As I confirmed in my written ministerial statement on Tuesday of this week, at 11 May a total of £1.229 billion, representing about 80 per cent. of the estimated total fund of the 2006 single payment scheme, had been paid in either full or partial payments to about 92 per cent. of claimants—some 100,599 farmers. Eligibility penalties—the subject of Question 7—have been applied to about 10 per cent. of 2006 single payment scheme claims. Further detailed analysis of payments made under the SPS is not yet available.
Obviously, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the way that he has got on with dealing with this problem. He inherited a chaotic mess—there are no two ways about that—and at least he has ensured that the farmers are starting to get the money. However, 8 per cent. are still waiting for payments. Will he consider helping them by means of compensation if that continues over a longer period? Will he also come up to Chorley and meet the farmers there who think he is doing a very good job?
An invitation to meet some farmers who think that I am doing a particularly good job is an invitation not to be refused. I am sure that there are a large and growing number of them, in Chorley and elsewhere.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Last year, for those payments delayed beyond 30 June interest payments were available. We are not yet at the stage where we have to consider that again, but I can assure him that we are trying to get as many payments out as soon as possible; I reaffirmed our commitment to make payments as fast as possible in my statement on Tuesday. Obviously, we take our responsibilities very seriously towards those who have not received payments.
I commend the Secretary of State for the work that he is doing. However, he amusingly stated in his written statement that the Rural Payments Agency
“chief executive is taking a number of other steps to further streamline processing of claims.”—[Official Report, 15 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 29WS.]
Does he find it acceptable that 22,000 claims from 2005 have still not been sorted out? Is part of the problem that two agencies are involved—the Environment Agency for the compliance aspect and the RPA for the payments aspect? Please will he ensure that whoever the next Prime Minister is, they make this matter the responsibility of a Minister in this place rather than the other place, so that we can scrutinise that Minister on the Floor of the House?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words about the work that I have tried to do. I hope she will agree that Lord Rooker has done exemplary work in this area. I am very happy to speak in this House on the successes and failures of the RPA, and it is right that the hon. Lady should question me on these issues.
In respect of the specific point that the hon. Lady raised, from what she said an inference could be drawn by people following this debate that 22,000 people had received no money at all for 2005. That is not the case. I want to make it clear that there remain 22,000 people who have appealed against the level of claim that they have been given—in other words, their claims are being reviewed. There are 24 who received no money in 2005, mainly because of cases of probate, which have always arisen. In respect of the 22,000, of course we want to get the reviews completed as quickly as possible. I was able to report on Tuesday that the number had decreased from 25,000 to 22,000.
The hon. Lady is right to be anxious and passionate on behalf of her constituents to get the money paid. I assure her that I am equally anxious and passionate to do that. I want to do so in a way that is consistent with our 2006 payments, and also with the rules that we have urged on the European Commission for a long time for careful and appropriate payments under the common agricultural policy. We want to stick to those rules so that we can urge them on others.
Will my right hon. Friend, with the help of Lord Rooker, look again at eligibility with regard to commoners associations and grazing on commons? At the instigation of the scheme it was possible for commoners associations to be the vehicle through which payments were made. For some reason that has now stopped, which is causing consternation. I know that other hon. Members are also affected. Will my right hon. Friend look into the matter urgently and report back to me?
Many English hill farmers are still uncertain about their entitlements under the single payments scheme relating to common land. That applies right back to 2005, bringing uncertainty into 2006 and 2007. That is unacceptable because the hill farming allowance also depends on a properly validated SPS claim. Given that hill farmers are particularly dependent on the subsidy and have marginal financial stability, will the Secretary of State ensure that resources are put in place so that this outstanding issue is dealt with and hill farming can have more confidence in future?
The hon. Gentleman, who follows this matter carefully, will know from previous statements that we have tried to make special provision for the payment of hill farm allowances and related allowances. He said that some groups are living on the margin and I understand what he was saying about the pressures that they face. We have tried to give them certainty about some of the transitional measures that are in place and we will continue to do that. I certainly take heed of his warnings about the need to ensure that this vulnerable group is properly protected.
