§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]10.12 pm
§ Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)
It is unusual for me raise a constituency case on the Floor of the House. Such matters are best sorted out in correspondence or by negotiations between the parties. It is only when other methods have apparently been exhausted that I take the step of carrying the matter forward in an Adjournment debate. This is such a case. Initially, it was taken up by the National Farmers Union in a number of approaches to local officers of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. When that brought no results, not surprisingly, my constituent approached me to see whether I could assist him.
The case put to me and the refusal of MAFF to do anything to rectify a matter arising from the error incensed me because I thought that an injustice had been suffered by my constituent. Having corresponded with the Ministry, which, after further officials had been to see my constituent, culminated in two letters from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I am left with no course other than to bring the matter before the House.
Mr. E. J. Purchase farms at Woodhead farm, Branscombe. Anyone who knows this part of Devon will understand how difficult it is to work the land, with the combes and the valleys of a very hilly countryside. Thus, to begin with, Mr. Purchase's efforts are worthy of all support. He and his father before him have had a suckler herd of more than 50 cows on his farm since 1953.
Over the past few years Mr. Purchase has submitted his claim for the suckler cow premium. He has done so himself on the form provided by the Ministry. He understands the working of the system. From 1988 until 1992 the application had to be submitted by 31 January of the next year. To Mr. Purchase nothing seemed amiss. He received his form SCP 1 1991/92 at the end of September or the beginning of October. I have sent a copy to the Ministry. The form states clearly that the closing date for the receipt of the application is 31 January 1993. There is no doubt about it: it is in print.
Mr. Purchase did not know of a change that was known to MAFF before the form was sent out. MAFF had moved the goal posts. It had changed the date without altering the rule book or the form and, to make matters worse, without amending the explanatory notes. This is not in dispute, and I hope that the Minister will not attempt to dispute it. It is admitted by his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in a letter dated 10 February. The Ministry attached a corrigendum—a notice of alteration of date—not to the form SCP 1 but to the explanatory notes.
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State, for whom I have great respect, to accept that Mr. Purchase is as honest as the day is long. He tells me that he has never seen the corrigendum, nor does he recall having received the notes for guidance. However, being the sort of man that he is, he will not swear that they were not in the envelope. All he can say is that he has not seen them, and he thinks it very possible that he received none of them. He holds that he had no knowledge of the change of date.
I want to put a simple question to the Minister. This man has normally submitted a request for premium payment. He did not have to look at the notes at this occasion as he had done the same thing for years and years. The money is 786 important to him. The previous year the figure was more than £2,500, and, at a rate of more than £59 per suckling cow, the amount in question would have been about £2,900. If Mr. Purchase had known about the altered date, would not he have ensured that his form was submitted in time? As the money is important, of course he would. Would a sensible farmer knowingly flout the due date? Of course not. This is even more obvious from the fact that, without the suckler cow premium payment, Mr. Purchase would not receive the suckler cow premium quota allocation that is essential if he is to receive any premium payments in the future. This makes it even more important that he meet the Ministry's requirements.
It has been suggested to me in letters from the Ministry that my constituent might apply under the suckler cow premium quota scheme for the allocation of quota. But this is no answer; nor would it provide any assurance that he would obtain the level of quota to which he would have been entitled if he had submitted the forms and they had been accepted.
Lastly, I must point out to my hon. Friend that I am not suggesting that we should set an entirely new precedent. It is no use him saying that the EC regulations do not really allow us to alter the dates, because he has done so, and so has the Ministry.
In Wessex and the North-East region, late applications from farmers were honoured because the Minister accepted that the corrigendum "was not clearly visible": that is an exact quotation from a letter from her on 10 February. It was not visible to Mr. Purchase; he did not see it, he did not know it and, what is more, MAFF cannot swear either that the explanatory notes were sent to Mr. Purchase in the envelope—they might well have been left out—or, if they were, it cannot say absolutely that the corrigendum might not accidentally have been knocked off before the rules were dispatched.
In those circumstances, only two facts are absolute, and they are quite clear. Mr. Purchase submitted the claim form meeting absolutely the date for receipt of that form on the form itself. In a court of law there would be no doubt that he would have won from there onwards.
I believe—and I must ask the House to believe—that Mr. Purchase has never seen the corrigendum. That the alteration was mentioned in the farming press is surely no defence for the Government. I read the farming press fairly regularly, and I did not realise that the dates for submission of claims had been altered, and, if I did not, I do not see why my constituent necessarily should have done.
