HC Deb 19 February 1997 vol 290 cc899-904 1.30 pm
Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter in the House. I thank the Minister, the right hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler), for attending the debate to respond on behalf of his ministerial colleague Baroness Denton, who is in charge of the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland.

The farm and countryside enhancement scheme is the most bizarre scheme that I have ever seen coming out of any Department in Northern Ireland. Its acronym is FACES; its result is bound to be red faces in the Department of Agriculture. The purpose of the scheme was to grant-aid for certain environmental improvements in the rural countryside of Northern Ireland, and, according to the press release, it provides an excellent opportunity for the farming community to contribute to the development of rural tourism, protect wildlife and preserve the Province's heritage. The scheme is most unusual, because it was announced by press release on Monday 27 January and closed by press release at 5 pm on Thursday 30 January. The notice of closure appeared on the Friday, so the scheme commenced on 28 January, was ended by press release two days later, and lasted for three working days.

Advertisements inviting applications for the scheme first appeared on 1 February, two days after the scheme had closed. During the period, some of the agricultural offices throughout the six counties that open on a temporary or part-time basis were closed. Applications had to be made to the Department of Agriculture in Deny, so they could not possibly have arrived before the scheme was closed. There must have been an enormous courier service running from various parts of the north to the offices in Derry.

More strange and fundamental is the fact that qualification for this agricultural scheme is based on the incidence of terrorism. What that has to do with agricultural and environmental improvement must be beyond the ken of any sane man or woman.

Under the scheme, according to the press release, assistance would be provided in District Council areas which have suffered most from terrorist violence to encourage the adoption of environmentally sensitive countryside management and thereby maintain, improve and protect the landscape and habitat of the countryside. Does that mean that, if one area has suffered more terrorist activity than its neighbour it can benefit from the agricultural grant scheme, but areas that have suffered less are cut out? Are we saying that communities that have striven over the past 25 years to keep terrorism at bay, keep the paramilitaries out of their communities and encourage good community relationships, should be penalised and completely excluded from the scheme? I do not think that there is any logic in that.

Funding for the scheme, which is not huge—I think that it is about £4.5 million—comes from the peace and reconciliation fund. I must ask once again whether landscape enhancement improves community relations. Does the improvement of wildlife habitats enhance community relations? I suppose that that depends on one's interpretation of wildlife in Northern Ireland. Does the improvement of water quality enhance reconciliation and peace in Northern Ireland?

The scheme is a ludicrous one of the first order. It includes such things as the preservation of traditional gates in fields and the thatching of houses, yet there are very few thatched houses in Northern Ireland. Such is the predication on which the scheme has been built.

Twelve of the 26 district councils have been totally excluded from the scheme. Is not that in itself an in-built injustice? They are excluded because they have not suffered sufficient terrorist incidents. Is not that a crazy basis on which to allocate public grant aid? How does one measure the incidence of terrorism? I do not want to enter a sickening argument, but I must ask whether one death in one district is equated with 10 knee-cappings in another, or found to be less worthy under the scheme? Getting into such areas is very peculiar.

My constituency is partly in and partly out of the scheme, but I hope that I am talking for the entire rural community in Northern Ireland that has been excluded by the manner and basis of the scheme. My home district of Down has suffered some of the greatest tragedies and massacres during the terrorism of the past 25 years, yet it has striven mightily against retaliation to retain good community relations, which is acknowledged. What is its reward? Exclusion from the scheme. There is no real justification for that.

The city of Belfast is included in this rural environmental improvement scheme, yet there is perhaps one farm in the entire environs of Belfast district council. There is, of course, a high incidence of terrorism. Is that a qualification for the improvement of ditches, water supplies and agricultural heritage in Belfast? Why does Belfast qualify but not other areas such as the conurbation of Craigavon and the extended urban sprawl of Lisburn, even though they include rural communities that can benefit? It is nonsense. I hope that the Minister will take cognisance of the facts.

I should like to prove my point. Many of the areas of highest deprivation are in the areas to which I have referred. The farmers who reside in some of the electoral wards of Down, such as Tollymore, are considered eligible for help under other schemes and are considered to have the highest level of deprivation.

No cognisance has been taken of the Robson statistics, which highlight the multiple nature of deprivation, and in every other respect are used as a basis on which to go forward by the peace and reconciliation fund—the very fund supplying grant aid under the rural scheme. The parts under both the old and new less-favoured areas qualify on the basis of special need, yet they are specifically excluded from the rural scheme.

