HL Deb 05 May 1993 vol 545 cc704-6

3.1 p.m.

Lord Carter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will extend the closing date for the submission of application forms for the Integrated Administration and Control System (IACS) for claiming subsidy payments under the common agricultural policy.

Earl Howe

My Lords, the 15th May deadline for receipt of IACS application forms is laid down in the relevant EC Council regulation. The European Commission is not proposing an extension.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his Answer will be extremely disappointing to the great majority of British farmers who are struggling desperately to meet the 15th May deadline for submitting the IACS forms and maps at the busiest time in the farming year? Is he further aware that IACS was agreed under the UK presidency of the Community, so the Government cannot just attempt to blame the nonsense on the Commission?

Will the Minister confirm that there will be a proper system for dealing with genuine mistakes by farmers and by ministry officials and a proper appeals procedure, since the penalties for error are draconian? In view of the administrative shambles that has accompanied the introduction of IACS, does the Minister agree with the farmer who said last week that the Ministry of Agriculture's performance in this matter had made Group 4 look like the SAS?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the proposals on IACS were introduced under the Portuguese presidency. We took over that dossier, which was a complex one, and secured agreement to the new system at the Agriculture Council meeting in November.

With regard to genuine errors, I know that there has been considerable anxiety among farmers on this question. I should like to offer this measure of reassurance. Where there is a genuine error and the farmer notifies the ministry of it before the ministry spots it, there will normally be no difficulty at all in making the correction without penalty. The difficulty will arise when a discrepancy is discovered by the ministry. Some discrepancies may be immaterial to the payment of aid and we shall treat those sympathetically. However, in other cases it may well be hard to distinguish genuine errors from attempted fraud. In those instances we shall, I am afraid, have little option but to apply the EC rules.

Lord Stodart of Leaston

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the greatest difficulty which farmers experience lies in trying to get the right maps for their areas? Is it not a fact that there are two different scales of map? One is the 1:2,500 and the other the 1:10,000 (I am not sure what the 10,000s are). But on some of the really important maps information has been withdrawn. That information would give the area of the fields, the number of the fields and the numbers of the national grid, all of which are required. On the new maps the information is no longer available.

Earl Howe

My Lords, we recognise that in many areas of the country farmers will have problems over maps. That is why we have said to them that, when they submit their IACS application form, they should send a covering letter explaining why they have been unable to supply the accompanying map, where that is necessary.

Under the EC regulations information must be provided on the unique identification of each field, together with its area and its location. As my noble friend rightly said, that information is printed on the 1:2,500 maps. The farmer's application should include the area of each field and some means of identifying or cross-referencing that field to the form.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will the noble Earl confirm to the House that the forms are not only complex but lengthy, comprising 79 pages? Furthermore, is it not the case that they are accompanied by an explanatory memorandum which is also complicated? Is he aware that the forms have been late in arriving at the farms in my constituency—in what used to be my constituency—and generally in the area of Gwynedd in North-West Wales? The forms in Welsh are certainly not available. Will the Minister be good enough to confirm that and that the explanatory memorandum, which is difficult to follow, is also not available in Wales? It is an extremely serious matter in the area because the farmers have been accustomed to filling in these complicated forms in their own language. If the forms have not arrived in time, will he give the assurance now to me that the farmers will not be penalised?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I reassure the noble Lord that forms and explanatory booklets have been issued in Welsh. They were sent out after the English version, and I hope that he will find that that is the case in his former constituency. I recognise that these are new and in some cases complicated forms for farmers to have to tackle. Loading farmers with such documentation is not something on which the Government embark with any degree of pleasure. What we have tried to do is to make the task as easy as possible for farmers, given the constraints of the circumstances that we have. That is why we thought it right to issue what is an admittedly lengthy explanatory booklet but one which contains answers to most of the questions that farmers are likely to ask. The alternative would be to issue a short, sharp booklet which would have been much less helpful.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I assume that other countries are producing similar regulations and similar guidance. Will my noble friend make sure that the regulations and guidance produced by other countries are placed in the Library so that we may have a full opportunity of judging how they compare with ours in complexity, length and reasonableness?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I shall certainly do my best to ensure that all the application forms from our fellow member states are placed in the Library so that people may look at them. All member states are governed by exactly the same EC regulations on IACS. They are precisely drawn so that the same principles apply across the Community. If any member state does not implement the system in accordance with the regulations it stands to lose considerable sums in Community funding. My right honourable friend Mr. Gummer emphasised in Brussels the need for full and uniform implementation of IACS in all 12 member states. He has insisted that the European Commission should monitor implementation.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House how many forms are expected—in other words, how many farmers in Great Britain will return the forms? Considering that they have taken several days—indeed, weeks—to fill them in, will he tell us how his staff will check all the forms in detail and check the maps? How long will it take them, and how much will it cost?

Earl Howe

My Lords, we expect that between 120,000 and 130,000 forms will be returned to us by 15th May. We have adequate resources on the ground to check all those forms, and we do not anticipate any difficulty in processing them in time to make the payments later in the year.

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