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Lord Plumb: My Lords, first, I regret that I was not here on Monday to hear the repeat of the Statement made by the Secretary of State in the other House. We have had a few days to reflect on that Statement and to express our concern about the further delay that we now anticipate. I am very pleased to be able to support my noble friend Lord King for introducing this debate about the RPA and the single payment scheme. My noble friend is a man of great political and ministerial experience. He speaks with some feeling, not just about the affairs of the countryside, but as a great politician.

I declare an interest as a farmer and a hopeful—still hopeful—recipient of the payment under the agreed cross-compliance rules. I must tell the Minister that this is the biggest shambles and piece of incompetence that I have witnessed during my life as a farmer and my time involved in agricultural policy during the past 60 years. I could cite problems from the past, but never have I experienced the situation that we face at present. It has been clear for some time that the scheme created—I repeat, created—by the policy makers in Defra from what I believe was a very simple CAP reform when it was first issued was far too radical and complicated. It was too ambitious to expect the SPS to be implemented in 2005. The sad lack of pragmatism and efficiency has been obvious in the way in which the RPA has chosen to administer the scheme. As with many Defra projects, the IT, mapping, and so on and so forth, on which the scheme is built have turned out to be a complete shambles, in my opinion.

I confess that I have some sympathy with some of the people who have been working during the past two years in the RPA, who themselves were totally confused and unable to cope with the very complicated procedures. I have some sympathy, too, with the Minister, who takes on a mantle that appears, at present, to be very hot indeed.

I tabled a Written Question about a year ago asking what training people had to help by telephone those who wanted information on the operation of the scheme. I was told in a Written Answer that there was full, intensive six-week training and that there would be further training on dealing with telephone calls, perhaps from irate farmers. Therefore, when my son had a query, I asked him to phone the helpline. After three hours, and a lot of words, he asked: "What training do you have for this job?" The girl at the other end said: "We do not have any training. We are just given the book and told to get on with it". I only cite what my son said, who was trying to get an answer to a particular problem. Incidentally, he phoned the NFU helpline and told me that he had a very good and responsible reply.

So when we hear of the numerous examples of correspondence that is flowing—very slowly—between the RPA and farmers, as the RPA tries to
 
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account for, say, 0.01 of a hectare, we must ask: where has the common sense gone? The Rural Land Register, which acts as a linchpin for the whole of the SPS, has been another farce in its failings and another cause of frustration to many farmers up and down the land.

Why it is so difficult to map land with modern technology, of which the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, rightly reminded us? It is available and I can offer it to any local farmer who is looking for it. Why have the processes being slowed down? That is, perhaps, due to an overzealous desire for unreasonable accuracy. How can so many errors be made? Fields go missing on maps, as my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith just told us. Whole maps go missing. There are repeated requests for land information that has already been given. I could continue by talking about various cases for the rest of the day. If the Minister doubts my word, I invite him to join me on Sunday morning and meet my neighbours—he does not live too far away—and he would hear about the rest. The list of errors is endless.

It is estimated that the appalling delay in payments under the SPS has already cost farmers something like £32 million in England. Farmers are therefore justified in feeling betrayed by Defra, and I think they have been a lot more tolerant about a lot of this form-filling, map-checking and tree-counting than they might otherwise have been. They willingly entered into an agreement with the Government to manage the countryside to the best of their ability in a sustainable manner, in return for which they expected and believed they would get a fair price for the work to be done in an environmentally friendly way. They have begun to comply with their part of the bargain, but Defra has failed miserably.

Supply traders are suffering as much as farmers. As we have just heard from my noble friend Lord Arran, the supply trade is, if anything, being penalised even more. Farmers will not—indeed, cannot—buy or pay for the fertilisers, seed and replacement equipment they need. The only suppliers that might be perceived to benefit are the bankers, as farmers go further into debt. I note that the Minister is likely to see the bankers shortly. That is fine, if we can have lower cost credit. The bankers will lend the farmers money, but the debts are still accruing and in an already shrinking business. There seems to be little concern for food security in this country.

I am a born optimist, and yesterday I heard a lot of young farmers speaking at a conference with a lot of enthusiasm. But many of them are going abroad. I could name 90 young farmers who have recently gone to France to buy land because they feel that there are opportunities to start there. That is sad. Eastern Europe is making offers, and so are countries elsewhere. The key problem is the definition of the policy. We now know that Scotland and Wales have benefited very clearly from applying the historically based system, which seems to be working better for them. We would not be in this mess had we had a timetable for planning. As my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said, we would not be here—we do not want to be here—discussing this issue as we are having to do at the moment.
 