I am asking the Minister to consider seriously the flaw in the decision on how the scheme should be administered, and the grave injustice that occurred as a consequence of the time frame. It is remarkable that 2,532 applications were made within that time frame, which was published on 28 January and closed at 5 pm two days later. I subscribe to the argument current in Northern Ireland that details were leaked before the announcement, and that certain people were made cognisant of what was going to happen. They took advantage of that, which meant that other applicants did not have a level playing field.

It is obscene to use terrorism statistics as a basis for making an agricultural grant. I can think of no argument to justify that. It is also wrong and unjust that many areas are excluded from the scheme on that basis. That wrong is compounded by the manner in which the advertisements were made and withdrawn. The notice stating the closing date could not have been published until the next day. That administrative nightmare has caused grave injustices.

I have tried to address the issues honestly. My office and many others have been inundated with complaints about the injustice of what has happened under the scheme—the basis on which it was predicated, the manner in which it was administered, and the suggestion, believed by many, that there was foul play in that administration. That is why I call it the red faces scheme.

I ask the Minister to take on board five points to address to the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland. First, an inquiry is needed into the administration of the scheme. I am not looking for a full-blown judicial public inquiry, but the issue needs to be addressed seriously. Secondly, the late applicants should be admitted. Even with the 5 pm deadline on 30 January not notified, a further 1,612 applications were made that will not be considered. Thirdly, funding should be found in the near future to reopen the scheme, so as to address the injustice perpetrated on those who were given no information about the scheme and were not able to apply.

Fourthly, the basis on which the grant aid scheme for rural improvement is made should be amended sensibly. There can be no logic in basing it on terrorism. That is an obscene concept, which should never have been brought in. Fifthly, when the inquiry takes place, and if the scheme can be reopened, proper notice and advice should be given to all farmers in Northern Ireland, so that they have a reasonable opportunity to make a submission. They know that their success depends their submission and the funds available, but there should be an even playing field for every small farmer.

1.43 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Sir John Wheeler)

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) on securing this debate and on the manner in which he has presented this important subject. I notice that the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) is also in his place, and is taking an interest.

Before going into the details, I shall touch on the five points that the hon. Gentleman raised. He asked for an inquiry into the way in which the scheme was devised and set up. As he understands, that is a matter for my noble Friend, Baroness Denton of Wakefield. I shall certainly draw his remarks to her attention. The need for an inquiry depends on how the scheme was set up, which I shall deal with in a moment.

The hon. Gentleman also suggests the admission of late applicants. One of the difficulties, to which he has already alluded, is the fact that the scheme is inevitably limited by the amount of cash available. I am sure that he will wish to consider that. He suggests finding other sources of funding. Drawing an extra pound from me, as the Minister responsible for finance, is, alas, very difficult. Whether my noble Friend is able to find extra capacity in her tight budget is a matter for her. The hon. Gentleman also asked for proper advice and other matters to be considered.

To help the hon. Gentleman, I shall deal with some of the details of the scheme. The farm and countryside enhancement scheme was formulated by the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland as part of its portfolio of schemes under the European Union special support programme for peace and reconciliation. That programme was designed to help the areas of Northern Ireland that had suffered most from violence over the previous 25 years.

Herein lies the difficulty, which I think the hon. Gentleman will readily comprehend. He reproved the Government for the test of violence. It is not within the gift of the United Kingdom Government to change that requirement, because the scheme was devised under the European Union peace and reconciliation programme, which specifically targeted those areas that had suffered most from violence. That is a requirement of the peace scheme. The Government's hands are therefore tied: any scheme devised under that programme had to be targeted to meet that requirement.

The farm and countryside enhancement scheme was targeted on the basis of a unique violence indicator, which combined Royal Ulster Constabulary regional statistics on violence with a deprivation index. That was possible on a district council level, and, as a result, 14 district council areas became eligible for the scheme.

