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Agriculture (West Dorset)

Volume 447: debated on Tuesday 13 June 2006

It has been my practice once a year, roughly speaking, if I can obtain a slot, to raise with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs the concerns of my agricultural constituents, of whom I have a large number. The purpose of these debates has never been to trawl the past, but rather to highlight features of the future that I hope will help the Department to assist those of my constituents who remain hard-pressed.

Clearly, the past year has been difficult for farmers. One of the most difficult parts of the year was the saga of the single farm payments. I am glad to say that, as far as I have been able to ascertain in recent weeks, most of my farming constituents have now received either the 80 per cent. payment or a full settlement. I am grateful for that and I want to put on record that I am grateful for the efforts that Mark Addison has made—as far as I can make out from my correspondence—to improve the situation in the Rural Payments Agency. I have experienced much speedier and more effective responses since he came on to the scene.

There are still outstanding cases that I want to bring to the Minister’s attention, and this is a rare opportunity to get directly into his mind. Perhaps he would convey to Lord Rooker the sort of case that still constitutes an exception. The experiences of a couple in my constituency called Mr. and Mrs. Bugler constitute an extraordinary record of the sort of problem that we face. The RPA initially rejected their entire claim on 26 August 2005. It took six months, until February this year, for the RPA to accept that they had a valid claim. I know that it is a complicated process, especially with all the mapping difficulties that unfortunately occurred due to the IT system. The extraordinary thing is that since February that claim has been accepted, but the Buglers still have not received their payment. It is not a trivial claim—about £13,000—and they are not rich people. Part of my purpose is to hope that the Minister will scurry back to his Department and ensure that Mr. and Mrs. Bugler receive their payment with all speed, but that problem is symptomatic not of anything like the majority—thank goodness—but of a substantial minority of my farming constituents. They are in such a position, and I hope that we shall see action to tidy up those cases rapidly.

I am concerned, however, about 2006 single farm payments for west Dorset farmers. I am grateful for the ability to send in blank claim forms, as I am sure other hon. Members in rural seats are. That has certainly helped some who would otherwise have been stymied by mapping and record problems. It is clear that there is good will in this process on the part of the current management of the RPA, but there is still considerable evidence of confusion.

Without dwelling excessively on this particular set of constituents—although it usually does happen that when something goes wrong one year, it turns into a problem during the next—I should say that since they completed their 2006 application in May, they have since received six letters of acknowledgment. Three were from the customer service centre and three from the operations director, which were dated between 18 May and 31 May. That in itself is neither here nor there: who cares about letters of acknowledgment? But it suggests that there might not be tight administrative control of the 2006 process yet.

I sat through discussions with some of my farming constituents a few weeks ago, during which I was told tales of the difficulties people have had in getting their 2006 forms into reasonable shape, given the uncertainties generated by outstanding problems in 2005. I am extremely conscious of the fact that an organisation hit by endless difficulties is not the one best placed to deal with the difficulty of making up for 2005 and 2006. I hope that the Minister will do everything in his power to assist the RPA in clearing up 2006, by paying further attention to the staffing of the RPA if necessary, so that we do not have a repeat of 2005.

From my constituents’ point of view, that process will be materially assisted if Ministers take steps to change the culture of enforcement in relation to cross-compliance. I shall give the Minister an example of what I am talking about. I have no difficulty with the concept of cross-compliance: it is necessary. However, much depends on the spirit in which it is enforced. I cite the case of Mr. and Mrs. Newman in my constituency. They had a livestock inspection in February 2005. There is nothing wrong with that: such inspections are needed. However, the results were not conveyed until October and there is much wrong with that. People should not experience that sort of delay. It would not normally take more than three months, so an excess of time elapsed before they were told the results.

That, however, is not really the essence of the problem. The essence of the problem was the attitude taken to discrepancies. For example, they had made a mistake in that there was a zero where there should have been an “O” . I accept that zeroes and “O”s are not identical items and that that was a mistake, but when an agency such as the RPA has made the number of mistakes that we have experienced during recent years, it does not behove it to make complaint about a constituent who has placed a zero where there should have been an “O”.

