Power to provide for phasing out direct payments and delinked payments

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:15 pm on 1st November 2018.

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Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:15 pm, 1st November 2018

That is absolutely correct, but the scrutiny of Parliament will demand action. I was going to say that one of the strong features of the Bill is the fact that it gives the Government the power to act to sort out the dysfunctional EU auditing processes that create late payments.

Clause 9 gives us powers to sort out what is called the horizontal regulation. That is the regulation that sets out all the conditions on payment and the plethora of audit requirements, which often duplicate one another and are unnecessary. The primary cause of the problem we had last year in the BPS system was that under EU law we were forced to remap 2 million fields in one go, to try to get their area accurate to four decimal places. If we had not done, that we would have had a fine from the European Commission of more than £100 million, so we had to attempt the exercise. However, it inevitably caused problems on some farms. Many hon. Members will have had farmers reporting to them that fields had disappeared, or, in some cases, their neighbour’s fields had ended up on their holding. That is what happens when we try to remap 2 million fields. We would not have had to do that, had we had the powers to strike down those requirements.

Secondly, the issues we have at the moment with the countryside stewardship scheme are largely due to the fact that the EU, under horizontal regulation, introduced a new requirement that every single agreement must commence on the same date; so whereas we used to spread the burden of administration across the year, with people able to start in any month, everyone had to start in January. That meant a huge pile of application forms coming in at the same time. Our agencies had to employ lots of temps to try to process the work; and we all know what happens if there is a surge of temporary agency workers to process work. There were inevitably errors and problems. Again, we could remove those rather ludicrous requirements that the European Union imposes on us—in that case under clause 11.

I hope that I have been able to provide some further information about how we would intend to use the clause 7 powers, both to de-link and to make lump sum payments available. I hope I have also reassured hon. Members that the answer to the problem of late payments lies in clauses 9 and 11, not in an amendment to clause 7.