HC Deb 21 March 1984 vol 56 cc1153-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Donald Thompson.]

10.49 pm
Mr. James Nicholson (Newry and Armagh)

I wish to draw to the attention of the House the anomaly between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in respect of agricultural grants. The difference exists in two respects—prior notification and field inspection on claims for payment.

Prior notification requires inspection at claim stage. One reason that was advanced for continuing the present system to my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) in recent correspondence was that, in areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest or in a national park, the proposal must be cleared with the relevant authority. The relevant authority in Northern Ireland is the Department of the Environment.

The Department of the Environment is responsible for many things in Northern Ireland. It is a large conglomerate of many interests. However, I fail to see why it requires prior notification in agriculture. I shall develop that argument further.

There is the matter of central Government involvement. The Department uses prior notification to identify problem areas. I find it hard to understand why we have this problem of prior notification. I have been a farmer. As a farmer, when I do a job, I depend on a number of factors. I depend on the contractor and when he can start. I depend also on the weather. When I wanted a grant, I rang the Department of Agriculture to give prior notification of my starting work at 10 o'clock that day. I fail to understand how prior notification will be of any use to the Department of the Environment in identifying scenic areas in Northern Ireland or, indeed, in any other area in Northern Ireland.

The fact that we do not have proper local government in Northern Ireland should not be used to deny our farmers parity in this matter. That is another reason that has been advanced. The Department of the Environment is responsible for planning, although in fact planning should be the responsibility of the local district council. That should have no bearing on the matter of prior notification.

Does the Minister feel that farmers in Northern Ireland are so stupid that they cannot identify the areas where they reside and have to inform the Department to take special cognisance of those areas, which may have tourist attractions? After all, farmers have been trusted in this respect down the years, and to the best of my knowledge they have not abused their conservation responsibilities in rural areas. I have yet to see examples where agriculture has ruined the landscape. In many instances the farmers have improved it. It would be difficult to find monstrosities that they have built that have ruined the landscape. They have acted responsibly.

In many ways the farmers have acted more responsibly than many Government Departments in Northern Ireland. When the Department of the Environment constructed a road outside Armagh to a new housing estate, it pulled down more than 20 large trees which had taken 150 years to grow. Within one day they were lying flat. That is how the Department of the Environment goes about conservation. It believes that it can get away with it and does not worry too much about the rest. That is a bogus point to make about prior notification and it should be given little cognisance. The view that Northern Ireland is different should have no bearing on the case. I ask the Minister to remove that unwarranted anomaly.

When one fulfils the terms of a grant and applies for payment, the work is subject to technical scrutiny. That is right. If money is paid to anyone in the form of a grant one should ensure that the money has been spent wisely and to good effect for the future. The anomaly arises because in Britain only a percentage of claims are inspected, while in Northern Ireland all claims are inspected. That has been the case for some years.

In reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South on 16 December 1983, Lord Mansfield said: Nevertheless, it has been accepted that in the circumstances prevailing in Northern Ireland difficulties could arise if my Department was seen to be applying checks on some farmers and not others. Not only could the Department become involved in the task of refuting allegations of discriminatory treatment, but there would be a real danger that once it was known that inspections did not have to be made in all cases the Department's staff in the field could come under pressure to refrain from inspecting in specific cases. The Minister replied in similar terms to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East more recently.

In some respects that is a fair point, but I submit that it is also fair for the rest of the United Kingdom. While Northern Ireland has a great many problems, that is not one that arises in the farming community in rural areas. Any farmer that I have ever known who applied for a grant to improve his land, buildings or whatever, knows only too well that he must do that job properly. Will the Minister elaborate on the difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom? Surely the Department has enough faith in its officials to know that they will act in an impartial manner. There should be no fear that they will bear down more on one section of the community than on another.

My experience and knowledge of grant officials who inspect the claims submitted by farmers in Northern Ireland is they know the people whom they must watch closely to ensure that the grant is properly used. They know the people who, when a claim is submitted, do not go back until the day on which the grant is passed. They know the people whom it is wise to visit three or four times before completion of the grant. Grant officials in Northern Ireland have a good knowledge and awareness of the claimants with whom they deal. I do not believe that any grant inspector in any area in Northern Ireland will ever be found to bear down more on one section of the community than on another. That is a foolish argument, and one that we in Northern Ireland have great difficulty in accepting.