The conclusion is that Mr. Purchase is suffering an injustice. The Government cannot be in the right and therefore, whether by an ad hoc payment or by whatever means the Government wish to make or take, Mr. Purchase must have his position restored. He must be paid his premium; he must have his suckler cow quota granted as of right rather than by the premium quota scheme unless the Minister will guarantee that the premium quota allocation for which Mr. Purchase has applied, as he is a sensible man, is at the level for which he should have qualified.
I cannot believe that my Government and the Minister can do other than correct the matter.It would be indeed scandalous not to do so.I have confidence in the fairness of my hon.Friend and that he will ensure that this quite obvious injustice is rectified.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
With the consent of the right hon.Member for Honiton (Sir P.Emery), I intervene briefly to support his case, not just on behalf of his constituent, but, as I understand it, on behalf of a number of similar cases.They may not be precisely identical, and perhaps the Minister will tell us whether there are a number of cases that precisely equate to the case that the right hon. Gentleman has brought before the House.
There is an important point of principle here. There have been far too many cases in recent months and years of comparatively small administrative changes or inaccuracies by the Ministry which have resulted in major financial disadvantage to the farming community because there were changes of dates, changes of circumstances, changes in criteria or changes in the rules.
It seems that nobody in the Ministry is prepared or permitted to use their discretion or their common sense. That would appear to be the case even at the top of the Department with the Minister herself. Nobody seems to be in a position to take the benefit of the doubt and apply it to the constituent, the individual farmer. That seems to be a wholly regrettable situation that does no credit to the administration of complex procedures. I hope that the Minister of State will be able to explain whether that is because of some internal Ministry regulation, rule of conduct or decision, or whether it is because of some regulation imposed from Brussels by the European Union.
There seems to be a strong case for some form of tribunal, some appeal procedure, or some arrangement by which the Minister can act as arbiter when it is a question of giving the benefit of the doubt. If that system is not in place already—I hope that there is some such system—I am convinced that it will be necessary in the next few weeks if, as seems only too likely, the discrepancies, mistakes and alterations made by the Ministry on its integrated administration and control system documentation cause a great many other forms to arrive late and major financial disadvantage to farmers as a result.
I warmly support the initiative of the right hon. Member for Honiton. I believe that, not just in the south-west of Britain, but in other parts of the country, there will be similar concerns. I hope that the Minister will be able to meet them this evening.
§ The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Michael Jack)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) on obtaining this Adjournment debate. I wish to place on record my sincere appreciation his great kindness in giving me notice of the subjects that he wanted to cover. It has enabled me to target my investigations precisely on the matter that he has rightly drawn to the attention of the House this evening.
At the beginning of the debate I was pleased to seethe hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) in his place as I thought that he was at least showing an interest in west country farming matters. I was less pleased when I heard what he had to say. It would do him no harm to look at some of the reasons why Community-based schemes are tightly drawn. They are fashioned in that mode to avoid fraud. I am sure that, as someone who supports and takes a keen interest in European matters, he will understand that 788 under such circumstances the element of discretion in schemes inevitably has to be limited. If it were not, we, the Community, and everyone else could rightly be criticised for being unable to account for what are, in sum, large amounts of money.
The hon. Gentleman was less than charitable in some of his comments about the way in which the schemes are administered by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and its regional offices. The majority of forms are filled in correctly by farmers and processed correctly, as we shall see in relation to the integrated administration and control system.
I wish to turn to the substance of the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton. He has drawn our attention to the great importance that his constituent, Mr. Purchase, attaches to the matter. Suckler cow premium payments are important and I take careful note of my right hon. Friend's points on finance and Mr. Purchase's future entitlement to quota. I shall return to that issue at the conclusion of my remarks.
My right hon. Friend has already described the background to the case. At the heart of it was the question whether his constituent, Mr. Purchase, was notified of the change in the closing date of the 1992 suckler cow premium scheme. One of the many changes to the suckler cow scheme resulting from common agricultural policy reform was that the closing date of the scheme had to be in the calendar year when applications were made, so we brought forward the closing date of the 1992 scheme from 31 January 1993 to 15 December 1992.
In order to leave farmers in no doubt about that change, we prepared a corrigendum slip to be attached to and sent out with the Ministry's claim forms and explanatory notes for the 1992 scheme. We used a corrigendum to avoid any delays to the opening of the scheme in 1992. There would have been delays if the forms had been reprinted. The corrigendum alerted potential claimants to the fact that the closing date was now 15 December 1992, not 31 January 1993. In the south-west region, the corrigendum was stapled to the front of the explanatory notes dispatched by my Department. It was a brightly coloured, A4-sized piece of paper that looked something like the document that I have in my hand.
