Rural payments, rural business head Rooker’s agenda at DEFRA

The arrival of a new ministerial team at DEFRA will not change the way the single farm payment is paid out in England, despite an acknowledgement that the systems used in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been more successful.

In his first interview with the press since returning to Whitehall, junior DEFRA minister Jeff Rooker said this week that his number one priority was to sort out the problems still blighting the Rural Payments Agency.

But he added that he knew enough about failed IT projects that it was not possible to just “tear it up and start again”.

“No one would thank me for disrupting things now,” he said.

“We just have to make sure we get the money out a bloody sight quicker for 2006 than for 2005.”

This would involve detailed discussions with the RPA’s administrators and IT people to see how things could be improved.

It might also involve the provision of partial payments to farmers for 2006, though no decision had yet been taken.

But it would not mean a revision of the dynamic hybrid SFP model chosen for England.

Not perfect

Lord Rooker added that, even though the SFP system had been more successful elsewhere in the UK, it was by no means perfect.

As agriculture minister for Northern Ireland, he had witnessed the arrival of 10,000 more SFP applications than his officials were expecting.

As well as sorting out the RPA’s problems, Lord Rooker said he would prioritise rural issues in the wider sense.

In particular, easing planning constraints would allow rural-based businesses to develop.

With 25% of the UK population living in rural areas, it was essential to provide local employment possibilities, as well as affordable housing.

Thriving farm businesses were also essential for a living countryside, but they were not the only ones with a claim on resources.

Having said that, the changes farmers had embraced under CAP reform were not fully appreciated by the rest of society.

More effort was needed to get the message across that farmers were no longer getting production subsidies, but payments for protecting the countryside.

“I’ll do my bit to see if we can celebrate this as a success.”

On the vexed subject of supermarkets, Lord Rooker said the reality was that consumers wanted the same food available every week of the year, and therefore imports were essential.

But he was happy that the UK was over 70% self-sufficient in the foods it could produce.

Stronger grip

He urged farmers to work together, as they did in France, Germany and Italy, to get a stronger grip on the supply chain.

They should also capitalise on the growing awareness of the food miles issue and the increasing demand for local food.

But there was also an onus on consumers to support farmers.

“The consumer might be king, but a king without any troops – in other words producers – is done for,” he said.

As for the recently-announced Competition Commission investigation into the power of the supermarkets, Lord Rooker said the government’s role was very limited.

But he encouraged farmers who had experienced supermarket abuses to come forward with the evidence as the next investigation gets under way.

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