If the Department is afraid that farmers will apply for approval of work that is not completed, or if it has evidence of any such practice in the rest of Great Britain since the implementation of the scheme, that would be useful information to consider in future. However, this anomaly in Northern Ireland must be abolished, and the sooner the better.

I ask the Minister to reflect on the saving that could be made if there were parity between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain. A saving could be made by reducing the number of a staff employed in the Department of Agriculture.

Another aspect that has given rise to great concern in recent months is the speed of approval of grant claims. One of the greatest problems that hon. Members representing constituencies in Northern Ireland have to deal with is the situation of constituents who telephone to say that, although they applied for their grants six months previously, they have received no money to date. Those constituents may have overdrafts at the Bank, say for a large silo complex or a drainage complex, because it takes months to process the claims. I believe that the present staff could be better deployed in carrying out such work. Spot checks by officials would be far more effective than the present checks, some of which are paper checks only. The official may go to the house, but he may never go to the field to inspect the drainage work. I think that the Department should take that under its wing. If the official visits the house only, that is no proof that the drains were in fact laid, as claimed.

I do not accept that the Department of the Environment would require an increase in staff to monitor such claims. The Department of Agriculture will identify a grant application that requires planning approval, and the application will then be Passed to the Department of the Environment for its comthents. The only difference would be that the fanner would have to apply to the Department of the Environment after which an official of that Department would inspect the application. Rather than two Departments being involved, the farmer would apply to one Department only, and that would result in better liaison. Any problems would be easily solved by the planning officials making a visit to the applicant with the involvement, if necessary, of a local councillor instead of a Member of Parliament becoming involved. For example, a man might be seeking to widen his access to a road so that he can get bigger lorries or farm machinery in and out of the farm.

In considering the savings, I refer the Minister to an answer that he gave to me on 17 February. In 1980, when we had the change from the prior approval system under the farm capital grant scheme to the prior notification system under the agriculture and horticulture grant scheme, it resulted in less time being spent on initial field inspections and in a consequent reduction of 27 in the number of technical staff and of 35 in the number of clerical staff in Northern Ireland. No doubt there was a lot of redeployment, but there was also a big staff saving when that reorganisation took place. If we went on to reorganise again, there could well be a further saving.

The financial saving as a result of that change was £700,000 per annum. That saving could be much greater still if we did away with prior notification and inspection, and cut the number of staff to a minimum by redeploying them elsewhere. We could also give a much better service to the agricultural community and to the farmers that it represents. Therefore, I ask the Minister to consider my remarks about the anomaly, to get the Department in Northern Ireland to do away with it, and not to ask farmers in Northern Ireland to suffer something that farmers in the rest of the United Kingdom farmers do not have to suffer.

11.6 pm

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Butler)

I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Nicholson) has brought this problem before the House. It is also good to see some of his right hon. and hon. Friends supporting him. Often, the House is empty for an Adjournment debate, apart from the hon. Member who has raised it, the Minister and the Whip.

The hon. Gentleman has addressed himself to two main questions: prior notification and field inspection. He queried the justification for both of them. He also referred to the speed, or lack of it, in dealing with grant claims. He gave part of the answer that I would have given about the recent history of prior notification. It may be worth reminding the House that this feature of the agriculture and horticulture grant scheme came into effect in October 1980, as a result of a study carried out in consultation with Sir Derek Rayner of the administration of agricultural capital grant schemes. In consequence, savings were achieved. The hon. Gentleman drew attention to those, and indeed, one should be grateful that the costs of Government were so significantly reduced.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the sum of nearly £750,000 and the total of 62 technical and clerical staff saved. He should accept that that was a very thorough review, and that if it had been deemed sensible to go further at that time, the team operating under Sir Derek Rayner would no doubt have so advised. Yet he questions whether prior notification is required and he looks for total parity of treatment with Great Britain.

The fact is that the circumstances are different in Northern Ireland. The prior notification scheme operates in Great Britain in respect of special areas, to which he referred, such as areas of outstanding natural beauty, and in these areas a farmer must clear his proposal with the relevant statutory authority before starting work. Northern Ireland is different only in the sense that notification needs to be dealt with at central Government level because, as the hon. Member pointed out, these matters are dealt with centrally and not by district councils. I share his hope that at some time in the future it may be possible for that responsibility to be devolved to local councils, but it is not the case at the moment.

