I suppose that the main political stories in our country last week were the question of what to do to tackle inner city gun crime and the announcement re bringing some of our troops back from Iraq. Of course other things happen and one of these was the announcement by written statement that we could be fined up to £305 million by the EU for the failure of the Rural Payments Agency (effectively part of DEFRA) to have paid out 96% of farm payments by June 2006. If you blinked at the wrong moment you could have missed this piece of news and I daresay that the national media paid scant attention to it.
To recap the EU decided to change the way farm subsidies were paid from one based on production to one related to environmental benefits. This massive change to the financial disbursements of the Common Agricultural Policy seems to have won majority approval from those affected but the problem was how to effect a transition between the two systems. Countries were given options on how to do this: Wales and Scotland opted for uncomplicated systems with the result that farmers didn't have to wait very long for their payments. However England decided to use a massively complicated hybrid system and also encouraged people with very small holdings who had never had production payments before to pitch in. Bear in mind our terrible record in introducing new IT systems and the result was the RPA was overwhelmed. And who was the incompetent who insisted on this way forward? Former DEFRA Secretary Margaret Beckett.
Margaret Beckett really is the most appalling person. She treated farmers and farming with absolute disdain; examples of this - she never liked to talk about farming in her speeches at Labour Party Conferences, she famously refused to be seen to be eating British beef when we were desperately trying to get back into world markets and then on another occasion when she visited Exeter (the Met Office I think) she allowed some of our farmers to stand up and make representations to her. My informant tells me that part way through someones speech she opened her handbag and started to file her nails! This is the sort of disrespect she shows. This awful awful woman has not only failed to say sorry for the RPA debacle but has been promoted to Foreign Secretary into the bargain!
Going back to the main story I do understand that the fine could reach £305 million, it could be less. Let's hope the latter. One of my biggest complaints about this government is the fact they are trying to change too much - they would have done better to have halved the number of things they have tried to alter and to have done these things really well instead of displaying the massive incompetency which has been their hallmark.