Rural payments chief is axed

ENVIRONMENT Secretary Margaret Beckett yesterday promised “urgent action” to end the delay in support payments to England's farmers after announcing that the head of the agency responsible for the delay was to be replaced.

ENVIRONMENT Secretary Margaret Beckett yesterday promised “urgent action” to end the delay in support payments to England's farmers after announcing that the head of the agency responsible for the delay was to be replaced.

Johnston McNeill, chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency, paid the price for growing anger within the farming community at cash-flow problems resulting from their lengthy wait for payments - money which most other EU farmers have already received.

Ministers had said that the RPA would be able to make most of the new Single Farm Payments by the end of this month - but on Tuesday Mr McNeill finally conceded that this was impossible.

In a written statement yesterday, Mrs Beckett described this situation as “unacceptable” and said that “urgent action is needed to strengthen the leadership of the agency.”

Mr McNeill had been replaced by Mark Addison as acting chief executive, said Mrs Beckett, and he had been asked to report to by next Tuesday on “the immediate steps needed to get us back on track”.

In addition, she added, there were “structural issues” in the RPA. “I am therefore announcing today our decision to set up a fundamental review of the agency, to look at its current and possible future functions and the effectiveness of its relationship with my department and its other key stakeholders and to make recommendations for the future,” said Mrs Beckett.

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Her statement came a day after Tory agriculture spokesman James Paice confronted Tony Blair at Prime Minister's question time to highlight how many of the 120,000 claimants were still waiting for payments. Mr Paice said farmers were facing “financial distress”and “fending off their creditors” as a result.

In a joint statement yesterday, Mr Paice and Shadow Environment Secretary Peter Ainsworth said that the situations was “clearly even worse than we thought”.

They added: “What matters now is that farmers get the money they desperately need. If the investigations show that payments are going to be further delayed, it is essential that Mrs Beckett considers the option of either making interim payments or paying interest on the money.”

Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Chris Huhne added: “It is extraordinary that a DEFRA minister should assure the House of Commons last Thursday that the RPA is on track to make its payments as scheduled, and then sack the chief executive just a week later.

“Ministers appear oblivious to the many rural livelihoods depend on timely payment. The assurances that Jim Knight gave to the House a week ago are clearly not worth the paper that Hansard printed them on.”

David Fursdon, president of the Country Land & Business Association (CLA) said: “This sacking is an important first step in resolving the mess that is the RPA. I welcome the appointment of Mark Addison as the new acting chief executive. The CLA will work with Mr Addison to ensure that farmers in England get the payments they so desperately need as soon as possible.”

He added: “At the end of the day, we have to remember the farmers who are being affected by this fiasco. Many have been waiting for payments for months and will now have to renegotiate facilities with banks and rearrange plans to transfer entitlements. Others will have to put plans to develop their business on hold.

“McNeill's going is a step in the right direction but the CLA will not rest until its members have the payments to which they are entitled.”