A second complaint was made: the letters “UK” were missed at the start of two tags. That was not the fault of the Newmans. The British Cattle Movement Service had issued the tags incorrectly, but it became a cross-compliance issue. I do not want to continue the tedious litany of the various bits and pieces that afflicted these constituents. When one goes round west Dorset, one hears from farmer after farmer about little irritations of this sort. Such irritations can lead to severe worries, especially if people have not received their single farm payment, or are dealing with bankers who are getting more and more impatient. I know that the Minister is a perfectly ordinary and decent human being from past experience, and if he were in the condition that I have described, he would feel the same. People get irritated, worried and cross because they try to iron things out and they cannot do so.

In this case, my constituents tried to get the problems ironed out from October. They did not even get a reply until March, which rejected the appeal on the ground that these were two genuine defects of cross-compliance. They appealed again and the RPA has now given up on the three ear tags without “UK” on them, but is still insisting on the zeroes and “O”s. However, the RPA has said that there will be no penalty. That is lunacy. It is not the way to run things. There ought to be a culture of acceptance of de minimis problems with cross-compliance and I am afraid that someone somewhere, very close to the top, has quite reasonably given out instructions saying, “This is all very important and we have to have it shipshape. We must not have fraud or impropriety so be very careful that these things are done right.” However, they did not add, “But do please exercise some common sense. Don’t go for the de minimis, go for the substantial things.” I can see from the Minister’s body language that I have made my point so I shall not continue to dwell on it.

My next point is made to me repeatedly by farmers in west Dorset and it concerns a lack of symmetry. Traceability is everything with meats and livestock, and is clearly high on the agenda of DEFRA agencies. My farmers understand why that is; we have all been through enough in the past 10 to 15 years to know why that is. However, in the supermarkets in my constituency, and, I expect, in any other, one finds on the counter meat from Brazil. There is nothing wrong with meat from Brazil—there is nothing wrong with Brazil—but that meat is not traceable. I doubt whether it is remotely traceable. That sort of asymmetry causes real angst for my farmers. I hope that DEFRA will start to consider in more detail whether we are asking so much more of our farmers than of farmers in other parts of the world as to make it an uphill struggle for our farmers to compete, and how we can deal with that.

I draw to the Minister’s attention the extent of the continuing anxiety about bovine tuberculosis in west Dorset. I know that the Minister’s colleague who deals with these matters has recently announced the good news that TB figures throughout the country have, slightly mysteriously, reduced, and we welcome that, although I must say that I do not think that there has been any noticeable reduction in west Dorset. We all understand the reasons for the free movement controls—my farmers are certainly living with them—but there is a continuing sense that action must be taken reasonably speedily to address the causes of the disease. DEFRA needs to take us from the investigation, study and consideration that has been going on for a long while to some specific, well-organised action that involves proper testing. Now that polymerase chain reaction testing is available, we need to see it being used. We need to see effective action being taken, so that my farmers can begin to think that the future will be TB-free. That is of real concern to them.

Unless this issue is pretty speedily addressed, more and more of my farmers, afflicted as they are by the RPA problems, will begin to feel that they do not want to continue, as I fear a lot of them have in the past year, and will continue to sell out. In west Dorset, farming is not a marginal activity; it is central to our agri-industries, tourism and the whole life of the place. That depends not only on the number of acres being farmed, but on the number of farmers engaged in farming. We do not want TB to be a basis for reduced animal welfare and farmers going out of business.

I hope that the Minister and DEFRA understand how far the severe problems of the past few years mask what could be a hugely optimistic set of trends. I hope also that alongside curing the administrative problems, DEFRA will help to advance the positive causes that many of my farmers are queuing up to take part in. There is enthusiasm for local food and organic food, which is reasserting itself in the marketplace, and for non-fuel crops, all of which offer huge potential to west Dorset farmers over the next few years. However, there is little sign at the moment of real, positive encouragement from the Ministry. It is not that Ministers have said the wrong things, but that there is not much sense of them coming forward and preaching the gospel of the trends of our times—of local food, organic food and non-fuel crops. I think that that is because in recent years, Ministers have become beleaguered by all the administrative difficulties.

