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Single Payment Scheme

Volume 456: debated on Thursday 1 February 2007

3. If he will publish payments made under the common agricultural policy single payment scheme by constituency. (117812)

Detailed analysis of all the payments made under the 2005 single payment scheme is not yet available. Once the remaining 2005 scheme payments have been completed, a decision will be taken on the level of detail that will be published.

Some £16 billion is paid every year to farmers and growers under the single payment scheme—[Interruption.]—£16 billion. In the interests of accountability and transparency, is it not time to identify payments at least by constituency?

Many farmers would like £16 billion to be distributed under the single payment scheme, but the figure may be one tenth of that. My hon. Friend raises an important point. He asked a similar question a year ago. He has rightly been saying that information should be available about the amount paid under the single payment scheme. As he knows, for the period up to 2005, we published regularly the payments to individual farmers. That is entirely reasonable. Our first priority, obviously, is to make sure that the payments are correct. Once we are sure that they are correct—[Interruption.] I made the point myself. I ask hon. Members to humour me for a moment. It is our first responsibility to make the payments correctly, but once they have been made, it is important that the information is in the public domain, and I should like that level of openness to continue under the new system.

The Secretary of State would therefore agree that if any figures were to be meaningful, he would have to be certain that the money was paid to the farmers who were entitled to payments in respect of the land which so entitled them in the year for which they were eligible and in respect of a product that they grew. Since none of those conditions is yet in place, it would be entirely fatuous to attempt to publish anything, but when they are in place, we would welcome their publication.

I have enormous respect for the right hon. Gentleman, but he could not have been listening to my last answer, in which I said that our first duty was to ensure that the correct payments were made and that we should then publish the information.

It would be helpful to members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, on which I sit, and to other Members to have information of the kind suggested in the question. Could we not go further in respect of the largest decile of payments and publish the individual payments made to the very rich agro-industrial complexes that receive so much agricultural support?

I am sorry if the situation is not clear; perhaps I should have made it clearer. Under the system that was introduced by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), individual payments are published. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) asked about payments by constituency. We have not done that so far, not least because several farms, large and small, cross constituency boundaries. We do not want to create additional bureaucracy. However, the degree of openness suggested in the original question is important, and I know that my hon. Friend and his Select Committee share that view.

The Government’s preferred method of agricultural support is through the rural development programme and pillar 2 payments, yet the Department has failed to publish the English rural development programme for this year. As a result, new agri-environment schemes and local food processing payments are not being made. Is the Secretary of State content with that situation, and how long will it continue?

The hon. Gentleman has a conspiracy theory too far if he believes that it is the Government’s fault that the European Parliament, at the behest of the Conservatives, should have blocked the development of the rural development programme; that the European Commission’s plans should be stuck in the European Parliament, with the support of the official Opposition; and that the European Parliament should now be saying that 20 per cent. of the funds due to farming communities and rural areas should be blocked, again with the support of the Conservatives. That is not the Government’s fault but something that we are trying to resolve, and we could do with a bit of help from Opposition Members.

As the hon. Gentleman may know, the European rules are based on the percentage of the fund disbursed rather than the percentage of farmers who are paid. As I made clear in my statement in November, our aim is to meet the European Union requirement that 96.14 per cent. of UK funds are disbursed by 30 June. I am pleased to say that we are working hard with the Rural Payments Agency to deliver that. As I have said before, I will always keep the House informed on progress.

In his statement on the single payments scheme on 7 November, the Secretary of State told the House that a mere 1,700 farmers were still awaiting their final payments for 2005. Did he know at the time that in fact up to 20,000 cases remain unresolved? If he did know, why did not he tell the House, and if he did not know, why not? Why did it take an investigation by the Yorkshire Post to extract the truth about the scale of the continuing mess at the Rural Payments Agency? So much for his talk of openness. Is not this just the same old sleight of hand and spin? Is this the way to restore the confidence of the rural communities, and why should they believe a word he says any more?

It is very important that I answer this charge absolutely directly. The hon. Gentleman has rushed into print to accuse the Government of covering up information that he says was only exposed by the Yorkshire Post—a fine and wonderful newspaper, I should like to underline.

The hon. Gentleman’s allegation is that throughout the autumn the Government conspired to keep from the public and Members of the House the fact that the Rural Payments Agency, having made payments to farmers, was then open to farmers coming back and asking for corrections. I have with me a press release dated 6 September 2006—fully three to four months before the hon. Gentleman woke up to this story—the second sentence of which states:

“Around 19,000 SPS claims together with 7,700 claims with horticultural authorisations are being reviewed to verify whether adjustments are required.”

Some cover-up! That is a press release put on to the internet by the Rural Payments Agency. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman improves his research before he starts making allegations.