HC Deb 24 June 2004 vol 422 cc1438-40
5. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con)

What assessment she has made of the amount of administration and form-filling that will be involved in ensuring compliance with the single farm payment. [180208]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett)

Common agricultural policy reform will bring significant benefits for our agriculture industry. It will introduce a new freedom to farm and will release our producers from a significant burden of bureaucracy associated with the old CAP.

Mr. Robathan

I hope that that is right. I must declare that I am a farmer, and that I consider myself to be relatively—I stress "relatively"—well educated and intelligent, but filling in the integrated administration and control scheme form is one of the most mind-numbingly complex things that I do each year. The Secretary of State should spend an hour trying to fill in that form, which is extraordinary.

Although I broadly welcome the single farm payment—I would welcome the scrapping of the CAP even more—farmers throughout the country are concerned that it will impose heavier burdens, particularly with regard to soil management plans and the like. Can the Secretary of State reassure farmers that the bureaucratic burden and the cost of compliance will not be heavier than under the CAP, which involves filling in a ludicrous number of forms?

Margaret Beckett

I assure the hon. Gentleman that nobody will be more disappointed than Labour Members and me if CAP reform does not result in substantially greater simplicity. At least two of the 10 schemes that are being replaced involved up to 12 claims a year. Although the complexity is greater than if we went straight to the new scheme, the transition period is unfortunate but inevitable. In the long term, it is better to provide an adjustment period, and the new scheme, which involves one form, one payment date and one application, should make a huge difference.

Diana Organ (Forest of Dean) (Lab)

The overwhelming majority of farmers recognise that administration and form-filling are necessary to avoid fraud, to create a healthy and safe environment and to allow the meat that we eat to be traced. Although farmers endeavour to fill in forms promptly and correctly, they may be overwhelmed by farm tasks during busy periods. That happened to a farmer in my constituency, Mike Manning, who forgot to register a couple of his calves because he was silaging. The British Cattle Movement Service helpline informed him that he could register his animals by phone or fax. That was new to him and to many other farmers in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that farmers are made aware of the facility whereby they can register their animals not only on the website but by phone and fax—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the Secretary of State understands the case.

Margaret Beckett

I take my hon. Friend's point entirely. I am sorry to learn that her constituent was not aware that we are trying to make it easier for people to meet the requirements. I share her view that it is important to make farmers aware of that, especially as we can move increasingly towards easier methods of access to schemes. The introduction of the new scheme will give us a good opportunity to do that.

We hope that, in future, the Rural Payments Agency can build up a bank of information. That ties in with my hon. Friend's question and that of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). It will mean that only changes need to be notified, which will be an enormous help.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)

The right hon. Lady will appreciate that, before the single farm payment can take effect, it will be necessary to define precisely where the moorland line lies. Does she also appreciate that farmers want to know what machinery will be set up to adjudicate that, who will man it and the sort of information that has to be supplied? Clearly, there is great uncertainty and farmers are anxious to be able to see their way forward as soon as possible.

Margaret Beckett

I entirely appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's point. He knows that we are conscious of the fact that, when the moorland line was established, no specific payment was associated with it because there was no perceived need at the time and there was therefore no appeal mechanism for individual decisions. We are now considering as a matter of urgency what process we can introduce to ensure that people have the opportunity to make representations about exactly where the moorland line should run. I hope that we can make an announcement about that in the not-too-distant future, because I share the right hon. Gentleman's view that it is important that farmers know where they stand.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

Although I am reasured by the Secretary of State's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), does she share my concern and that of many of my marginal land farmers and hill farmers and members of the Peak park authority that there may be far fewer farmers to fill in the forms under the single farm payment scheme? That is damaging to those who farm on our marginal land.

Margaret Beckett

I am not sure what leads the hon. Gentleman to that conclusion, but there will inevitably be losers as well as winners. That applies to every change that is introduced. However, breaking the link between production and subsidy will generally benefit farming and allow for economic improvement. People must make the decisions that are right for the future of their businesses, but they will have considerable stability from knowing what they will receive for some eight years. People in many other industries would welcome such a business-planning horizon.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con)

Does the Secretary of State know that the proposal to require a 2 m uncultivated buffer strip as one of the cross-compliance measures to obtain a single farm payment may cost many farmers up to thousands of pounds? How do the Government justify the fact that the farmers who have done most for the environment by creating hedgerows and habitat will be worst affected by that proposal?

Margaret Beckett

We have only just reached the closing date for the consultation process on cross-compliance. The idea of a 2 m strip was raised during it. Although some people expressed great concern, others take a different view—either that the proposal is welcome or that it does not present great difficulty. We shall study all those responses with great care before we reach our decisions.