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MPs baying for Beckett's head

[Thursday 29 March 2007]

ALTHOUGH at the centre of one of the most serious foreign affairs crises in recent history, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett was today facing calls for her resignation in the aftermath of the chaos following her previous role as Environment Secretary.

A parliamentary committee which has been investigating why thousands of English farmers have still not been paid subsidy grants due in 2005 - a situation which arose when Beckett was running Defra - today issued a damning report describing her reign there as "a fiasco."

Politicians and commentators were stunned when, instead of sacking her for the farm payments debacle, Tony Blair promoted her to be Foreign Secretary, where today she is in charge of negotiations for the release of British soldiers and sailors - including a young mother - kidnapped by Iran.

The Foreign Office had already been attacked for its "feeble" response to the kidnap crisis but this morning, the parliamentary committee examining the Defra crisis estimated that it would cost the tax-payer up to half a billion pounds in EU fines and reorganisation costs - and there is still no sign of the huge backlog in farm payments being met.

Only one person has been sacked as a result - the former head of the Rural Payments Agency - but opposition MPs are calling for an investigation into "ministerial responsibility" for the blame, a clear call that Beckett should be sacked for her previous incompetence.

Mrs Beckett said this morning that she had not read the parliamentary report.

Yorkshire landowners have also joined in the bitter criticism of Becket:

“DEFRA and the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) should read this report carefully and heed its recommendations,” said Dorothy Fairburn, regional director of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) in Yorkshire following the publication today of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee report into the RPA’s implementation of the Single Payment Scheme.

Miss Fairburn continued: “It provides an excellent account of the managerial bungling that caused the fiasco with the launch of the single farm payment.

“The report highlights the uncertainties and in some cases the sheer lack of advice provided by the RPA during the early days of the new system. Nevertheless, many of the farmers who also had to grapple with a new system and relied on RPA advice were penalised heavily for even the smallest of errors during the application process.

“The RPA originally said they would ‘take a light touch’ to minor infractions, but instead we have seen a consistently heavy-handed approach. Failure to make payments on time, poor communication, disproportionate penalties and an appeal system that remains fundamentally flawed have shattered confidence in both DEFRA and the RPA who must now publish a comprehensive reply to this report, demonstrating that they have learned from their many mistakes.

"Although there are signs of improvement at the RPA, much remains to be done, and we will have to see how they cope with the further changes to the Single Farm Payment expected by 2009,” concluded Miss Fairburn.

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