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Rural Payments Agency

Volume 730: debated on Wednesday 12 October 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they consider that the work of the Rural Payments Agency is being of assistance to the farming industry.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and I declare an interest.

My Lords, the RPA undertakes a number of important regulatory functions, including livestock tracing and inspections, as well as making payments totalling £2.2 billion each year to farmers and traders, supporting sustainable agriculture and the countryside. Over the past year, important steps have been taken towards turning the RPA into the customer-focused agency we all wish to see. Costs have been reduced while customer satisfaction scores have increased, and good progress has been made in tackling some of the legacy issues.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for that. I agree with him that the Rural Payments Agency, which used to be chaotic, is a good deal better and more sensible now than it was then. One could go further. Perhaps I could suggest to him that the big question now for the RPA and for Defra should be: how will British farmers be affected in the common agricultural policy reform that will happen in two years’ time, when the new EU budget comes into force? Doubtless, there will be a lot of struggling at that moment as to who gets what. France is likely to end up with much more than England. Is this not an area where first-class thinking and planning should start now if our farmers are to be paid anything like the Rural Payments Agency money that they get at the moment?

I would like to think that I can reassure my noble friend that of course we shall bring first-class thinking to the challenge of this issue. This is not the listed topical Question, but it has certainly turned out to be topical because the Commission published its proposals for the reform of the CAP this morning. We are certainly going to be very much engaged in the negotiations and discussions that will take place around these proposals. Our priority will be to ensure that reform encourages competitive and sustainable EU agriculture through a system that is simple and transparent for both farmers and the RPA to operate.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, to his much deserved ministerial appointment. In this House, we knew him to be a flexible listening Whip, and we look forward to more of the same in his ministerial guise. I also want to record our thanks and congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, as he moves on to the Home Office.

The Rural Payments Agency has had its ups and downs over the past few years, but it performs a crucial role in getting payments from the common agricultural policy to farmers. Your Lordships have just heard that the EU Commission announced reform to the CAP this morning. Like the NFU and the CLA, we on this side are disappointed that these proposals from the Commission are a missed opportunity. The rhetoric of radical reform has turned into a tired compromise, letting down both UK farmers and our natural environment. Given that consensus, what promises can the Minister make to farmers, and to others concerned about the natural environment, that the Government will use what influence they can muster from the margins of Europe to improve this reform as it goes through the Council of Ministers?

I thank the noble Lord for his kind words. I am afraid that, as a departmental Minister, the room for flexibility is perhaps not as great as it was, but I shall do my best. We have been building alliances within the European community on CAP reform. I think many other countries will be just as disappointed as we are with what appears to be a very retrograde and regressive proposal from the Commission at this stage. Our job is to negotiate, as the noble Lord rightly said, to try to build alliances and to place not just the farmer or the countryside but even the consumer interest at the fore. That is certainly our position. That is what we intend to do, and I hope we have the support of the whole House in achieving that.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Taylor on his accession to the portfolio which he dealt with in opposition with such competence and in his usual friendly manner. I look forward to him holding this job for quite a long time because he will do a very good one.

Because of other things going on this morning, I have not had a chance to look in detail at the proposals from the Commission, but does the Minister agree that it is very important to prevent the opinions and forces in this country that would like to abolish the common agricultural policy and the payments altogether? They are not the way forward. Without a reasonable level of support to British farmers, combined with the cross-compliance conditions on the environment and animal welfare and the Pillar 2 schemes, such as the environmental stewardship schemes, the British countryside would be a much worse place.

Undoubtedly my noble friend is absolutely right. That is the purpose of our discussions, that is what our focus will be in negotiations, and that is why we are going into the negotiations in a positive frame of mind: to try to achieve the changes to the CAP which we think are in the interests of the people of this country.

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the Minister on his appointment. We on these Benches have found that he has always been very helpful and flexible. I was encouraged by his initial Answer to the Question but, as he will know, difficulties with the Rural Payments Agency have led to significant levels of stress. I gather that the Farm Crisis Network estimates that 55 per cent of its cases of problems and issues have come from the single farm payment. What lessons have been learnt from these experiences to ensure that these problems are not repeated?

We have treated this from the beginning as a very serious focus of interest. My right honourable friend Jim Paice has headed up the oversight board, which meets every six weeks and monitors progress, and there is no doubt that the performance of the RPA has improved remarkably. It is not perfect, but it is getting there, and I hope that people will acknowledge that.

My Lords, what has been the principal factor in securing this higher efficiency within the agency? Has there been a contribution from Workington?

From Workington? I am sorry; I should have realised the noble Lord’s connection, and I apologise for not picking that up. I am sure there has been a contribution from Workington, but there has also been a contribution from many other people involved in making this body a more responsive, speedier and easier-to-use organisation for farmers.