HC Deb 10 November 1983 vol 48 cc405-6
15. Mr. J. Enoch Powell

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what is the reason for the delay in payment of approved claims for agricultural grants; and what steps he is taking to eliminate the backlog.

Mr. Butler

Several factors contribute to the delays, including an increase in current claims of over 20 per cent. compared to the previous six-month period, and the large number of claims that have had to be returned to applicants for further information or because the necessary supporting documents were not attached.

Action, including increasing the number of staff available to work on these schemes, was taken during late summer, and the backlog of outstanding claims is now being reduced.

Mr. Powell

As it was known many months ago that these delays were accumulating, why were not steps taken earlier to prevent hardship to legitimate claimants through delay in receiving their payments and to avoid the necessity of the noble Earl having to tell me at the beginning of November that he looked forward to a reduction in the time taken to process these claims?

Mr. Butler

I have referred to a number of circumstances, but, in fact, new staff were taken on for training in anticipation of problems of this kind. I equally regret the delay in these payments and the effect that that will have on the finances of the farmers who are affected. However, I can give no hope of the backlog being eradicated within a short period.

Mr. William Ross

Why is it necessary for farmers in Northern Ireland to give prior notification before they start working on grant schemes in Northern Ireland, when such notification is not required in Great Britain?

Mr. Butler

It was because of the absence of prior notification that a great deal of money was spent on concrete roads last season, and we believe that it is a sensible precaution to take in Northern Ireland, and one which does not occupy a great deal of officials' time.

Rev. William McCrae

Does the Minister agree that this delay in payment is causing great hardship and concern in the agricultural community?

Mr. Butler

I agree that in certain cases where it applies there is clearly some pressure on the personal finances of the farmers involved. We are doing all that we can to speed up the process.

Mr. Archer

The Prime Minister always enjoys boasting about the number of civil servants who have been made redundant by her Government, but does the Minister agree that they are not redundant if there is work for them to do, and that all that is achieved is that the public services suffer and people are kept waiting for money to which they are entitled?

Mr. Butler

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will have heard me say that new staff were taken on and trained for that purpose. One of the problems is that the applicants themselves failed to complete their forms satisfactorily, and about one-third of them had to be sent back.