Easter Adjournment

Part of Deferred Division No. 85 – in the House of Commons at 1:52 pm on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 1:52 pm, 29th March 2007

The hon. Gentleman is right. That happens. Farmhouses—detached substantial buildings in the countryside with nice views—are sold off as houses without land. There is an increase in horsey-culture. There is nothing wrong with horses, but the more prime agricultural land that is sold as pony paddock, the less there is available for farming. It worries me that if agribusiness takes over all the land, it will be run entirely on a balance sheet rather than with any consideration for the land and the communities on that land. If the profitability is down, the agribusinesses will leave and reinvest elsewhere. That is a worrying possibility.

A further common problem is over-regulation. The farming industry is still massively over-regulated, with far too much red tape. I welcome the Davidson review of over-implementation of EU regulations. It is a continuing problem. In addition, we have duplication of inspection. There is the view that the man from the Ministry is always around the corner, trying to find fault with what the farmer is trying to do. It is a one-way street: the farmer makes one mistake and he loses out; the Department can make any number of mistakes and they are rectified in the next month. We need ways to allow organisations to share information so that we do not have duplication. We need more straightforward implementation of regulation and far less paperwork.

Regulation is important. We know that from the experiences of the epidemics of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and foot and mouth. However, it must be done in a way that is constructive and supportive of the industry. It should not be put in place in ways that appear to make things difficult.

We need clear labelling. It is one of the long-standing problems in this country that people cannot identify good British food produced by good British producers from the labels, which are often grossly deceptive in terms of foodstuffs that are produced abroad, repackaged in this country and sold as British produce. That cannot be right.

There are many other things that I could say on farming, including the cuts in scientific research, which are concerning. To meet its budgetary requirements, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has cut back massively in the veterinary science organisations for which it is responsible, which could have a disastrous effect. However, my last point is about the Rural Payments Agency. We cannot ignore what the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said today about the RPA. It has produced a devastating report. The overview says:

"This was a catastrophe for some farmers, and a serious and embarrassing failure for Defra and the RPA. A key part of the Government's sustainable farming policy was in collapse."

It goes on to say:

"This is not the first time that a major public sector business change or IT project has failed."

It can say that again. Lastly, and importantly, it says:

"A culture where ministers and senior officials can preside over failure of this magnitude and not be held personally accountable creates a serious risk of further failures in public service delivery."

That is as devastating and as uncamouflaged an attack on a failure of Government service delivery that I have ever heard from a Select Committee, which has, of course, a Government majority.

The RPA has been a disaster for the Government, but even more of a disaster for those working in agriculture who have found themselves in extraordinary difficulty because of the failure to deliver what is rightfully theirs in terms of payments over such long periods. As we heard, the problems of two years ago and last year are being repeated. We still have difficulties with the administration of rural payments. Those difficulties will continue until the Government get to grips with them.

I agree with the Committee: heads should have rolled. It is not satisfactory that Ministers can walk away from a fiasco like this and be promoted as a result, rather than taking ministerial responsibility. It is not good enough, and it must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

There are many other issues in agriculture, but this is not the time to go through them all. I can only leave the House with the thought that there ought to be an opportunity for us to debate both agriculture and rural issues regularly in the Chamber, with a Minister with responsibility on the Bench to listen. That does not happen. It is left to individual Members to secure Adjournment debates. I have initiated two such debates on the dairy industry in recent years, but debates are not held in Government time, although the issue affects huge swathes of our country and our countryside and, without such debates, goes unremarked.

The problems of agriculture are just one symptom of the malaise in the countryside. We could talk about post offices, rural services, transport and the difficulties of maintaining a decent standard of living in many of our rural areas—which means decent housing over our heads, the ability to work, the ability to find medical treatment and the ability for small schools to be maintained. Those are all important issues; the problem is that we do not have enough opportunities to debate them. This is one such opportunity, and I have taken it today.

I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to ensure that some of my comments, and those of others, are clearly communicated to the Ministers responsible. They have to hear what people in the countryside are saying, and what they are saying is that things need to change.