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DEFRA Communications: Hill Farmers

Volume 582: debated on Tuesday 17 June 2014

Thank you very much indeed, Ms Dorries, for calling me to speak. It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon.

I am raising the issue of the communications by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with hill farmers. I requested this debate following a meeting I had with Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services—UTASS—a charity that works with hill farmers in my constituency, and I have also had discussions with some of the farmers themselves. I should just say that the hill farming in my constituency is very long-standing and it is rather unusual in that most of the farmers involved are tenant farmers farming on common land. There has been hill farming in this way for about 500 years in my area.

The problem is that DEFRA requires farmers to communicate online, and the Government have failed in their project to roll out broadband across the country. Across the entire country, 5 million people do not have access to broadband and the problem is particularly severe in the rural areas. The counties with the biggest problem are Cumbria, Devon, Dorset, the East Riding, Herefordshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Northumberland, Rutland, Shropshire and Somerset. I think that we can all agree that there are large farming communities in all those counties.

In my constituency, only 46% of the farmers who go to UTASS have broadband. Obviously, therefore, a Government policy of delivering public services that is digital by default is doomed to fail, and DEFRA should be the Department that is the very last to introduce digital by default in its communication system and not the first, which it seems to be at the moment.

On 6 May, UTASS found that 19 farmers were booked in to the charity to complete their application forms for the online single payment scheme, but the system was down, just as it had been on the previous Friday and on several days in the previous weeks. This meant that farmers were driving several miles to access the IT point, but then the Government’s IT system was down and they were unable to transact the business. This process is time-consuming and stressful; it is the very opposite of what we expect from DEFRA.

I am pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), here in Westminster Hall today, but I am disappointed that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), is not present, because he replied on 3 June to my initial letter about this issue. His response to me was wholly inadequate. He wrote:

“Although I accept that these intermittent problems will have been frustrating for RPA customers”—

customers of the Rural Payments Agency—

“the system has been performing well for the majority of the application period.”

What level of failure does DEFRA believe is acceptable or unacceptable? The problem is that if the farmers’ applications were not in on time, they could lose money, but it was difficult—indeed, for some farmers it was impossible—to get their applications in on time due to the failures in DEFRA’s own system.

In his letter, the Under-Secretary of State continued:

“The Agency has had record numbers of on-line submissions with almost 70 per cent of the nearly 102,000 submissions received to date (16 May) being made online.”

However, he does not know or does not take into account in that statement how much time, energy and work was involved in submitting them on time; nor does he seem concerned about the 30% of farmers who, by 16 May, had not completed their submissions. So he says:

“Given that overall picture, I cannot give a blanket assurance that penalties will not be applied.”

That seems to be wholly unreasonable.

The animal reporting and movement service also has a history of crashing online, and it is simply not practical for farmers to take several hours out of their day to travel to ICT facilities.

The next problem is the number of personal identification numbers that farmers are required to have in order to interface with DEFRA, which is a staggering 27. There are so many different systems run by DEFRA and on each one farmers are required to have a different PIN. I do not know about you, Ms Dorries, but I find it difficult to remember my code to enter the House of Commons and my bank number. The thought of having to have 27 different identifiers, or maybe even 28 for some farmers, is absurd.

Let me inform the House what those numbers are for. For the RPA, there is a single business identifier; a personal identifier for each partner in the business, because obviously many farms are family-run; a vendor number; an integrated administration and control scheme number; a PIN to access the single payment scheme online; a holding number, which is called a county parish holding number, with an additional one required for each block of land that is more than five miles from the boundary of the main holding; a herd number; and a flock number. For Natural England, an “AG number” is required for “ELS/UELS/HLS agreements”, which relate to the high-level scheme and the systems of support for the rolling out of the common agricultural policy in this country; and a Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 access number is also needed. The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency has its own system of identifying numbers; for the Environment Agency, a groundwater authorisation number, a waste carrier number and a waste exemption registration are required; and for DEFRA itself, a holding transport registration number and a City and Guilds number for the transport of animals and PAl to PA6 and so on are needed.

