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Rural Payments Agency

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Communities and Local Government – in the House of Commons at 3:33 pm on 7th November 2006.

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Photo of Christopher Huhne Christopher Huhne Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 3:33 pm, 7th November 2006

I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement of a partial payment plan for 2006. I recognise that it may be unrealistic to expect to deal with 80 per cent. of payments by Christmas, but it is clear that if only50 per cent. of payments are made by mid-February, that will be a real, continuing blow to the farming community. Will he pledge to do everything possible to ensure that the Rural Payments Agency treats the target as a minimum threshold, rather than a glass ceiling? Given that such late payments will againcause enormous cash-flow problems—they totalled£23 million last year—will the Secretary of State use his good offices with the banks to ensure that farmers' credit needs are accommodated? Will he pledge, too, to ensure that provision for rural stress networks is more than adequate?

Will the Secretary of State assure us, in the light of his announcement that 5 per cent. of hill farmers have yet to receive this year's hill farm allowance, that next year's hill farm allowance claims will be processed separately from the single payment scheme, so that it is not delayed again? In his update on the 2005 scheme, the Secretary of State did not update the House on his discussions of disallowed expenditure with the EU, so will he do so now? We very much regret the formal announcement, although we are not surprised that there is no guarantee to meet the payment window in June 2007. Will he assure us that if there is any European Commission disallowance for the 2006 scheme, the cost overruns will be met from contingency funds, and will not result in cuts to the core DEFRA budget, such as crazy cuts to flood defence and animal disease prevention budgets?

Will the Secretary of State say whether Johnston McNeill, the former chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency, remains on full pay, and when that extraordinary situation is likely to end? He will be aware, following the written answer from his Department to my hon. Friend Dr. Cable that appears in column 705W of Hansard today, that DEFRA has paid £4,296,268 in annual performance bonuses in the current financial year. That represents an increase of 27 per cent. on the previous year. Does he believe that his Department's performance has improved by 27 per cent. in that period? What signal does that send the farming community? Will he reassure the House that none of that performance money has been paid to those responsible for one of the biggest bureaucratic bungles ever to afflict rural Britain?