Rural Payments Agency

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:44 pm on 30th March 2006.

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Photo of Lord Willoughby de Broke Lord Willoughby de Broke Conservative 2:44 pm, 30th March 2006

My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, for introducing this debate at this key moment. I declare an interest as one of the 80 or 90 per cent of farmers who have yet to receive their single farm payments or their digital maps. I was very interested to hear about the difficulties experienced by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, in getting their farm holdings registered. I have had exactly the same experience, as has the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, so I can assume that this is a common thread running through the whole problem.

Few of us are as surprised as Defra Ministers appear to be by the mess in which we find ourselves. It looked like an administrative nightmare from day one. The sheer volume and complexity of paperwork was always likely to end in tears. A new system, new rules, new mapping requirements, inadequate IT systems, new guidance and, as my noble friend Lord Plumb said, inadequate staff training were always a recipe for disaster, and so it has proved. It is not as though the Ministers were not warned by the NFU and industry that this would happen and that they were making a rod for their own backs by trying to put this new system in place without any sort of trial run. I do not know why the Government chose to do this instead of keeping the old IACS for a year, which I gather they are entitled to do under the CAP regulations. That system worked perfectly well, and I do not know why they did not keep it while they bedded down the IT systems, trained the staff and got the digital maps organised ready for a launch this year rather than in 2005. That would have been the sensible and practical thing to do.

I am sorry to say that the Government ignored the warnings they were given. The Minister might be regretting the dismissive remarks he made in his Answer to a Starred Question asked by my noble friend Lady Byford on 24 January in this Chamber, when he rubbished the conclusions of the report of the House of Commons EFRA Select Committee. But the EFRA committee is absolutely right, and the Minister is absolutely wrong. Its criticisms have been proved right time and time again. I hope that the Minister will at least have the grace to apologise to Members of the House for misleading them on that occasion about the date of the final payments. I also hope he will come up with something a little more positive and will reassure farmers about the future, which is what we are looking for, rather than making too many recriminations. I am sorry that the Minister thinks that is a joke. It is what I feel; we should try to be positive about this.

The most pressing reassurance we need, which nearly every speaker has mentioned so far, is whether it is possible to give some firm commitment to the date of payments. That is what farmers throughout the country are looking for. Will those payments be made within the June window, and what are the consequences if they are not? The consequences for farmers are of course serious, but what about the consequences for Government if they are not made within the allowed EU CAP process? As other noble Lords have asked—I know that this has been asked in the House of Commons—will the Government take responsibility for overdraft interest incurred by farmers beyond the end of March? I quite accept that the payment window was to the end of March; it moved from February to March. But farmers were expecting to be able to pay their bills by the end of March; indeed, they must have told their banks and their suppliers this. They were not expecting to incur further large overdraft interest costs. The Government repeatedly told farmers that they would receive their payments by the end of March. It is entirely the fault of Defra, not the farmers, and I do not see why farmers should be expected to carry the can for Defra's incompetence and pay penalty interest charges. Will the Minister say something about that in his winding-up remarks?

What comfort can the Minister give to farmers whose new single farm payment application forms will come thumping through the letterbox any moment now? As the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, pointed out, it will be extremely difficult—impossible, in fact—for them to fill those in accurately because we do not have accurate digital maps.

It is true—again, the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, is absolutely right—that the digital maps will trigger everything. At the moment, the current forms which are coming through have to be fully and accurately completed by 15 May. Is that still Defra's deadline for the completion of these forms? If so, will it consider moving the deadline? How will it advise farmers to fill in the new forms when they do not have accurate maps on which to base their areas? The question of mapping is central to the whole problem. I should like to know whether the date can be moved and how farmers are to fill in their new forms. It may be beyond the possibility or the remit of the Government to move the date. It may be that they are acting as an agency for the agricultural directorate in Brussels and that Defra is simply a creature of the Brussels directorate. We would be much better off running our own agriculture, as this shambles has shown.

The noble Lord, Lord Plumb, said that we need a review, and I believe that the Secretary of State, Mrs Beckett, has said that she would be carrying out a long-term review of the Rural Payments Agency. Of course such a review is badly needed, but asking Mrs Beckett to carry out a review of the RPA is rather like asking King Herod to carry out a review of the future of male babies. It does not make sense at all. What we need now is not a long-term review but short-term action and reassurance. I hope we will get that when the Minister comes to wind up the debate.