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Agriculture: Single Farm Payments

Volume 720: debated on Tuesday 20 July 2010


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the issues experienced with mapping in England and Wales within the single farm payment scheme have been overcome.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a farmer receiving payments from the Rural Payments Agency.

My Lords, similarly, I declare an interest. Over the past year, all farmers in England have been sent updated maps where required for the purposes of the common agricultural policy. This was intended to ensure that the maps better represented the current situation on the ground. However, we are aware that too many farmers were initially sent incomplete or incorrect maps. We intend to ensure that farmers receive a better service in the future. The Welsh Assembly is responsible for farmers’ maps in Wales.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Has he noted that the rural land mapping exercise was not part of the Rural Payments Agency review that has been published today? Can he confirm that one month before the closing date for single farm payment applications, nearly 1,250 farmers in England were still waiting to receive their revised maps? How many units are still awaiting their maps? Is he satisfied that the problems have been identified and that they are unlikely to be repeated?

My Lords, I can confirm that the review which was published today was not asked to look at the mapping exercise. Nevertheless, due to the problems in this particular area, the review commented on it. I cannot confirm the figure of 1,250 farmers not having received their maps by the end of the period last year, but I can confirm from an Answer given by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, that in March last year, some 10,333 were still outstanding. I do not know how far the figure dropped in the closing months. I can confirm that all have now been issued, but if my noble friend knows of any individual cases in England, I would be grateful if he could let me know.

My Lords, further to the Minister’s answer to my noble friend, can he say how many of the outstanding single farm payments—the figure I have been quoted is that some 818 such payments are still outstanding—are due to computer problems and how many to a combination of the mapping exercise and the computer system? That would help to clarify the situation for others.

My Lords, I cannot give my noble friend a precise figure, but there are very few left. My understanding is that most of those remaining relate to problems other than those she describes, such as those in connection with probate or other such personal changes that might affect them. However, the agency is certainly doing what it can to clear the small remaining backlog.

My Lords, will the Minister pay tribute to the staff at Defra who I know have worked tirelessly on these issues, and will he give an assurance that farmers will not be penalised for mistakes that are not of their doing? In asking these questions, I declare my interest as a farmer and would like to put the record straight that the microphones did not pick up my declaration last week.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for what he has said about the staff in Defra. I have taken it on board and will pass it back to the department. However, there are some tough messages not only for the RPA but also for Defra itself as a result of the review of the agency that has been published today. I can also give the noble Lord an assurance that the RPA is already committed to not applying penalties in specific circumstance where a farmer has had an outstanding mapping query on a land parcel and as a result has estimated entries on his form.

My Lords, while recognising that the new mapping exercise has been necessary but also acknowledging the inaccuracies that have arisen, leading to far too many people having to seek support from both the Rural Stress Helpline and the Farm Crisis Network, can the noble Lord tell us what steps are being taken to ensure that any future updates that are needed will be done as efficiently and speedily as possible so as to reduce stress on claimants?

My Lords, as regards the mapping updates, I can assure the right reverend Prelate that we will look carefully at what is the best way of doing this and whether we should have more regular small-scale updates or less regular large-scale updates; either is possible. On his more general point about problems in the Rural Payments Agency, as I said earlier in answer to another question on another day, my honourable friend the Minister of State, Mr Jim Paice, has given an assurance that he will look hard at this matter and that he will personally chair the body which will overlook the changes to the RPA.

My Lords, the Rural Payments Agency’s business plan for this year already requires a reduction in administration costs of about 10 per cent. Will the Government require further cuts in the RPA’s budget as part of the austerity measures? If so, what will they be; how big will they be; and what effect will they have on the service provided?

My Lords, I can confirm the noble Lord’s earlier figures but I cannot confirm what other cuts that agency, or any other agency, may have to face. My noble friend will be aware that all parts of government are facing severe measures to deal with the deficit we inherited from the previous Government.

Can my noble confirm that the review to which he referred amounts to a damning indictment of the Rural Payments Agency and that it suggests two options: one is to outsource part of the operations and the other is to outsource all of the operations? Does he agree that the latter option seems the most preferable?

My Lords, we will look at both options. I note that my noble friend used the words “a damning indictment”; I will say only that there are some fairly tough messages for the Rural Payments Agency and leave it at that.

My Lords, given the statistics about the waiting list for single farm payments, will the Minister acknowledge that the system in Wales uses GIS technology? Will he urge the RPA to adopt it because there are practically no problems with it?

My Lords, I am sure we can always learn a great deal from the devolved Administrations in Wales and in Scotland.