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It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Speaker. May I welcome Luke Pollard to his new post as shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? I want to pay tribute to Sue Hayman, David Drew and Sandy Martin, because I worked very well cross-party with them when dealing with the previous Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and I would like to put that on record.
Naturally, I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s statement about the continuity of payments to farmers because I think this is very important. We stand at a great moment when we can create a much better policy than the common agricultural policy. This is a moment of truth, shall we say? We now have not only this Bill, which will allow for payments to be made for the next year in a very similar way to how they were made in the past, but then the transitional period of seven years from one type of payment to the other, which gives us a real opportunity to look at the way we deliver payments.
The Rural Payments Agency has finally got delivering the basic farm payment right. What does slightly worry me, however, is that the one payment it finds great difficulty with delivering is that for the stewardship schemes. Whether that is a combination of Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency, there does seem to be a problem there. We have time to iron it out, but we have to be absolutely certain, as we move to new policies that are going to be much more in line with the stewardship schemes, that we get the system right and get this paid on time.
The interesting point about the transitional period and new payments for farmers is that some farmers are perhaps under the slight illusion that they are going to be able to get exactly the same level of payment from the new system as they do from the basic farm payment. Of course, like it or not, probably over half the farmers in this country rely on the basic farm payment for part of their income. Historically, it has always been said that farmers should set aside those payments and should not put them into their budget, but, as a practical farmer for many years, I can assure Members that those payments have always gone into the farming budget. About the only time that the bank manager ever smiled at me was when that payment came in, because it was a good lump sum.