CONSERVATIVE MP Ian Liddell-Grainger has welcomed proposals to ‘rein in’ a Government agency which he claims has become a by-word for high-handed and harsh treatment of farmers.
The Government’s just-published Agricultural Transition Plan is calling for a more conciliatory regime at the Rural Payments Agency which is responsible for distributing billions of pounds annually to support British farming.
In particular the plan says financial penalties should not be the automatic response to a farmer’s breach of land management rules.
And it calls on the RPA to adopt a more proportionate and flexible attitude and to become more’ constructive and advisory’ in its dealings with the farming community.
Mr Liddell-Grainger, MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset, said the culture changed envisaged could not come too soon for farmers.
He said: “I have literally lost count of the complaints I have received over the years about the attitudes and conduct of RPA staff.
“Farmers have been jumped on and penalised for smallest errors in their submitted paperwork while the RPA’s own blunders, such on mapping issues, have been completely disregarded.
“It has managed to create a climate of fear in the farming community, often reinforced by its inspectors who have often enforced the rules with a fanatical determination to make life as difficult as possible.
“I just need cite the case of the farmer who was fined for over-declaring his area of grazing land because the inspector found his field hedges had grown out to cover an area totalling some acres.
“But he was letting them grow merely to comply with an environmental scheme he was in.
“This kind of thing really rankles with farmers when they recall that over the years the RPA has cost the British taxpayer more than £1 billion in fines from the EU for failing to achieve payments on time.”
The plan is effectively a blueprint for the UK’s transition to a stand-alone agricultural regime after more than 40 years of being subject to the Common Agricultural Policy.
Mr Liddell-Grainger said he was encouraged by its contents, particularly proposals for lump-sum exit payments for retiring farmers and a farming investment fund to help pay for modernisation and expansion.
“Really this is only catching up on schemes other countries have had in place for years but I am delighted to see Ministers now recognise these features as necessary elements of our new national policy,” he said.
“What is important is that they don’t allow themselves to be seduced by well-financed conservation charities and go plunging down the rewilding route.
“It is right that some land should be given over to conservation schemes and I am glad the document lays out ways this can be achieved.
“But agriculture is and must remain primarily about producing food for the nation – a role which will become even more important in a volatile world where the supply chain is prone to being disrupted by political upheaval and where the additional challenges to food production posed by climate change are closing in all the time.”