Of course, farmers are running businesses, so they need to interface with other parts of the Government, which involves a national insurance number, a health service number and a passport number. In addition, of course, many farmers have shotgun and firearm licence numbers; they have VAT numbers; they have Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs numbers, both individual numbers and business numbers; the Government Gateway has a number and password; the British Wool Marketing Board number is obviously important for sheep farmers; and the breed societies have numbers. Also, there are separate numbers for every bovine animal and sheep over the age of 12 months on the premises, and separate transaction numbers for every movement or passport issue. That is a proliferation of numbers that we would think incredible if we read it in a novel by Kafka. However, it is not incredible in modern DEFRA.

There is also an extremely important set of further numbers, which are individual field numbers. These feature highly in the operation of the SPS applications. Most of the SPS forms are now pre-populated by the RPA, but all information needs to be cross-checked by the farmer, as the onus is placed on the farmer to correct errors made by the RPA. Each field number needs to be checked by the farmer against four further items: the correct size is stated for that particular field; the net land area is eligible, as detailed on the rural land register for that particular field; the claimed area details are correctly detailed for that particular field; and the land use code is correct for that particular field. If the farmer does not spot an error made by the RPA, the farmer is liable and financially penalised.

Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman, I will just point out that in my constituency the farmers have 20 fields, so 80 administrative cross-checks are required in this process.

I had not come to Westminster Hall with the intention of making a political point, because I sympathise hugely with a lot of what the hon. Lady has said. Therefore I hesitate to say this, but almost every one of the regulations that she has mentioned were introduced under the Government of her own party. Therefore, is she here today to support the coalition’s efforts to reduce red tape in farming?

I will come on to this Government’s attempts to cut red tape in the red tape initiative, which—as I have read out the 27 numbers, plus the field numbers and I have not finished yet—has been a miserable failure, frankly. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was in this House in the last Parliament, but I was and I criticised the system under the previous Government, because I am very concerned at the way the hill farmers are treated by DEFRA, the RPA and Natural England. And if I might say so, I thought that a coalition of Tories and Liberal Democrats with more rural seats than the previous Labour Government would do better, but that is not the case. It has not done better. If anything, the situation is getting worse and this causes a huge number of problems.

Let me move on to the costs to farmers of running the various schemes. Every sheep needs an electronic identification tag. These used to cost 10p each, but now they cost 85p each and each sheep needs two. There are 100,000 sheep in Teesdale, so immediately we see that Teesdale farmers are landed with a bill for £170,000. Every farmer needs a tag reader, and those cost £700 each. DEFRA is putting massive costs on to farmers.

The cattle need passports: their movements have to be recorded, as do their births and deaths and medicines they have been given. The system for medicines must be even tighter than that required for humans in the NHS. One farmer told me that he has to

“report movements, births, deaths—

but, fortunately—

“not marriages in our Holding Register for sheep and Herd Register for cattle. All veterinary medicine treatments have to be recorded with the identity number of the animal, batch number of the medicine, dosage and expiry date”.

He said that the impact of the red tape initiative has been

“so small as to be imperceptible.”

As well as changing the rules of the CAP, DEFRA is trying at the same time to move the system online, and that is getting worse at the moment. That is being done by this Government and their failure in that regard is totally their responsibility.

There are also changes to the timing of higher level stewardship payments. One big problem is that, whereas farmers received regular in-year payments, now, because of the changeover, most will have to wait for 18 months for a payment, rather than six months. However, some farmers will have to wait as long as nine years for payments. Therefore their incomes are severely pushed down and they are not paid any interest while they wait for money for long periods.

In case Government Members are under any illusion about the farmers in my constituency—I have already mentioned that they are tenant farmers—Newcastle university estimates that the average income of a hill farmer in my area is £11,000 a year. These are not people who can cope with severe fluctuations up and down in their cash flow or cuts to their income.