The explanatory notes, with corrigendum and claim form, were dispatched to all producers with an interest. The mailing list for the notes and forms was based on our computer records. I have verified with our regional director, who was in my office this afternoon, that that list would have included those farmers who, like Mr. Purchase, had previously claimed suckler cow premium. The literature was dispatched in June or at the latest early July —not September, as my right hon. Friend mentioned.
As well as issuing the corrigendum, the Ministry put out press notices during 1992 giving the new closing date. They were issued at both national and regional level. The new closing date was reported in the farming press. It was also—I should like to draw my right hon. Friend's attention to this—reported in the "NFU Journal" for its members in Devon and Cornwall, of which Mr. Purchase is one.
I should make it clear that we understand how important it is for farmers to be aware of closing dates. We also endeavour to send claim forms and explanatory leaflets to those who claimed under a particular scheme the year 789 before. But at the end of the day it is up to farmers to decide whether they qualify for subsidies, and to send us correctly completed claim forms before the closing date.
In their remarks, my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North Cornwall mentioned flexibility. I am afraid that the rules on closing dates form part of the European Community legislation on the suckler cow scheme and others. It means that we have little discretion to accept claims that are late. There are some cases from 1992, however, on which, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, we have been able to exercise that discretion, after the agreement of the European Commission. Those cases were in two of MAFF's nine regions, Wessex and the north-east, and in Northern Ireland.
There, in contrast to the position in the south-west region and to the case of my right hon. Friend's constituent, the corrigendum was put inside the literature rather than stapled to the front. Some farmers in those areas appear to have put the document aside on the basis that there was no indication on the front of the literature that the date had changed. But I reiterate that the farmers in those regions were in quite a different position from those in the south-west, such as Mr. Purchase.
As my right hon. Friend said, Mr. Purchase handed in his 1992 claim form at the Ministry's Exeter regional service centre in early January 1993. Although that was before the original closing date of 31 January 1993, it was well after the revised closing date of 15 December 1992. It was also after the final date of 31 December 1992, beyond which claims could not be accepted at all, even for payment at a reduced rate. My right hon. Friend wrote to my right hon. Friend the Minister about Mr. Purchase's case in January 1994.
In that letter, to which my right hon. Friend adverted, my right hon. Friend the Minister summarised the course of events, which have been described to us this evening. My right hon. Friend described how Mr. Purchase's claim was rejected. My right hon. Friend also recorded that Mr. Purchase had said that he had never had any indication that the closing date had been altered. That was obviously a serious matter into which we needed to look carefully. My right hon. Friend the Minister asked the Ministry's regional director in the south-west to get in touch with Mr. Purchase urgently and to report back to her.
The regional director, Mr. Highman, and Mr. Purchase met on 15 February 1994. Mr. Highman reported back on the same day. It is not my normal practice to publish internal Ministry minutes, but because I think that it would be helpful to the House, I shall read relevant sections of Mr. Highman's minute of his meeting with Mr. Purchase.
Much of the conversation centred on establishing whether Mr. Purchase was able to produce his explanatory notes, which, had they not had the corrigendum attached, would have been without staple holes. After the debate, I will send my right hon. Friend a full copy of the document so that in no way can he think that I am quoting selectively. It says:Mr. Purchase told me that when his 1992 suckler cow literature arrived he simply looked at the claim form, registered that, as in previous years, a 31 January deadline applied and then put the claim form away for future action during the second half of January. Subsequently, he visited his cousins who farm in north Devon and was told that the deadline had been changed. He promptly got in touch with my RSC and submitted his late claim on 11 January 1993. Later in the year he read about the concession that had been granted to those who had submitted late claims in the Bristol and Northallerton areas and so naturally 790 assumed that the same concession would apply in his case. He was therefore dismayed when our rejection letter of 12 July arrived.I pressed Mr. Purchase to produce his copy of the 1992 explanatory notes or to explain what had happened to it. He could not produce the form and freely admitted that he could not recall seeing it. He told me that the suckler cow premium literature would have arrived at a time when he was having his house re-roofed. Accordingly, all his papers were boxed and put away during this period. Apart from firmly registering the suckler cow premium deadline and placing the claim form in his diary at an appropriate point for future action, he could not recall seeing any other documentation. Accordingly, when he was subsequently told of the change in date he was unable to find the explanatory notes and cannot therefore prove his case one way or the other.
