Farm payments a fiasco

By Robert Sturdy“TONY Blair has done more for British farmers than any previous Prime Minister.” “The NHS has just had its best year ever.” David Cameron is a blue chameleon who should be laughed at for riding a bicycle.

By Robert Sturdy

“TONY Blair has done more for British farmers than any previous Prime Minister.” “The NHS has just had its best year ever.” David Cameron is a blue chameleon who should be laughed at for riding a bicycle.

The last of these three bizarre statements is the only one we haven't heard from Government Ministers recently but is the main message of their current campaigning. It seems certain members of the Cabinet have moved to the Planet Zog. Perhaps in some parallel universe, reform of the single farm payment scheme, and NHS efficiency, are roaring successes but it certainly isn't the case here.

It must be most upsetting for Margaret Beckett -who uttered the first statement in the European Parliament prompting a mass walk out by Euro MPs - and Patricia Hewitt -the health secretary who repeats nurses and doctors statistics as a sort of mantra, hoping that if she says the same thing enough times the nasty problems will go away - that no one else shares their enthusiasm.


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With 75% of the single farm payments from 2005 yet to be paid due to mind-boggling, bungling incompetence one might expect a more sensible system to be worked out for 2006's payments. Not a bit of it. With the deadline for receipt of claims forms due on May 15, thousands of farmers have yet to receive their forms. A constituent contacted me to say he had received his payment in January, for 1p. Far less than the postage and processing fees no doubt.

Farmers in East Anglia now face the prospect of being penalised for failing to return forms they haven't received while getting no compensation for the Government's failure to pay them money they were owed last year.

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What is so frustrating is that this terrible situation is unnecessary. Scotland and Wales managed to make their payments to farmers before Christmas. In January we were told payments would be made in February, in February they said March and last week they announced all money would be distributed by June 30.

I've spoken to the EU Agriculture Commissioner about this and she told me that failure to meet this final deadline will result in the Commission imposing fines of 10% if the payments are one month late rising to 100% if they are more than four months late. Sadly, the threat to the budget will probably be a more effective way to speed things up than the threat to farmers' livelihoods has been.

I suppose the longer you are separated from everyday life by official importance the more detached you become from reality. Budgets become more important than people.

Talking to farmers near Sandringham last week I heard that the Queen is considering suspending rents on tenant farms on her estate until they receive their payments. I hope she does, and I am sure that should she take this decision it won't be publicised, or spun - with the help of good advisers she will just get on with it.

Her extraordinary life has been far removed from the experience of most of us, and yet even in her 80th year she quietly gets on with doing her duty and helping people. It is an example from which we could all learn.

ROBERT Sturdy is a Conservative Euro MP for the East of England.

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