The RPA online system is, as I have said, deeply problematic. The farmers feel that DEFRA has not done an adequate job in negotiating with Europe.

I thank the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene. I think that Members of Parliament of all parties from rural constituencies will have a huge amount of sympathy with what she is saying. I was a livestock farmer before being distracted by politics. Although I would not phrase it in the same aggressive, political way that seems to be part of this debate, this is a serious point that the Government should take on board. We should try to persuade the unions to help, wherever possible, as they are doing in Wales.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

Let me just tell hon. Members what the farmers are saying about the Rural Payments Agency online system. They want clarity about the definition of “active farmer”, about whether the scheme refers to net or gross income and whether it should include the single payment scheme. Since more than 200 farmers in my constituency rely on the SPS, they need to understand what the rules and mechanisms are. I asked for clarification on those points more than a month ago, but we have not received it. I am disappointed that the Minister has not responded to my second letter.

Let me now return to the fact that the tenant farmers are grazing their livestock on common land, which is unusual in the European context, because there are not many parts of Europe with commons on the English pattern, but the European legislation does not really take that into account. I urge the Minister to sort out the issue of definitions of “naturally kept land” and commons grazing.

The farmers are worried that, if the system does not get sorted out, DEFRA does not have a plan B, although it really needs one. It cannot continue to put the farmers under such pressure.

This is the worst kind of government. Far from being a supportive, helpful public service, the farmers experience it as oppressive, bureaucratic, arrogant and insensitive. Furthermore, as is obvious from the amount of time and energy that has to be spent on this problem, it is quite clear that the systems are ineffective and counterproductive.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) on securing this important debate. There has been agreement throughout the House, among all parties, that those of us who represent rural areas, and those who love those areas, want those farming in some of the toughest environments in our country to get the support that we would aspire to provide. I will come back to some of the specific points that she made, but I should like to frame the debate a little bit and talk about the common agricultural policy reform and current progress on the new programme.

Last week, we submitted to the European Commission the programme document for our 2014-2020 rural development programme for England. That sets out our proposals for providing £3.5 billion of funding over the next six years to farming, wildlife, rural businesses and the wider economy in England. Overall, across the whole CAP programme, we are looking to provide more than £15 billion of support in these areas.

Developing the programme over the last couple of years has been a massive undertaking. At each step, we have consulted our stakeholders and taken account of their views. I have seen farmers taking part in local consultations in my part of the world. I look forward to their continued support as we move to implementation and delivery from 2015. There is still a lot of work to be done. We are now liaising with the European Commission on the programme document to secure Commission approval by the end of October.

A significant change in the CAP for upland farmers is our decision to uplift payments under pillar one. That means that we will almost double the direct payment rate in the moorland from 2015—I hope that the hon. Lady welcomes that; I am sure that her upland farmers will—and equalise the direct payment rates in the severely disadvantaged area and the lowland. Taken together, these changes will distribute direct payments more equitably across English farms. They will also ensure that upland farmers on large areas of moorland are not put at a disadvantage in comparison with other upland farmers. The changes should give all upland farmers greater security.

I hope that the hon. Lady found that bit of background about reform helpful. I also hope that she will welcome the significant funding that we will provide under the CAP, particularly when viewed against the severe budgetary constraints that are in place. However, I agree with her that access to 21st century communication is one of the most important challenges of our time. I know that she takes a wider interest in this issue, in urban and rural contexts across the country. That is an absolute top priority for the Government and supports our long-term economic plan. I cannot accept her criticism that this Government will fail in that regard. We will move on a lot more rapidly than the previous Government did and we will do a great deal to broaden access to that vital telecommunications infrastructure. Telecommunications is a key part of that long-term economic plan and, because of that, rolling out broadband to rural communities is a top priority for the Government. That has the potential to be transformative. There are already areas where that has happened.

