22 forms. Version three of the maps arrived on 16 March 2005, and version four on 4 April 2005. By the time he sent his SP5a form to the RPA on 10 May, the areas were still not agreed, and version five of the maps was received in May 2005.

To date, there have been seven versions of the maps, none of which has been without error. By the time version six arrived, the number of errors had been reduced to six. One might think that that was progress. However, on 26 October 2005, he received version seven. Although the six errors had been corrected—hooray—something in the region of 50 new errors had crept into that version, which varied from the inclusion of tracks that appear to have been made by pigs historically crossing fields, to the disappearance of land amounting to almost 300 hectares.

Following the receipt of version seven, a visit was made to the RPA offices in Reading in an endeavour to sort out the problem, and a new version of the maps was promised within two weeks. Having heard nothing by December, the landowner telephoned the office, and a promise was made that the maps would be produced by 19 January 2006. There has been no explanation why the maps for this estate cannot be printed, save that the RPA staff said on the telephone that the computer systems were unable to cope. On 2 March this year, the estate owner received the entitlement statement dated 21 February, stating that no payment could be made by the RPA until the claim was fully validated. In turn, the claim could not be fully validated until the digital mapping queries had been resolved.

Over that period, the problems had gone from bad to worse rather than from bad to better. What will happen if the person's map cannot be validated? There is virtual agreement between the landowner and the RPA, but it cannot be validated for technical reasons by the date on which the payment has to be made, lest the Government lose their subscription from the European Commission for failure to make those payments. In his opening remarks, the noble Lord, Lord King, sought assurances about time limits. The indications are that, because of the mapping problems, that question cannot be resolved, or at least the Minister will find it difficult to resolve the time issue, unless he knows something that we do not know and something has happened since this lot came out.

In case it might be thought that that is the only example, which encapsulates almost every error that could go wrong, I have another one concerning someone who applied for the entry-level scheme on the environmental side in May 2005. When he got his maps back, 40 hectares of land were missing. On 27 November, it was stated that his mapping problems were nearly resolved but involved "unusual"
 
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printing, so he was told that it would take a while to complete. He phoned on 10 March to discover that the maps had been lost.

There is a real technical problem here. The real difficulty that I foresee is that these technical problems may not be capable of solution before the date by which the payments are required to have been made under European law and practice. Heaven help the agricultural industry with having to deal with that as individuals, but the serious question for the Minister is: what happens if that finally proves to be the situation?

2.30 pm

The Earl of Arran: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord King for introducing this debate this afternoon. His timing is profoundly poignant. First, I declare an interest. My wife is a farmer—and a very much better farmer she is than I would ever be. Where I come from, which is on the edge of Exmoor, the sad fact is that, until the supermarkets are prepared to pay a fair price for beef, lamb and milk, the single payment will make the difference between profit and loss, and survival and extinction, and it will be what keeps the rural world going round. The disgraceful fiasco over the single payment is not only putting farmers' businesses at risk; in the north of Devon alone, it is also damaging hundreds of other small businesses that supply feed, fertiliser, machinery and 101 other goods or services to the farming community. They have not been paid because, without the single payment, farmers do not have the means to pay them.

That situation is nothing short of scandalous. The worst of it is that it was entirely predictable. The Government chose the most complicated model of single payments that it was possible to devise. They then asked the staff of the Rural Payments Agency to implement it at the same time as threatening large numbers of them with redundancy. Finally, they relied on assurances from people at the top of the RPA, whose record has been shown to be rather less successful at delivering projects on time than the constructors of the Wembley Stadium and rather less forthcoming in their communications than the old Soviet politburo. This is probably the most incompetent piece of government administration ever known in a government department. It certainly rivals that of foot and mouth disease. It is utterly deplorable.

Humility still counts for an awful lot. Perhaps the word "regret" as used by the Minister could be changed to the simple words: "We are very sorry. We got it wrong". However, I suspect that, as happens all too often, the Government could not give a toss for the plight of the rural economy. One day, they will deeply regret that. In the mean time, farmers the length and breadth of the country are furious and fuming.

The Minister may blame his advisers and his civil servants all he likes, but, in the final analysis, this mess is of the Government's own making. Having cleared that up—as we hope he will very soon—as an
 
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honourable man, he should, as my noble friend Lord King said, seriously consider his future in that department.

2.34 pm


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