During my regular meetings with the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, I have discussed the administration of the single payment scheme in England on several occasions. Should the Commission auditors make any proposals for financial corrections, the Government will continue to defend the UK’s interests vigorously.
The Secretary of State knows that we pay nearly £2 into the EU budget for every £1 we get back. Why should the general taxpayer face an estimated fine of more than £300 million—the figure comes from the Government—to pay for the Department’s inefficiencies in administering the single farm payments? Would not it be much better for the taxpayer, farmers and rural areas if incompetence on such a scale were met with ministerial resignations rather than foreign fines?
First, the Government and the preceding Government believed that it was important to ensure that proper accounting was put in place to administer the common agricultural policy. That has benefited this country enormously.
Secondly, we have rightly made provision in the figures that were published in the spring estimates, but that should not be taken as a sign that we are ready for that level of fine. As I said at the National Farmers Union conference last week, we shall vigorously fight proposals to fine the UK and we will try to minimise any fines. That should command consensus in the House.
In any discussions with the Commission, will the Secretary of State talk about not only penalties but the continued need to transfer payments to provide environmental benefits and create new jobs, new opportunities and new futures for rural communities?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The direction of change in the common agricultural policy is patent, moving away from direct payments so that they are no longer coupled with production. That British agenda is increasingly becoming a European agenda.
It is right that some of the money is transferred into the second element of the common agricultural policy to support rural development. To make that work, it is vital to remove the blockages that the European Parliament has created and which are absurdly supported by the Opposition. Farmers throughout the country are waiting for their rural payments. It is about time they got them. The Government are doing everything possible to remove the blockage, but Conservative Front Benchers are failing to support us.
That was an incredible statement. I have two constituents who are still waiting for payment on 2005. When will the Secretary of State get a grip on that monstrous incompetence, set an absolute deadline by which 2005 payments will be settled and tell us when 2006 payments will be settled?
I totally understand and share the hon. Gentleman’s frustration but I wish that he had followed the changes that have been made and the progress that the Rural Payments Agency has achieved in the past nine to 10 months under the new leadership of Mr. Tony Cooper.
The hon. Gentleman will know from my written statement on 22 February that 200 to 300 cases remain from 2005. Some of them—I do not say that it applies to those that he mentioned—remain because of probate issues. Those cases from 2005 are, of course, a priority.
On the 2006 payments, anyone who has not received a full payment for a claim of more than €1,000 is receiving a partial payment, as promised, of more or less 50 per cent. That has gone smoothly. The hon. Gentleman will also know from my statement on 22 February that we are trying to improve on that performance significantly. We are not in the least complacent.
I have referred twice to my statement on 22 February. For the most difficult cases, there has always been a system to give them priority in subsequent years, but to work through the details. If the hon. Gentleman has two specific cases that he says are not being tackled properly, I will look into them. I do not know whether he has contacted my office yet but he is more than capable of doing that. I shall ensure that the cases are examined. However, he knows from my statements that any outstanding claim is tackled on a one-to-one basis by a representative of the Rural Payments Agency.
Although we have confidence in the Secretary of State’s good intentions, the problem is that while he talks about progress achieved and things having gone smoothly for 2006, even my humble cheque for £73.10 is wrong—it has been made out to my address. The Rural Payments Agency must have known that I would raise that issue. If it cannot get my cheque right, what hope is there for the rest of England’s farmers? Will the Secretary of State put the matter right?