Clearly, such provision is important for hill farmers, as the hon. Lady mentioned, due to their remoteness and the associated difficulties they face in accessing services. That is why the Government are investing heavily in the roll-out of broadband across the country. We are making good progress under the £530 million roll-out programme.

More than 20,000 homes and businesses a week are currently gaining access, and that will rise to 40,000 a week over the summer. Projections suggest that we will reach 90% superfast coverage in early 2016. By the end of the current programme, virtually all homes and businesses will have access to standard broadband at a minimum of 2 megabits per second. An additional £250 million will extend superfast broadband coverage to 95% of the UK by 2017. We are exploring how to reach the final hard-to-reach areas with superfast broadband—the areas that she is talking about and the areas that I represent, some of the upland and more remote parts of Cornwall. Pilot projects testing how that might be achieved are due to be announced shortly.

Having 21st century telecommunications networks also means having high-quality and fast mobile connectivity, including in more remote rural areas. Improving mobile phone connectivity is therefore another top priority for the Government. We are investing up to £150 million through Broadband Delivery UK’s mobile infrastructure project to build new masts for areas where there is no coverage for voice calls or text messages. Those will be used by the key mobile network operators, who are working together as never before to find ways to extend coverage to remote areas. Once built, most of the new sites will also have the capability to provide 3G and 4G coverage.

For example, I have seen the introduction of a project in Cumbria, where a rural area that does not have superfast broadband now gets 4G coverage from one of the networks. That is making a huge difference to businesses and people who live in that area. That is being done on a commercial basis by the company, which I very much welcome. The first new mobile infrastructure project site went live in Weaverthorpe in north Yorkshire in September 2013. That site is now providing coverage to 200 homes and businesses that did not have the mobile signal before.

I have heard all that a thousand times from his colleague in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I probably know that better than the Minister does and the record is not that great. What I am interested in is DEFRA’s performance on this matter, given that the roll-out is in progress.

I wanted to come on to the concept of digital by default, which the hon. Lady raised, and how DEFRA uses technology to interact with all the people who rely on the support we give. The common agricultural policy information service is one of 25 Government Digital Service exemplar projects that are leading the Government’s digital transformation agenda, which aims to deliver efficiencies within the public sector and savings for taxpayers. That is crucial to us, but no matter how fast we are able to move to deliver broadband and mobile access across the country, there may be problems for some farmers, as she pointed out, who have either no or slow broadband. We recognise that that could have implications for submitting applications and forms online from 2015 under a single, digital, easy-to-use application and payment system as part of the CAP reform. That is why, in the early days of the new service, we will look to provide support to those customers who need more time to adapt. We will also ensure that our digital uptake campaign makes it clear to customers how to find paper-based guidance. Online guidance will be available in printable formats and will of course be the most up-to-date version.

The hon. Lady mentioned some of the problems being experienced by hill farmers in her part of the country. I believe that she has been looking at the current online system and the problems that happened with that. Those have been addressed. We are now looking at how to take forward digital by default under the new system. Offline assistance will always be there for those who need it. It could be in various forms, including through intermediaries, by telephone or face-to-face help through digital support centres across the country. If she can give me, subsequent to this debate, more information on how many days the service that the charity was dealing with was failing, that is something I can report back on. A huge amount of effort has been put into getting this right and improving the service for customers.

The hon. Lady and I were both elected in 2005. She will remember the chaos around the implementation of the single farm payment at the time. We have moved on hugely since then. Even she, who is seeking to find as many ways as she can to criticise the Government, would recognise that the system under the Rural Payments Agency is much, much better than it was at the time of the transfer under her Government. Some of that improvement happened under her Government, but considerably more has happened under ours. I very much welcome how colleagues in the RPA are delivering a much improved service.

