Consultation on administration

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 20th November 2018.

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‘(1) The Secretary of State must, within one calendar month of this Act being given Royal Assent, open a consultation on what body should administer—

(a) any payment of financial assistance under section 1,

(b) any payment under the basic payment scheme, within the meaning of section 4,

(c) any delinked payment within the meaning of section 7,

(d) any other form of financial assistance which may be given under this Act, and

(e) any environmental land management scheme established in connection with the provisions of this Act.

(2) The consultation shall seek views on whether an existing body should administer the functions under subsection (1) or whether a new body should be created for that purpose.

(3) The Secretary of State must, in any consultation under subsection (1), consult with persons or bodies representing persons who he or she considers are affected by the functions of the proposed administrative body, or who—

(a) are engaged in production of any product falling within an agricultural sector under Part 2 of Schedule 1, or

(b) manage land for a purpose other than production of any product falling within an agricultural sector under Part 2 of Schedule 1.

(4) The Secretary of State must lay before both Houses of Parliament—

(a) in summary form, the views expressed in the consultation held under subsection (1), and

(b) a statement of how the Secretary of State intends to proceed, with his or her reasons for doing so.’.

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to hold a consultation on whether an existing agency (such as the Rural Payments Agency) or a new body should administer payments and other functions delivered under the Bill’s provisions

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This is an important juncture in our consideration of the Bill, and it is probably going to be the most popular part, as we are giving the opportunity to those who wish to be consulted to get rid of the Rural Payments Agency.

It does not have to be that way. We could have a revitalised and reinvigorated payments agency, but a new agency this will have to be, because it will be doing fundamentally different things, and sadly the legacy that the RPA leaves is not necessarily a satisfactory one. That is nothing to do with this Government; previous Governments are responsible too. In my previous incarnation, we spent a lot of time on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee trying to sort out how the hell we got into such a mess over the area payments scheme involving Accenture and the computer system that was brought in. It was an unmitigated disaster, because it cost millions more and never did what it was supposed to do. We had to drag the chief executive, Johnston McNeill, back from Belfast, where he had managed to hide for a period of time, to get some clarity on why the agency got itself into such a mess. That is history. My dear late lamented friend David Taylor did an enormous amount of work on the computer system, and we were indebted to him for that work on the Select Committee. I just make the point that we are asking the new agency to do fundamentally different work.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

When it comes to who was to blame, Margaret Beckett might have had something to do with it, given that she chose such a complex way of enacting it under the previous Labour Government.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I do not disagree that we were foolhardy. There should always be a de minimis and a de maximus in terms of how the payment system operated. As always, when the delightful EU Ministers came together they looked around the room for who was going to pilot this scheme, and somebody maybe put their hand up at the wrong time and said, “We’ll have a go at it.” It was not even a UK-driven scheme; it was England-driven. The other territorial Administrations went at their own pace, adding to the complexity and confusion.

I am merely making the point that we are asking for a consultation on the most appropriate agency to take forward this brand new scheme. It does not have to be rushed; it could be done over a period of time. It does not have to be just with farmers; it can be with the green groups, obviously, but also landowners, to get some clarity on what all those different parties expect from a payments agency. The Minister says that the way public moneys will be paid out will be more straightforward. We will only be able to tell that in due course.

Photo of Chris Davies Chris Davies Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

I have had concerns about the Rural Payments Agency. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that opening up a consultation is just going to confuse and delay matters? Surely the Minister should just decide which organisation is going to administer it and then get on with it.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

If the Minister wants to say today that he has some brand spanking new agency in his back pocket that is going to take over and run this, we are more than happy to listen and give our support. I am merely the messenger saying that I still receive countless complaints about late payments, wrong payments and reasons unknown for people not receiving the moneys they thought they should have received. The field margins and the way in which the scheme was set up was unduly complicated, but this will potentially be as complicated, and some would say more complicated.

Why can we not just listen and learn from past mistakes and at least give people an opportunity to help frame what could replace the Rural Payments Agency? It has already taken on many Natural England employees, so it is ready for its new incarnation, but I am worried about skill levels, about the computer system and about how this will be perceived if we start on the back foot with an agency that has not been fit for purpose.

I will not cast aspersions on the people who work for the RPA—no doubt they work long hours to try to get things right—but there has been something integrally wrong with the way it has operated for a long time. I am giving the Minister an open goal to shoot at—a way for us to move forward across the party divide to try to get an agency that is fit for purpose for a very different type of agricultural scheme.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I will describe in a moment what we are doing on future regulation, including the enforcement of this scheme. However, the hon. Gentleman gave me an opportunity—an “open goal”, as he said—to, for want of a better term, shoot at the RPA. I am not going to do that. As I have said many times, the RPA and agencies such as Natural England are currently grappling with a truly hideous body of European regulations and an unbearable administration process. That causes huge problems for farmers, who are required to fill out and submit endless forms and do lots of mapping, and for our administrators, including the RPA.

The problems we had last year, for instance, were caused because EU law required us to re-map 2 million fields in one go. We would not have chosen to do that—there was not really a need to re-map the fields—but we were forced to, just to ensure that there were no ineligible trees littered around the landscape. The sheer scale of that task caused administrative problems. The problems we have had with our countryside stewardship schemes were caused primarily because the European Union passed a rule that said every scheme must start on the same day of the year, which caused a massive spike in workload, required us to employ 500 temps and created all the contingent problems that come with that. In the design of the new scheme, we can learn lessons from the past and jettison some of the muddled thinking that is imposed on us by the European Union and EU auditors.

I should also point out that the RPA has taken on some of the payment functions related to the pillar two countryside stewardship schemes, precisely because not only the RPA has had challenges. Natural England has had horrendous problems trying to implement the countryside stewardship scheme. Indeed, one of the reasons we moved the RPA in to take over that space was that it has a stronger track record of managing complex EU processes.

Let me turn to what we intend to do in the future. The substance of new clause 18 is very much being addressed by the work currently being undertaken by Dame Glenys Stacey, who has given early indications of her direction of travel. She argues that we should move away from the clunky clipboard-and-rulebook approach inherent in the EU system and towards a much more modern way of regulating farms so there is more of what she calls social regulation, more incentives, fewer arbitrary rules and more whole-farm assessment. The work she has started is very interesting. She is also looking at the issue of our having multiple agencies and whether there could be consolidation, and at the establishment of a new type of body to perform some of these functions.

I do not believe there is a need to consult now, as the new clause would require us to. The first step is for us to see the final report from Dame Glenys Stacey. If the Government decided at a future date to implement some of the recommendations in that report, perhaps including the consideration of a new body, that would be the time to consult.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I hear what the Minister says. Again, I make the point that that is why we would have liked to hear from Dame Glenys about the direction of travel in the evidence sessions. Perhaps we can pick that up subsequently. I am not aware whether she has yet given evidence to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I hope members of that Committee who are present heard that point, because it is important that we get an early idea of what the Government’s approach is likely to be.

I will not labour the point, because there are other new clauses that we want to get to before the bewitching hour, which you reminded us of, Sir Roger. However, it is crucial that whatever agency takes it on needs to be capable—I will not say “ of starting with a blank sheet of paper”, because the past cannot be washed away—of recognising the problems that there have been and still are with the way the current payment systems operate.

As much as new systems come with a certain élan and opportunity, the same people will operate the new system, so we have to ensure that training, empowerment and particularly a decent IT system that does what we want it to do are in place right at the start. That was what really damned the RPA when it took over the area payment scheme. It was trying to negotiate the system as it went along, and as we know that that was sadly an unmitigated failure. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 21