It is acknowledged that other district council areas, and areas within other district councils, have also suffered from violence. However, the programme has a specific targeting requirement, and it was not possible to open the scheme to the whole of Northern Ireland. The scheme is additional to the range of grants and subsidies available throughout Northern Ireland through a number of national and European funded programmes to support the farming community.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that the scheme is known as FACES, although my face is not particularly red as I account for it. It provides financial incentives and training for farmers in countryside management, and has the overall objective of enhancing rural tourism through environmental improvement. Eligible farmers will be involved in landscape enhancement, protection and restoration of heritage features, water quality improvements, innovative agri-improvement projects and a rural training programme. Department of Agriculture officials will carry out a farm audit for each applicant and agree a plan of action. The financial incentives are attractive, at 60 to 80 per cent. grant rate, but considerable commitment is required from participating farmers in their role as custodians of the rural environment.

The hon. Member for South Down mentioned the publicity for the scheme, and its early closure. The scheme was opened on 27 January with a press release from my noble Friend Baroness Denton of Wakefield, who is Minister of Agriculture in Northern Ireland. The announcement followed a long period of scheme development, during which farming and environmental interest groups were extensively consulted. That consultation may have given rise to the rumour mill that gave advance notice of the scheme, but the views and many of the ideas put forward by those groups were included in the formulation of the scheme.

As the hon. Gentleman told the House, the scheme was announced by the normal press release, which was followed by radio and television coverage on 28 and 29 January. Staff in the Department of Agriculture at all six county agricultural offices received 184 applications on 28 January, 897 on 29 January, and 1,451 on 30 January, giving a total of 2,532.

By 30 January, it was clear that the volume of applications could easily exhaust the available budget of £4.25 million. It was, unfortunately, necessary to close the scheme immediately and without notice. Any time extension would have created insurmountable financial difficulty for administration of the scheme, because it was limited by the amount of money that was available.

Some 740 further applications were received and date-stamped on 31 January, but it was made clear to applicants that the scheme had been closed. Given that 2,532 applications have already been received, it is highly unlikely that any of the 740 can be considered for assistance. I appreciate that many people will be disappointed that they have not been able to take advantage of the scheme. With a finite budget, that was unavoidable.

I assure the hon. Member that all applications will be carefully scrutinised by Department of Agriculture officials to ensure their authenticity and eligibility, and to ensure that there is no duplication with other schemes. Only plans that make a tangible contribution to the aims of the scheme, and which are completed satisfactorily, will be approved and funded by the scheme. The scheme will be closely and continuously monitored and evaluated.

While I acknowledge the disappointment felt by some, I am pleased by the uptake, and I look forward to seeing the results of the scheme for one of Northern Ireland's greatest assets—its rural environment.

Mr. McGrady

I appreciate that the Minister is trying to be helpful, but he has not addressed the injustice created by the situation. The scheme is predicated on terrorism. If that is the only criterion for the allocation of the resources for peace and reconciliation, the 12 additional district councils cannot qualify for that funding. The announcement was made on 28 January and the scheme closed on 30 January, and it was promoted by a lovely, glossy magazine. Within that time scale, how could that magazine be distributed and understood, and how could applications be made? Is the magazine now just waste paper? Who received it, and when?

Sir John Wheeler

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his further points. Extensive consultation about the nature of the scheme was carried out by the Department of Agriculture, but he has rightly identified some of the shortcomings of the scheme. He also mentioned the leaflet that has been printed, published and distributed.

The hon. Gentleman called for an inquiry into the scheme. I undertake to draw his remarks to the attention of my noble Friend Baroness Denton, and I will seek to ensure that she inquires into the matter carefully.

The scheme was limited by cash, and it is always difficult to administer such schemes. There have to be some criteria that are understood publicly and to which people can respond with confidence. The Department of Agriculture, through its consultative arrangements, sought to achieve that, but the hon. Gentleman has a point about how the scheme was publicised by the press release and radio and television coverage.

I also understand the frustration that people felt when they realised that their applications would not be examined because they had not been made before the cut-off point. However, I cannot promise to reverse the scheme, because we have commitments to those who successfully applied.

I will invite my noble Friend Baroness Denton to consider the methodology used to set up the scheme and the lessons that can be learned to improve such schemes in the future. There may be implications for European peace and reconciliation funding which, by its nature, ties the hands of the United Kingdom Government. The Government are limited in their ability to spend that money, which originally came from the taxpayers of the United Kingdom, practically and sensibly for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland in the special circumstances they face.

I take the hon. Member's comments seriously. They were honourably meant, and clearly presented. I will ensure that the matter is pursued in the way I have described.

It being two minutes to Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.