8 May 2006
DEFRA HAS 'HALLMARK OF STALINIST RUSSIA'A prominent Cornish farmer has launched a scathing attack on the former government minister responsible for agriculture following the debacle over Single Farm Payments (SFP). Peter Clarke, the chairman of the Cornwall branch of the National Farmers' Union, accused Margaret Beckett, former Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), of an "almost casual dismissal of the fact that farms could be going bankrupt".
The comments came in an open letter sent to Mrs Beckett, two days before her promotion to Foreign Secretary. He warned her that if the SFP is not completed before October 15, there could be an "implosion in the rural economy".
Mr Clarke's comments come in an open letter to Mrs Beckett. In it he says: "Spin and deceit along with fear and intimidation were the hallmark of Stalinist Russia, which appear to be thriving in this administration.
"Your apparent statement that 'No farm business could ever have said with confidence that it would receive its payment before the end of the payment window, which is the end of June' means that you had no confidence in your department's ability, even though you had implemented such a diabolical system, and ultimately everything that you, your ministers and senior civil servants said about payment dates were totally untrue.
"How can you expect us to ever believe you again? And all this from a department of government that used anti-sleaze to the full when it came to power."
Mr Clarke was referring to the fact that only a little over 40 per cent of payments due to farmers as a subsidy under an agreement with the European Union have been made months after the Government promised them. Delays have been caused because of errors in assessing farmers' entitlements, particularly following the digitised mapping of fields to quantify their sizes. Many farmers are being asked to make claims for next year's payments before receiving those due for this past financial year.
"The problem that farmers have is that you were the designer of this totally unworkable system, that you had a considerable amount of time to implement it - and numerous staff, which farmers do not have - and you insisted that payments would be paid on time even though you were apparently given the opportunity to delay it for a year, and you still get it wrong," Mr Clarke wrote.
"However, if one of those many forms that farmers have to complete by a usually impossibly short deadline at some of the busiest times of year arrives late or, worse, there is a small mistake or two, then divine retribution descends from the Rural Payments Agency with dire consequences. Inspections, fines and even a criminal record could be on the cards. Where in those instances is partnership, the word that is so freely used by yourselves when in certain company and for instant PR soundbites?
"Your almost casual dismissal of the fact that farms could be going bankrupt does not register with you that the main reason is shortage of cash, without which there could be livestock and human welfare problems, especially with such a late spring.
"This has of course coincided with a period when farmers' produce is realising some of the lowest prices for decades. Most of those feeling the financial restraint would not be in the current situation if you had taken advice from outside of your departments, and not gone bullheaded down a route that most realised was impassable."
Mr Clarke asserted that traders, contractors, vets and consultants supplying the farm business sector are in as deep financial trouble as are the farmers. "If the SFP is not completed before October 15 there could well be an implosion in the rural economy," he wrote. "But, worse still, we are seeing more and more contacting the farm helplines in far worse financial situations than during the infamous foot and mouth disease period.This does not bode well, with ever increasing cases of depression."
A spokesman for Defra said an additional £100,000 was being made available immediately to key rural support organisations that help farmers deal with stress.
He added five organisations with close links with the farming community were drawing up proposals for providing additional advice and emotional support for those most in need.
Quoting Lord Bach, former minister for sustainable farming and food, he said: "From my meetings with the farming industry and individual farmers, I recognise that many are facing cashflow problems in these difficult times. In order to help people who find these difficulties particularly stressful, we have substantially increased the amount of funding available to organisations dealing with hardship issues.
"However, at the end of the day, these problems will only be solved with payments being made, which is why the Rural Payments Agency is working flat out to develop a partial payments system. This will deliver the greatest amount of money into the industry in the shortest possible time."
Mr Clarke said his comments were still relevant to the department Mrs Beckett headed for five years. He said: "It's a terrible insult to the agricultural community that the total lack of interest she showed over the past five years has been rewarded with an upgrade. Clearly her loyalty to Blair has been repaid - she should have done the honourable thing and fallen on her sword for the damage she has caused."
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