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Single Farm Payments

Volume 454: debated on Thursday 14 December 2006

4. What progress has been made with the planned improvements to the system for making single farm payments; and if he will make a statement. (109018)

The Rural Payments Agency has made several improvements to the way in which it operates and aims to build on them, taking account of the guidance from the National Audit Office and other inquiries. More than 99 per cent. of claimants and funds have been paid for the 2005 scheme year. The first step in improving the system for the future will be the consequences of my announcement on 7 November: when full payments are not possible, partial payments for the 2006 scheme for eligible claimants with claims of over €1,000 should begin in mid-February.

I am grateful for that response, but a recent meeting between Lord Rooker and several hon. Members, the Secretary of State’s statement on 7 November and the answer that he has just given provided no details about why the scheme will be better and why we can expect an improvement. It is bad enough that the 2005 payments were paid so late—thousands of pounds are still owed to farmers in my constituency, who have made environmental improvements to qualify for the payments. If I now go back to my farmers and say that I cannot tell them what the improvements will be and that the Secretary of State does not have any confidence about improvements—[Interruption.] He should read his recent statement—there is nothing in it that gives us confidence for the future—

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman approaches the matter in that way. We have been clear about changes to the senior leadership team, changes in the corporate governance of the RPA, site heads for all the RPA’s offices throughout the country, better management information and whole-case working. The hon. Gentleman knows that Lord Rooker and the chief executive of the RPA hold a weekly meeting with the key representatives of the farming industry. I have been the first to say that the episode was damaging and that we will not get out of it in one leap. However, the statement that I made on 7 November was clear about the timetable for improvements and the way in which we would use the partial payment mechanism from mid-February for the cases that were not receiving full payments. The most important thing that he can say to his constituents is that the new chief executive of the RPA, about whom I expressed confidence in my statements in the summer, is getting a grip of the organisation, is determined to put it on track and, above all, is determined to make sure that we do not make promises that we cannot deliver. I believe that our promises will be delivered.

Would not two improvements to the RPA be to simplify its function by removing some of its marginal activities in which—although it is hard to argue that is skilled in anything much—it is even less skilled, and to consider its overall governance? The Secretary of State mentioned the governance of the RPA, so will he reflect on the proposal I made about four years ago that the organisation should be customer-led in its processing activity, as opposed to being part of a civil service function as it is now?

The Hunter review of the functions of the RPA is considering the points raised by my hon. Friend. While he is right that the organisation must be customer-focused, it is delivering within rules set by the European Union. Some of those rules have been put in place in quite a detailed way to ensure that, right around Europe, payments are only made on a satisfactory basis. There is a balance to be struck between the sort of regulations by which we want other countries to have to abide in making such payments, and our own confidence that light-touch regulation is needed here. I assure him, however, that all aspects of the issues that he raises are being considered by the Hunter review.

The Secretary of State plans to cut the single farm payment next year through voluntary modulation, despite no other country in Europe wanting to do that and the regulation being defeated in the European Parliament by nearly 10:1, which included most of the Socialist group voting against it. I am sure that the Secretary of State knows, however, that neither the Commission nor the European Parliament can stop it, so he will get his voluntary modulation. In that light, and on the assumption that he knows by now how much money he will get from the Chancellor, can he explain why he has not yet submitted his rural development plan to the Commission? At least then the system could be approved, and once the legal regulation is achieved, he could commence the scheme.

Let me answer the two parts of that question directly. First, from what the hon. Gentleman has said, the House should be clear that Conservative Members of the European Parliament, with the support of their Front Bench, are blocking the early payment of rural development programme funding around England. That is a direct consequence of their support for a blocking measure that can have no other effect than delay. That delay hits hard-pressed communities around the country, and the hon. Gentleman should consider his own record. Secondly, our plans for the rural development programme can only be submitted when there are rules within which we can do so. That is what we are waiting for, and as soon as he unblocks the system, we will submit those plans.