Goodness knows I can understand how that has happened, but there is an opportunity, if the administration can be got under control, to generate an optimism that will in turn generate a kind of investment and enthusiasm in the industry that could offer us a farming scene in west Dorset that will be much healthier in five or 10 years than it has been for the past 10 years. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will cure the administration problem and stress the optimistic trends.

I am delighted to respond to the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). It is three years since the last in the series of annual debates on agriculture in west Dorset, and he has finished his speech today much as he did then, when he said:

“I may be a ludicrous optimist and, indeed, the fact that I am talking about agriculture in the area of west Dorset at all suggests that I probably am, because the pessimists do not believe that it will exist in future.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 5 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 100WH.]

Three years later, it is still there, and I take from his remarks a great deal of comfort that many of the issues raised in the five years preceding 2003 have not surfaced again, at least not in the same way, in this year’s debate. That shows that, for all the beleagueredness—he is right to point out the problems that farmers have faced in past years and this year with the RPA—there is beginning to be a sense that in farming generally and, I trust, in west Dorset, there is a sense of direction and purpose, which has resulted from the radical changes that have taken place, which he mentioned in his speeches in 2002 and 2003.

The farming industry in west Dorset represents a key element of the rural economy and way of life. There are nearly 4,000 holdings, which employ 7,200 people. Just as was true last time the right hon. Gentleman raised these matters in the House, we need a thriving and profitable farming industry to do three things: to produce our food; to safeguard and enhance the landscapes we cherish, with which his constituency is so particularly blessed; and, increasingly, to respond to the fundamental issues of biodiversity loss and climate change facing us.

We have taken some big steps forward towards building a sustainable future for farming in the past few years by working in partnership with the farming industry. The right hon. Gentleman has previously paid tribute to the work of Don Curry and the Curry review. The partnership is founded on our joint strategy for sustainable farming and food, which is a long-term plan for the development of the industry, and provides a framework for farmers to succeed in what has always been a fast-changing world. At its heart is the concept of reconnection: reconnecting farmers with their markets, reconnecting the food chain with the environment, and reconnecting consumers with the countryside and how their food is produced.

The strategy remains one of the Government's key priorities, and is backed up by significant new resources—an additional £500 million, at least, in the past three years. It is being taken forward by Government and industry partners in the south-west, and has specifically helped farmers in Dorset through initiatives such as the rural enterprise gateway, which provides free business support for rural businesses in the area, including farmers.

I turn to the new single payment scheme, which is the most important development in agriculture policy in generations. It has reduced 11 bureaucratic common agricultural policy schemes to one payment linking compliance and environmental, public and animal health standards, and it leaves farmers to produce for the market, rather than concentrating on producing for subsidy. It has been assessed that the improved flexibility and reduction in bureaucracy will, once the scheme has bedded down, be worth a potential £100 million in extra income to farmers in England alone.

Of course I recognise the sort of problems that the right hon. Gentleman has brought to the attention of the House this morning. It would be wrong of me to comment on the specific cases. Although I am not in the habit, as he suggested, of scurrying back to my Department, I shall walk at a sedate pace and ensure that the messages are passed on to my noble Friend Lord Rooker.

Payments began, as the Government promised, in February, but they did not flow nearly as fast as the Rural Payments Agency forecast. A number of short and longer-term measures were put in place to help to rectify the situation, including the appointment of a new acting chief executive for the agency to strengthen its leadership. Those measures proved useful in speeding up the full payments, but we could not be certain that all applicants would receive a payment by the end of the regulatory payment window on 30 June. In May, the agency made a significant number of partial payments to a majority of applicants who were yet to receive a full payment.

By close of business on 8 June, the total amount paid to claimants in full or partial payments was £1,331 million out of the total £1,500 million to be disbursed. The RPA is now focused on making payments to claimants who have not received any payment to date and whose claim value exceeds €1,000. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is a good deal swifter at mathematical calculations than I am, and will realise that the particular claim that he brought to the attention of the House falls into that category.

