My Lords, I declare an interest as a recipient of payments from the Rural Payments Agency. An independent review of the Rural Payments Agency, commissioned by Defra, concluded recently. The Government will publish the recommendations of the review and our response to it shortly.
My Lords, is it not the case that in the five years since the single farm payment scheme was set up, the record of the Rural Payments Agency is one of a combination of bureaucratic incompetence and excessive cost? Would the Minister agree that farmers in this country are well disposed to this Government and are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt at the moment? However, unless this problem is sorted out, that attitude will change very quickly. Would he agree that the Government and the Rural Payments Agency have around six months, till the end off this year, to prove that the situation is being sorted out?
My Lords, I accept that, as my noble friend says, there have been problems with the Rural Payments Agency. It has been the subject of an NAO report and summoned three times before the Public Accounts Committee as well as twice before the Efra Select Committee and once before the Public Administration Select Committee. We will try to address these problems and offer political leadership for that. I can give an assurance to my noble friend that the Minister of State of my department will, in future, chair the RPA board.
My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as a recipient of payments from the Rural Payments Agency. Does my noble friend agree that Defra literally passed the buck to the Rural Payments Agency when it was formed? Given that the variety of payments has now increased tremendously, does he think that the RPA will be able to cope, particularly when more EU money becomes available?
My Lords, I would not want to go back into the history of the problems that have faced the agency. All I can say is that a report has been commissioned and we will look at the outcome of the report and see what changes can be made to improve the way in which it operates. I would not want to speculate on what those changes might be at this stage.
Will the Minister please confirm that nearly £1.9 million had been paid out by 30 June to 105,000 organisations or individuals? Will he say whether we will continue to increase the payments at the same pace as we have seen in the past two years or whether, as this is public money, there will be a review to see whether it should be frozen next year or the year beyond, as we are all in this together?
My Lords, I can confirm approximately the figures that the noble Lord has given. Most payments were made by the end of June. I understand that by the end of that month fewer than 300 individuals remained without any sort of payment, and often those were for legal reasons such as probate or whatever.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that pastoral care provided by local churches and indeed the Farming Help charities continues to be a necessary part of farmers’ relationships with the RPA? This is not typical of most other business relationships. At what point might the RPA system be simplified sufficiently to ensure more normal working relationships?
Again, my Lords, I cannot say what changes will be made, but I can say to the right reverend Prelate that we are very grateful for all the work that the church has done to assist those who have suffered from late payments and who, as he made clear, have had considerable problems as a result. We hope to have the RPA working properly in the near future.
My Lords, I also declare an interest as a farmer. What is to stop there being a simple first question on the IACS form saying, “Have there been any changes in the area of your farm this year, or are there any relevant changes? If the answer is no”—which it would be in 90 per cent of the cases—“please move to box 61 and sign”? Would that not be a great simplification which would dramatically cut the outrageous costs of this scheme?
My Lords, the noble Viscount makes a very interesting suggestion. My understanding is that most of the form is already pre-printed with the information from the previous year on it, and it is then open to the individual merely to sign at the end. I understand that there were consultations in the past with various people in the industry about whether the noble Viscount’s suggestion would be possible, but there was no great interest in it at that stage. Again, though, we will look at that as part of the review.
My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister acknowledge that £90 million of taxpayers’ money has been paid in fines to the EU for incompetently processed payments? Does he agree that his department should look at one option at the end of the six-month inquiry: the abolition of the RPA?
My Lords, while I wish the Government well in taking forward the review’s recommendations in due course, given that rural payments are so important to both the economy and the environment of our rural areas, will the Government think again about their decision to abolish the Commission for Rural Communities in order to safeguard an independent rural voice in these and other important rural issues?
My Lords, I think the noble Baroness will accept that that question is somewhat wide of that on the Order Paper, but no doubt I will address it in due course. Policy on this matter will still be retained by Defra, which will continue to look after rural interests and rural affairs.