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I know of no other country in Europe where payments have been delayed as they are here. One of the young farmers told me yesterday that, for 130,000 farmers in Ireland, 90 per cent of the payment was made on 1 December. I therefore wonder whether the Minister agrees that we need a comprehensive review of Defra's entire role for the good of the whole economy, not simply for the good of Defra itself. Surely such a review must involve the whole of industry and the environment agencies. That, of course, should be led by a totally independent chairman. Even when the 2005 SPS farce is over, the farming industry must look forward to the same RPA being responsible for inspecting and enforcing much of the cross-compliance regime. Given current experience, the pragmatic and practical approach needed for inspection is sadly still missing. If the taxpayer, Defra and the farmers are to get the most from a single payment scheme, the scheme must be simplified, and the subsidies on the end product must subsequently be removed or replaced.

2.44 pm

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, for introducing this debate at this key moment. I declare an interest as one of the 80 or 90 per cent of farmers who have yet to receive their single farm payments or their digital maps. I was very interested to hear about the difficulties experienced by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, in getting their farm holdings registered. I have had exactly the same experience, as has the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, so I can assume that this is a common thread running through the whole problem.

Few of us are as surprised as Defra Ministers appear to be by the mess in which we find ourselves. It looked like an administrative nightmare from day one. The sheer volume and complexity of paperwork was always likely to end in tears. A new system, new rules, new mapping requirements, inadequate IT systems, new guidance and, as my noble friend Lord Plumb said, inadequate staff training were always a recipe for disaster, and so it has proved. It is not as though the Ministers were not warned by the NFU and industry that this would happen and that they were making a rod for their own backs by trying to put this new system in place without any sort of trial run. I do not know why the Government chose to do this instead of keeping the old IACS for a year, which I gather they are entitled to do under the CAP regulations. That system worked perfectly well, and I do not know why they did not keep it while they bedded down the IT systems, trained the staff and got the digital maps organised ready for a launch this year rather than in 2005. That would have been the sensible and practical thing to do.

I am sorry to say that the Government ignored the warnings they were given. The Minister might be regretting the dismissive remarks he made in his Answer to a Starred Question asked by my noble
 
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friend Lady Byford on 24 January in this Chamber, when he rubbished the conclusions of the report of the House of Commons EFRA Select Committee. But the EFRA committee is absolutely right, and the Minister is absolutely wrong. Its criticisms have been proved right time and time again. I hope that the Minister will at least have the grace to apologise to Members of the House for misleading them on that occasion about the date of the final payments. I also hope he will come up with something a little more positive and will reassure farmers about the future, which is what we are looking for, rather than making too many recriminations. I am sorry that the Minister thinks that is a joke. It is what I feel; we should try to be positive about this.

The most pressing reassurance we need, which nearly every speaker has mentioned so far, is whether it is possible to give some firm commitment to the date of payments. That is what farmers throughout the country are looking for. Will those payments be made within the June window, and what are the consequences if they are not? The consequences for farmers are of course serious, but what about the consequences for Government if they are not made within the allowed EU CAP process? As other noble Lords have asked—I know that this has been asked in the House of Commons—will the Government take responsibility for overdraft interest incurred by farmers beyond the end of March? I quite accept that the payment window was to the end of March; it moved from February to March. But farmers were expecting to be able to pay their bills by the end of March; indeed, they must have told their banks and their suppliers this. They were not expecting to incur further large overdraft interest costs. The Government repeatedly told farmers that they would receive their payments by the end of March. It is entirely the fault of Defra, not the farmers, and I do not see why farmers should be expected to carry the can for Defra's incompetence and pay penalty interest charges. Will the Minister say something about that in his winding-up remarks?

What comfort can the Minister give to farmers whose new single farm payment application forms will come thumping through the letterbox any moment now? As the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, pointed out, it will be extremely difficult—impossible, in fact—for them to fill those in accurately because we do not have accurate digital maps.

It is true—again, the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, is absolutely right—that the digital maps will trigger everything. At the moment, the current forms which are coming through have to be fully and accurately completed by 15 May. Is that still Defra's deadline for the completion of these forms? If so, will it consider moving the deadline? How will it advise farmers to fill in the new forms when they do not have accurate maps on which to base their areas? The question of mapping is central to the whole problem. I should like to know whether the date can be moved and how farmers are to fill in their new forms. It may be beyond the possibility or the remit of the Government to move the date. It may be that they are acting as an agency for the agricultural directorate in Brussels and that Defra is
 
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simply a creature of the Brussels directorate. We would be much better off running our own agriculture, as this shambles has shown.

The noble Lord, Lord Plumb, said that we need a review, and I believe that the Secretary of State, Mrs Beckett, has said that she would be carrying out a long-term review of the Rural Payments Agency. Of course such a review is badly needed, but asking Mrs Beckett to carry out a review of the RPA is rather like asking King Herod to carry out a review of the future of male babies. It does not make sense at all. What we need now is not a long-term review but short-term action and reassurance. I hope we will get that when the Minister comes to wind up the debate.

2.51 pm


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