Unfortunately, I am not able to give a summary of payments made in west Dorset. Experience has shown that it takes a disproportionate time to retrieve data on regions, and at the moment I am sure the right hon. Gentlemen would not want me—and I certainly do not want—to deflect the RPA effort from its focus on making payments as soon as possible, which we would both agree must be its priority. Looking forward, the Government are determined to learn the lessons from this year to help us to prepare for the undoubted challenges that will arise in delivering the 2006 scheme, with a view to reaching a stable position in 2007. The new ministerial team will, I promise, work extremely hard with the RPA and stakeholders to that end.

I have made a note of the issue about acknowledgment letters that the right hon. Gentleman raised. Although it is perhaps understandable in the present circumstances, it is an irritation and a sign that the system is not yet operating as it should. However, I reassure him that, although most of the RPA’s resources are focused, as I said, on processing outstanding 2005 schemes as quickly as possible, I am confident that it has sufficient staff to undertake data capture and to make a start on validating 2006 scheme claims in parallel with the 2005 scheme activity that is continuing.

Farmers manage nearly 80 per cent. of the UK’s land, and we believe that public money should reward farmers for the landscape and environmental benefits that they provide. It is now just over a year since the launch of environmental stewardship, which is a further key element in our strategy for sustainable farming and food. It enables all farmers to engage in simple yet effective environmental management and offers genuine financial support.

The opening year of the scheme has not been without problems. Nevertheless, more than 20,000 farmers have successfully entered new stewardship agreements, bringing about 2.6 million hectares of land under environmental agreement. In Dorset, nearly 500 farmers have entered the entry-level and organic entry-level schemes, and five higher-level scheme agreements are now in place. To date, more than £18 million has been paid to agreement holders in England, and I am greatly encouraged that we are providing real rewards to those who are prepared to commit to securing environmental gain through their sensitive management of the land.

Of course I recognise that what the right hon. Gentleman I think called little irritations occur in cross-compliance and the monitoring of that. As he said, the process in question—like all processes—needs a common-sense overrider. However, I am sure that he will welcome, as I do, the fact that in the first year of the scheme’s operation a real transformation is beginning to happen in the way farmers are reconnecting with their markets and people are reconnecting with their food and the countryside.

The England rural development programme has had a major impact on rural areas around the country, and about £1.6 billion has been committed to projects over the past seven years. In Dorset, that has helped initiatives such as Local Food Links, an enterprise that aims to support a range of local food production and give local people—schoolchildren in particular—access to the products in question, thus supporting local farmers and growers, reducing food miles and supporting a healthier population. The Dorset “Chalk and Cheese” programme is supported by nearly £3 million of EU and public money under the Leader+ programme and has delivered a variety of community-led projects in the area, designed to support local farming. One of those is an internet-based radio service run by and for small farmers in the area to help producers to add value to their products and to develop sustainable tourism initiatives such as the Wessex ridgeway project and “Chalks and Hawks”—a wildlife tourism initiative integrating species conservation and rural tourism.

We are determined to continue those successes in the next round of rural development funding, starting in 2007. The consultation on the priorities for the next rural development programme in England closed on 22 May, and we received 280 responses, which I believe shows a good deal of interest. We want to use the next programme, which will continue to have environmental stewardship at its heart, to make a real difference in rural areas by safeguarding and enhancing our rural environment and fostering thriving rural communities.

In the time that is left to me, I do not want to miss the opportunity to deal with the issues raised by the right hon. Gentleman about bovine tuberculosis, because that is an important issue for farmers—and dairy farmers in particular—specifically in the south-west. It is there that the problem seems to be prevalent. It is the biggest endemic animal disease issue that we face, and I know that it will be of concern to many livestock farmers in and around the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, for the reasons that I have set out.

To help to address the situation we have recently introduced pre-movement testing in England to help to reduce the geographical spread of TB. We have implemented a new system of compensation to prevent overpayment for animals that react to the TB skin test and to speed up the removal of those animals from farms. Following completion of the Krebs trial, we have consulted on the principal method of badger culling to control TB in high-incidence areas of England.

No decision has yet been made on badger culling, but any decision needs to be based on all the best scientific evidence about whether it can be successful in the long term and whether a cost-effective, practical, sustainable and of course humane culling policy can be developed and implemented. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that those are fundamental and essential criteria.