My constituency has a number of hill farms and marginal pieces of land. Will the Secretary of State respond to the question put by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), because interest payments are different from compensation? The right hon. Gentleman will know that farmers are under huge pressure financially and in dire financial difficulty. Where payments are long delayed, will he ensure that there are alternative methods of giving some form of financial help, not just by paying interest—although little has been paid out—but by compensation?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we discussed compensation when I made my statement last June on interest payments. No Government have ever paid compensation and that remains our position. Our priority is to get the payments made. I hope he will not mind if I pick him up for referring to the “dire” state of the agricultural industry. Although just across the Pennines, I am sure that he is as avid a reader as I am of the Yorkshire Post and will have seen this week’s report of the important information that UK agricultural industry total borrowing had fallen by £253 million in the quarter to March—
No, I am sorry but the Bank of England report shows that to claim that the whole of the UK agricultural industry is in a “dire” state is not backed up by the facts. Particular parts, notably livestock and especially dairy, are having a hard time. However, I gently say to the hon. Gentleman—I am sure he will agree—that it is not right to paint a picture of UK agriculture across the piece as being in a “dire” state. Many parts are prospering and winning in world markets.
If the Secretary of State is to visit Chorley, perhaps he could leave a little time in his diary to come next door into the Ribble Valley, where he may hear a different story. One of my farmers wrote to me:
“how can any business plan for the future, or even a month ahead, without knowing when monies owed to their businesses is going to be paid? Farming is hard enough, with livestock prices the same, or even less than they were twenty years ago.”
That is the point. If people who work for the Rural Payments Agency were told that they were only going to get part payment of their salaries and that they would not know when they were to receive it, would that focus their attention on ensuring that the moneys that farmers are owed are paid on time?
The hon. Gentleman could actually be quoting from what I said when I first came to this job last year about the imperative of giving farmers confidence about how much money they will get and when. I completely agree that they are absolutely right to say that basic business planning depends on basic competence on the part of DEFRA and all its agencies. I am in complete agreement with him about that. This year, as promised, farmers received 70 per cent. of total funds paid out by the middle of March, compared to 15 per cent. last year, but they are right to continue to want 100 per cent. as fast as possible and the hon. Gentleman will not be able to outbid me in the rhetoric he applies to the importance of getting that done. As for future campaign visits to Ribble Valley, I look forward to taking on many of the marginal Conservative seats in a future election.
May I—unusually—commend Lord Rooker for his excellent and welcome policy of holding meetings for Members of Parliament? I am a farmer, an interest which I declare, and receive the single farm payment, so two weeks ago I telephoned the Rural Payments Agency in Newcastle where a charming young lady told me, “I’m afraid there’s a huge backlog of pre-populated forms for the single farm payment yet to go out, so I’ll send you an empty one.” I eventually received my form but it was only half filled in, so I am afraid that the Secretary of State must acknowledge that the RPA system remains poor. I know the process is not easy, but the system remains poor so I hope he will tell the House that he will examine it very carefully.
I shall certainly draw to Lord Rooker’s attention the hon. Gentleman’s kind remarks. My noble Friend’s surgery meetings for Members of this place and of the House of Lords are an excellent innovation. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are real issues to be tackled, in respect of not just the pre-population of the forms but the other data, which are constantly being updated and some of which I referred to in my written statement on Tuesday. We will not be satisfied until we have a system that accurately delivers stable, reliable, competent payments to farmers at the right time of year. That is what we are trying to deliver.
Even though I come from south of Watford, I, too, am an avid reader of the Yorkshire Post. The Secretary of State may have overlooked the front page headline in yesterday’s edition: “British farmers £90 million worse off in subsidy fiasco”.
When the Secretary of State took over his role about a year ago, he brought to it a refreshing candour—he started going round apologising for the rural payments fiasco—but we have recently learned that the Government’s performance during the year that he has been in charge has actually got worse. If he goes on like that, he will be Foreign Secretary by July. Does he remember telling the Royal Show last year that he would find it difficult to look farmers in the eye until the single payment scheme was properly sorted out? When does he expect to look farmers in the eye? To put it another way, when does he expect to be able to start using the gents toilets at farmers’ events rather than the ladies—for fear of meeting angry farmers in the gents—and, finally, does not the fact that he does so show how little he understands the nature of farmers’ wives?
I know that a special unit has been set up at Tory central office to track my activities—clearly it is being taken to rather ridiculous lengths—but since the hon. Gentleman asks, and although this may be shocking to the House, at the National Farmers Union I actually used the gents toilets. As it happens, at the gents toilet I met a farmer from Wales who subsequently entered into correspondence with me—[Laughter.]
Was he a Tory peer?
He was not, but for the sake of completeness, I should point out that he was concerned that he did not have long enough in the gents toilets to put his points to me.
I am afraid that I would urge the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) to stick to matters of fact and policy for the future, although his question has helped to enliven the proceedings. The population at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions can only increase on the back of what he said.
I wish I could remember rather more accurately what the hon. Gentleman actually asked. He alleged that the situation now is worse than it was a year ago. I utterly refute that. Given that 70 per cent. or so of payments were paid by mid-March compared with 15 per cent. last year, I do not understand how he can describe that as a step backwards.