The reason prior notification operates is to allow the farmer to meet his obligations in regard not only to conservation but also to planning matters. It is not a particularly cumbersome procedure. I have considered carefully the forms involved and it is relatively simple.

The hon. Member suggested that the Department of the Environment might be the better authority to be informed on these matters. That is a point that clearly has validity, but that would mean that the farmer would be dealing with two Departments, and we have judged it preferable for notification to be made to the Department of Agriculture, with which he has most contact as a farmer. It is then up to the Department of Agriculture to liaise as appropriate with the Department of the Environment. I do not believe that to involve the Department of the Environment directly would accelerate matters. It might well lead to confusion.

The hon. Member went on to ask why 100 per cent. field inspections were necessary. He referred only to the justification which my noble Friend had made. I do not doubt that in explaining the situation my noble Friend would have gone much wider than the possibility of allegations of discrimination. There are local circumstances of this nature which apply in Northern Ireland, but I do not believe that they should be mentioned entirely in isolation. Even in other circumstances, one fanner might begin to question why he had been subject to a field inspection when his neighbour had not. Certainly it is much more convenient if 100 per cent. field inspections are carried out on that ground alone—namely, the avoidance of allegations by one neighbour against another of discrimination.

Surely there is the much more important point as to whether or not there has been any abuse of the scheme. One has only to think of a subject which was very close to our hearts a few years ago. If I remember correctly, a certain depth of hard core and a certain depth of concrete were required in concrete roads. I understand that in several instances the specifications were not fully met. I do not believe that in those circumstances the hon. Gentleman would have wanted anything but a proper inspection in all cases so that public money was not abused.

There may be other circumstances in which field inspections are not absolutely necessary, but I suspect that for the time being at least it will be wise for us to continue in that way.

Mr. Nicholson

The only argument I have with the Minister is that he seems to imply that in Northern Ireland only 3 in. of hard core might be put in, when in Great Britain 6 in. would be used, and that therefore inspection was not required in Great Britain. I do not necessarily disagree with the Minister. Perhaps a 100 per cent. inspection is the one sure way, but even with that, officials will not be 100 per cent. sure.

Mr. Butler

Yes, but alternatively it is possible to argue that it would be preferable to follow the practice in Great Britain. We have to look at this. If we can be satisfied that anything other than a 100 per cent. inspection will ensure that public money is not misused, we would be justified in moving in that direction because a cost saving could be achieved. I should want to be satisfied about that before proceeding down that road. That is something that we have in mind to see whether we can make any change in the procedures.

The hon. Gentleman questioned whether it might be possible to transfer staff involved in such activity to deal with the grant claims. As 100 per cent. inspection is required, and will continue to be required unless and until changes are made, there is no question of changing staff to deal with grant applications. However, I am conscious of the problems caused by the delays in paying grant which have been mentioned in the Chamber—for example, by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), on at least two occasions. Farmers have expressed concern. I appreciate that cash flow problems must have caused considerable inconvenience.

There was an upsurge in applications, largely because various items were being deleted from the list of work eligible for grant under the grasslands scheme and because grant would be no longer available under the agricultural development programme for the initial application of lime and fertiliser.

I have examined the situation carefully. In the period 1 April to 30 September, about 22 per cent. more applications were made for grant. That by itself does not seem significant, but when one breaks down the figures one finds that in August and September the application rate was nearly 60 per cent. higher. That, meeting the seasonal peak for other applications in respect of hill livestock compensatory amounts, calf premiums and sheep scheme payments, put a considerable strain on the Department.

Extra staff were taken on, but they had to be trained. In the training period output fell. Overtime was worked in 1982, so the introduction of overtime in the autumn and winter of 1983 did not make for a relative improvement on the previous year. The decision to take on extra staff was justified.

The delay was about 25 or 26 weeks, but it is now down to 18 to 20 weeks. Given no unforeseen circumstances, we expect to be back to normal by the end of May. That will be a consolation to the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

I think that I have answered the hon. Gentleman's questions satisfactorily. They are important. We shall examine further the 100 per cent. inspections and if we make any changes we shall announce them in the appropriate way.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Eleven o' clock.