In addition to the support measures from which all sheep and cattle farmers benefit, producers in the less-favoured areas are eligible for a number of payments which are specific to those LFAs.
As the incomes of hill farmers in my constituency are now under considerable pressure, will my right hon. Friend take urgent measures to deal with the unacceptably long delays in the processing of payments for grants and subsidies? For example, one of my constituents, Mr. David Ridley, told me that it has taken four months to deal with his suckler cow premium and with an agricultural improvement scheme. Another farmer told me that the hill livestock compensatory allowance payment distribution forms are already four weeks later than they were last year. As a matter of urgency, will my right hon. Friend deal with this administrative inefficiency?
We are concerned to help my hon. Friend and farmers generally in respect of these matters. However, when the European Community changes the arrangements we have to change the whole system of payment and that holds matters up. I am trying to proceed as fast as possible. The fact that the HLCA payment forms have not yet been initiated arises from a legal problem between ourselves and the rest of the Community over the arrangements for the 1·4 headage limit decision. I did not want that decision. Indeed, I fought and voted against it. These delays are one of its costs. That is why I supported the bringing forward of some of the payments and this has at least helped to ameliorate farmers' problems.
Does not the Minister, despite his reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Amos) a moment ago, recognise that the farmers in less-favoured areas·where, owing to difficulties in the industry, people are going out of business at an increasing rate—fear that land will return to the state that prevailed in the 1930s if the Government do not take action? Is it not a fact that serious difficulties arise from delays in making payments such as HLCA? Does the Minister agree that the Government really will have to do something to put this money into the hands of farmers as soon as possible? The situation is absolutely critical.
Our concern is to get to farmers the payments that are due to them as quickly as possible. However, we cannot do that unless the legal arrangements are satisfactory. We are pressing, but we are still waiting for the Commission to come back to us on these matters. I shall take action the moment I can and I am considering ways of ameliorating the situation thereafter.
While accepting that most of the problem arising from the delay in making HLCA payments lies with the European Community, may I ask my right hon. Friend for an assurance that, when that problem is sorted out, every effort will be made to get the payments through to the farmers by approximately the same time as last year, which was early or mid-March?