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May I first remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members' Interests? I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for considerable prior sight of it, and for fulfilling his promise to make a statement in the autumn.
We must not underestimate the extent of the problem faced by our rural communities. Any Member of the House who has any farming constituents must have real evidence of hardship in their farming communities. There has been a 50 per cent. increase in calls to the Rural Crisis Network; farm borrowings are up by £379 million in just one year; the RPA's extra administration costs were £46.5 million, which is more than two years' worth of hill farm allowance; and of course the Government have set aside £131 million for EU penalties.
The statement was an opportunity for the Secretary of State to respond to the National Audit Office report, which found a huge number of errors in the calculation of entitlements. It is increasingly obvious that manyof them are human errors, such as incorrect data entry—no doubt a consequence of large numbers of temporary staff. The report found that the previous Secretary of State knew that the project was off course as long ago as June 2005, yet decided not to use the contingency plan but to plough blindly on. She eventually decided to use partial payments in April 2006, 15 months after I told her that they would be necessary.
Whatever faults the previous chief executive must have, it is clear that no one person could be responsible for that catalogue of incompetence, but it appears that no one else is prepared to be accountable. Will the Secretary of State tell us what is being done to correct all the existing overpayments and underpayments, and when that exercise will be completed? When does he expect the remaining top-ups to be paid? He boasts that 95 per cent. of hill farm payments are being made, but that still leaves 700 of the most hard-pressed farmers without the payment. When will that process be completed? Will next year's hill farm allowance payment be delayed by the delay in the rural development programme?
Most importantly, will the Secretary of State tell the House what the errors were that caused him to set aside that £131 million? Are they connected to the changes made in April to speed up the process, including the use of an area disregard? If he was not setting that money aside, would the cuts of £200 million to his budget still have been necessary?
As for this year, any payment is better than nothing, but the admission that payments will not be completed in the window to the end of June next year is an admission of failure. Will the Secretary of State confirm that this is money to which all farmers are entitled as a result of the ending of price support—a form of compensation? Rather than claiming to have set the agency a "challenging...performance target" of 96.14 per cent., will he admit that in fact that was the target set by the EU before penalties are levied?
If farmers can be paid in full, we all welcome it, so can the Secretary of State confirm that as a result of his statement every farmer will have received a full or partial payment by mid-March? However, does he understand that what he is offering is in stark contrast to the position of farmers in Ireland or France, who are already being paid, and in Scotland and Wales, where payments will start in December? English farmers will yet again be disadvantaged by the Government. Why cannot partial payments be started in December? Why is the Secretary of State restricting the proportion to50 per cent.? What was wrong with the 80 per cent. used this year?
For the third year running, fruit, vegetable and potato growers are planning their crops without having their authorisation. Will the RPA ever be able to give them the full and accurate information that they need to make their plans?
It is easy for the Secretary of State to look at the issue dispassionately from a distance. Indeed, he constantly speaks of a "single planet"—but sometimes we think that that must be Mars. Farmers live in a real world: they have real bills to pay, and animals and families to keep. For many of them, this payment is their whole net income. Yes, of course, in time they will have to live without it, but they need time for transition. They have a Minister who sounded a lot better than his predecessor, but who, with this statement, has yet again let them down. I urge him, even now, to withdraw the statement: instead of being Scrooge, pay by Christmas day.