HL Deb 30 October 2002 vol 640 cc191-3

2.41 p.m

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the name standing on my Order Paper. I am so sorry, my Lords. I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

Whether extra staff or funding have been allocated to the Rural Payments Agency.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, I think that the Animal Health Bill is getting to all of us.

This is the first full financial year of the Rural Payments Agency's operations. The agency is part way through a major rationalisation programme that will in the longer term result in staff reductions. However, to deal with immediate pressures, there will be a short-term increase in temporary staff, taking total numbers from 3,161 last year to 3,314 this year. Consequently, the administration budget will rise from £108 million to £111 million.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. My confusion was because I want to take the opportunity on behalf of all those on these Benches to pay tribute to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. I do so not only for what he has done within the Chamber—his contributions have always been welcome—but for the wider world outside. Someone was muttering at me and I was caught slightly adrift.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. Does he agree that it is unacceptable that his department is still making late payments? Will he confirm that the department pays interest on the late payments and tell us what that cost has been during the past year?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the department and the agency clearly regret late payments. Some compensation will be paid in respect of those late payments which relate to problems caused by the RPA or by the cattle tracing system. However, as regards last year's late payments which resulted from industrial action, it is not the Government's habit to pay compensation for delays caused by such events outside their control. Therefore, no interest payments will be made on those schemes, which were mainly arable.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, how many beef producers have not yet been paid their beef special premiums when the deadline for payment was 30th June 2002? Will the Minister confirm that many delays have been caused by technical difficulties and procedures of the offices of the British Cattle Movement Service and say what he is going to do about it?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we are talking about EU money and RPA payouts which amount to nearly £3 billion. In relation to the bovine scheme, it is a requirement of the Commission that we cross-check against our tracing system. That has led to queries on almost 20 per cent of all claims and as a result there has been some delay in payment.

In respect of the bovine payments, 95 per cent have now been paid. Of the cases we have examined, 72 per cent are without a problem. We have looked at the records of 12 per cent and they have been corrected. Seven per cent have rightly been rejected, and some 9 per cent are outstanding. However, the number of cases that can be attributed to some fault or inaccuracy of the RPA or the cattle tracing system is less than 0.1 per cent. In other words, cases involving about 200 animals in the whole system can be put down to internal errors. The remainder have been due to failure to notify or lack of clarity in the notification. Although there is a problem—we acknowledge that and will pay compensation where it is our fault—it amounts to a small proportion of the total.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, has there ever been a costing of preparing and sending out each cheque to farmers? I ask that question because recently my husband received about five cheques for less than £2 each, all for the same thing. It must cost at least that amount to send them out. Would it not be a good idea if someone considered each case and said, "Look, we can write out one cheque instead of all these little cheques"? It all happened within a period of about 10 days.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I agree that some rationalisation of the system is desirable. That is one of the matters being addressed by the RPA in examining its systems. On the other hand, each payment must comply with the rules and be made in a form that can be audited. In the new system, which will not be introduced until the end of 2004, we need to combine the ability to audit each claim with a more user-friendly way of delivering the money and requiring the documentation.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, how many payments remain outstanding following the foot and mouth outbreak?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not sure that I can answer that question as it is presented. I have already said that 5 per cent of the bovine payments are still outstanding. The vast majority of those relating to foot and mouth have been paid, except those that are disputed. There are still some disputes outstanding, but in respect of the bovine scheme, which is the main concern, 5 per cent remain outstanding.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, how much money is involved?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the total pay-out of the RPA is £2.9 billion. I shall write to the noble Baroness, but I can say that the bovine payments are a substantial part of that amount. As I said, 95 per cent of those have been met for the past financial year. In terms of the breakdown of the scheme, it may be sensible if I write to the noble Baronesses, Lady Byford and Lady Sharples.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, how many cases have been held up because of fraud?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not have those figures. Every case in which fraud is suspected is investigated in detail. The level of fraud is low. However, it is a continuing problem and perhaps one of the reasons for the bureaucracy and the complicated nature of the documentation in the first place.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether the cheques for under £2 paid to the noble Countess were for an animal?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that is a question best addressed to the noble Countess. I would not wish to intervene between her and her spouse's relations with the RPA. I suspect so, but the noble Earl should ask her.