A large number of organisations provide digital skills training across the country, and I know that the hon. Lady is interested in that. Local libraries and advice centres will be able to help users to find details. We are also working closely with the charity Go ON UK to map providers that can help users to access a computer and get online in their area. That is being rolled out regionally. She mentioned the number of numbers involved in day-to-day farming. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) pointed out, that is the history of the system that we work within. The Government are making huge efforts to minimise the number. We will operate within the boundaries of the directives that we have, and some will add layers of complexity. The important thing is that we are moving to one PIN being needed for the new common agricultural policy system—the identity assurance. That will be a big step forward, and I can send her further information on that.

DEFRA provides no digital support. It does not give a grant to Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services. The Government’s total spend on digital inclusion, via the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is £3 million. The Minister needs to be realistic. Moreover, Durham county council has had 60% cuts. When he says one PIN, does he mean per farmer, one for each animal, or one for each field? What does he mean?

There is a difference between PINs, which one must enter to get into the system, and reference numbers, which can be written down and are less of an issue for security. Those reference numbers will in different circumstances be needed for different aspects. We all have these numbers in our daily lives. In terms of accessing the system, we are moving to one PIN. I am happy to talk or write to the hon. Lady about that.

The hon. Lady raised the important issue of consultation. She painted a picture of farmers in upland areas who are very busy, dealing with tough weather conditions and farming on low incomes at the very margins of what is possible. She said that we are moving ahead without talking to them. That is very much not what we have done. We have made the changes on payments that I set out earlier to split the money more equitably across the country, to support upland farmers and to recognise the great job that they do, and all the landscape and other benefits that they offer society in providing access and in producing food of which we can all be proud.

The rural and farming network was created in January 2011 and consists of 17 self-determined local groups representing rural communities, business and farming interests across England. Its purpose is to enable two-way communication between DEFRA Ministers and rural businesses and communities. The RFN helps to underpin Ministers’ roles as rural champions within Government, ensuring that the dialogue between national and local decision takers is more joined up. Ministers agreed to meet with all RFN chairs twice a year. The last RFN chairs meeting took place in January, and three DEFRA Ministers attended: Lord de Mauley, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) and me.

There is also the upland stakeholder forum, which is chaired at senior level in DEFRA and has senior members drawn from a range of upland interests, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Moorland Association and the Foundation for Common Land. The hon. Lady rightly pointed out that the way in which farming happened in this country might be different from the way it happened in some other parts of the European Union. The forum considers many strategic and cross-cutting issues that impact on hill farmers.

Equally important is that we keep customers up to date and well informed on changes and how they are likely to be affected. Indeed, DEFRA, working with the RPA, Natural England, the Forestry Commission and the rural development network, is determined to implement the CAP in a way that is as simple, affordable and effective as possible and to not repeat the problems we had in 2005. We want to ensure that the countdown to the new CAP is as smooth as possible for our customers and we have published a “Countdown to CAP” timeline. At each stage, information will be made available to help people to understand how the new CAP will affect them, what they need to do and by when. The new CAP reform countdown symbol on the cover of the information is being used to flag up important information about CAP reform. Farmers, including those on the hills, and land managers will see that symbol on web pages and other documents in coming months. The website provides a single point of access to information on the CAP and we are looking to further develop those pages in the light of feedback from users.

In April, we published, “An introduction to the new Common Agricultural Policy schemes in England”, which provides an overview of what the new schemes will mean for customers. Information has also been provided about the greening rules, including an overview of permanent grassland, crop diversification, ecological focus areas, definitions, exemptions and crop lists, so that farmers can start to get seed in the ground. That is the sort of detail to which the hon. Lady referred. Although that is of less relevance in some respects to hill farmers, because they are not generally farming arable land, it is an important step forward that has been welcomed by the National Farmers Union.

In conclusion, we will be providing more than £15 billion of funding to farming, wildlife, rural businesses and the wider economy in England. We are moving forward rapidly on broadband and mobile access, and we are taking steps to ensure that we offer alternative support for those who cannot immediately benefit from our single and more efficient IT service.