Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Benton; it is a privilege to appear before you this afternoon.
I am delighted to have secured this important debate. I refer hon. Members to my declaration in the Register of Members' Interests and draw their attention to my claim during the last election to have been the champion of the countryside. I said then that I would campaign to promote farming in the countryside; I invite the Minister to state what similar claims he made at the last election.
I shall give a little history to put the debate in context. On
"pleased to report that the first Single Payment Scheme (SPS) payments were released from the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) on
In the interim, the Secretary of State announced that the fiasco of the non-payment had led to the removal of the RPA's chief executive, who would be replaced, and that the review would be overtaken. As recently as Monday of this week, the House learned that as yet the Government do not seem to understand the gravity of the situation and the distress that it causes. That is the issue that I wish to explore.
The Government have presided over an unprecedented crisis of confidence in all sections of the countryside, from the foot and mouth epidemic to the latest fiasco of the non-payment of single farm payments in North Yorkshire and throughout England. The Government seem incapable of legislating on and administering farm matters.
The Rural Payments Agency is based in Reading, and that speaks volumes. I have nothing against Reading or its inhabitants, but how can someone who lives and works there be expected to have an understanding of and sympathy with the issues that concern those living in rural North Yorkshire? It beats me.
A number of my right hon. and hon. Friends who served with distinction in the former Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries are in the Chamber. I have consistently argued that since that Ministry was replaced, any person starting work at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or one of its agencies such as the RPA, should work in a trainee capacity for at least three months in every aspect of farming. They should visit auction marts, haulage firms, abattoirs and farmers markets and also supermarkets to see how the end products are sold.
Those officials are immensely powerful. They advise Ministers on what rules can and should be passed in both Westminster and Brussels. We now know the extent to which EU directives can be and are being ultimately embellished and gold-plated by quite low-placed officials. On top of that, they can never be contacted easily. Like every other Government agency—the Inland Revenue with its tax credits and the Child Support Agency with its child support payments—the RPA has descended into such a shambles. The Secretary of State had to sack the RPA chief executive.