§ Sir Peter Emery
My hon. Friend cannot prove that the notes were delivered. My constituent cannot prove that he did not throw them away with the envelope, but I do not think that the Government can prove that they were necessarily in the envelope. That is the difference: if they were not in the envelope, the date applies.
§ Mr. Jack
I shall try to deal with that point as I continue my speech, but I have checked with our regional director the precise process that had been involved in producing the batch of forms, together with the corrigendum. I am assured by the regional director that that was done in a batch operation, and that—as far as can be said—all forms went out with the corrigendum attached to them. That is why I attach particular importance to the location of the explanatory notes: clearly, if they were found without holes in them there would be a case. I shall come to that in a moment.
The minute concludes:
In the end I told Mr. Purchase that in the absence of the explanatory notes and given his honest admission that he may or may not have seen them, it would be difficult for the Minister to exercise discretion in his favour. We talked for a little longer and he clearly indicated that, given that over the years he had always conscientiously claimed for 50 or so suckler cows and was not therefore a 'Johnny-come-lately', he could not help but think that it would be harsh if MAFF could not be lenient in his favour. In a similar vein he argued that since so many others had been given the benefit of the doubt when they had said that they had not seen the corrigendum, he too should be believed when he said he had not seen it.It seems to me that we will never be able to prove one way or the other whether or not Mr. Purchase ever received the explanatory notes with or without our corrigendum slip attached. To be fair he has not tried to suggest that we were at fault in this respect and accepts that whilst it is possible that we failed to send the notes or forgot to add the corrigendum slip, it is equally just as possible that, to use his own words, 'I might not have bothered to look further than the claim form which showed the date of 31 January which I expected to see. I suppose it could be a case of familiarity breeds contempt.'I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees that that quotation paints a picture of an honest man appealing to our better nature, but acknowledging that that there could have been error on both sides, including his. As I have said, I spoke to the regional director today; I am content that his report gives an accurate version of the interview.
The problem is that we have insufficient evidence to show that Mr. Purchase did not receive the corrigendum. We have actively sought such evidence from him: if, for example, he were able to produce a copy of his explanatory notes and there were no staple holes indicating that a corrigendum had been attached—as I told my right hon. Friend a moment ago—we would pay him. But, in his interview with the regional director, Mr. Purchase suggested that he might have received the corrigendum and 791 not taken any notice of it. In the light of that information, my right hon. Friend the Minister felt unable to reverse the earlier decision not to pay Mr. Purchase.
I appreciate that this may not be the answer that my right hon. Friend would prefer, but I should make it clear that if he or his constituent has any new evidence to offer my Department will be delighted to look at it. I should add that, after my right hon. Friend and his constituent have had an opportunity to reflect on what I have said tonight, I should like to invite him to a meeting with me—and with senior MAFF officials—to discuss the matter further. That is an open invitation.
I want to end on an optimistic note. My right hon. Friend himself mentioned that 1992 was also the reference year for suckler cow premium quotas. Because Mr. Purchase did not submit a valid 1992 claim, he did not receive an allocation when quotas were made last autumn. However, Mr. Purchase has applied to the national reserve for quota. Allocations from the reserve have not yet been finalised, but I am glad to say both that Mr. Purchase appears to be eligible and that there appears to be enough quota in the reserve for the category under which he applied. That means that, although my right hon. Friend's constituent will not have received the suckler cow premium for 1992, he should be able to receive it for 1993 and future years, up to the limit of his quota allocation.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising the case and to the hon. Members for North Cornwall and for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones), and to my hon. Friends the Members for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) and for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) for joining us in the Chamber tonight. It is always important that individual cases be examined in detail. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider kindly my remarks and will accept the invitation that I extended to him.
§ Mr. Jack
If I am wrong, I will correct the Official Report, but to the best of my memory, in the two MAFF areas that I mentioned some 16,000 cases were amended, where a clear error on our part was observed and we sought to put it right straight away. In the south-west, there may have been five or six other cases where there was doubt. My remarks this evening focused entirely on a particular case.
When one considers the total number of applications, by far the greatest proportion are handled without any problems. In this case, many thousands of farmers were able to complete the form perfectly adequately and without any difficulty.
By that magic process of osmosis that occasionally affects Ministers at the Dispatch Box, I can say that the number of cases in which there was a problem was not as large as I said. In fact, there were some 500 cases. If there is any doubt, I shall write to the hon. Member for North Cornwall to clarify precisely the numbers involved.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. Of course I accept his invitation. I thank him for meeting at least half my claim, but I shall return to say that the Government owe my constituent £2,900, and I shall fight like blazes to make certain that he gets that money.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.