Farm minister promises action at Norfolk conference

PUBLISHED: 11:00 12 March 2011

Farming minister Jim Paice has hinted that legislation on a proposed supermarket adjudicator will be published this month.

The South-east Cambridgeshire MP told about 100 delegates at Barnham Broom of his determination to “try to make sure that the market operates as openly and fairly as possible”.

He told the 42nd annual conference of the Institute of Agricultural Secretaries and Administrators that the legislation was set to become law in this session of parliament.

He expected that the position would be created within the next 12 or 14 months but said the industry would have to wait until the draft legislation was published.

“We should hold fire until we see what it contains,” he added.

Mr Paice, who said he was delighted to become the institute’s patron, stressed that the adjudicator “will not be able to set prices or even set margins”.

The role would consider whether purchase terms by supermarkets were fair, and Mr Paice said farmers could have a right of complaint to the ombudsman or adjudicator.

However, he would not confirm that the adjudicator would have powers to initiate independent investigations to check for market or purchaser abuse.

The minister’s call to scrap unnecessary regulations and duplicated inspections was welcomed by delegates. “Too often regulations got turned into books and books of regulations, guidance and tick-boxes,” he said.

Richard Macdonald, former director-general of the National Farmers’ Union, was due to report in May on a better way to regulate, avoiding “gold-plating” and bureaucracy.

“I’ve not seen it and I’m almost as much in the dark about his conclusions,” said Mr Paice.

“I really have stressed that I want a new way of implementing and enforcing regulations based on that simple word, trust.”

On the Rural Payment Agency’s performance, Mr Paice warned that there was a pile of potential cases where mistakes had been.

“There’s actually a huge backlog where people have been paid but the RPA believes there are a series of errors,” he said.

While there had been 140 fixes to the computer system, he was well aware of the impact of delayed payment on hard-pressed farmers.

“It is with regret: we have slipped a bit behind our targets in terms of actually delivering the payments.

“We are going to go away and look to see whether we can introduce partial payments. I have to tell you that the RPA doesn’t really want to do that because it will delay the timetable for getting everything right, which is what I want to do.

“I am very conscious that there are serious cash flow problems for a lot of farmers and we have got to find the right way forward.

“We are going to be introducing manual calculations and payments anyway,” said the minister.

Mr Paice said that the new chief executive at the RPA would make a difference. “I personally think he’s going to be fantastic, and he has a very good record in turning around sad cases,” he added.

During the conference, the minister told delegates that the dairy industry was causing him “a lot of sleepless nights and distress”.

South-west Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss has met Mr Paice to discuss the delay in RPA payments with arable farmer John Askew and Ben Burton, a consultant with Andersons.

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