THE latest delays to farm subsidies are not new – the Rural Payments Agency has been a byword for public sector inefficiency ever since it was set up more than a decade ago when Labour grandee Margaret Beckett was Environment Secretary.
What is so depressing, and disturbing, is the extent to which problems persist and how senior officials try to mask their own failings by simply moving the goalposts and hoping that no one will notice.
When RPA chief executive Mark Grimshaw was questioned by Parliament’s environment select committee earlier this year, he made a commitment – according to Penistone and Stocksbridge MP Angela Smith – to ensure the majority of claims were paid by December 1.
However George Eustice, the Farming Minister, told the Yorkshire backbencher this week that the promise “was to pay 90 per cent by the end of December”. Even though four-fifths of farmers now submit their applications online, as requested and often in spite of great difficulties with broadband, to assist Defra, this does not bode well for those dependent on these payments – the RPA has previous form for using such semantics to mask slippage.
Equally disingenuous is Mr Eustice, a leading Brexit campaigner, trying to blame the European Union for these difficulties. Other countries are able to process applications punctually and accurately, notably Northern Ireland where 70 per cent of farm businesses will receive an advance payment by next Thursday. Why can’t Defra and the RPA be so organised?
And this is important. When Mr Eustice gets his way and Britain leaves the EU in 2019 or thereabouts, the Government will have to devise a new system of subsidies from scratch – and Ministers need to wake up to the scale of this task and its importance. If not, they will only have themselves to blame for compromising farming’s future. The Minister has been warned.
Blame game – early excuses over winter gritting
LABOUR-CONTROLLED Bradford Council is clearly getting its excuses in early after warning budget cuts could hit the number of roads and pavements that are gritted this winter. Even though its 626 miles of roads provide a logistical challenge because of the area’s topography, residents and businesses do still pay for this service through their council tax, a point made by local authority leaders in North Yorkshire who have no plans to scale back operations.
While Bradford is right to encourage fit and active residents to assist where possible, every council should be aware that their obligations extend beyond the routes which are the most important from an economic perspective. They also have a social and moral duty to make sure support is available for the elderly and immobile, especially given the increased awareness about issues like loneliness and the growing number of OAPs who feel, wrongly, that they’re a burden on society because of all the negativity over public spending. Rather than looking to make cheap political points, council leaders should be identifying the most vulnerable – and then making sure that the support will be available.
Of course much of this comes down to neighbourliness, and it’s a sad reflection on contemporary society that people do not automatically look out for frail and isolated people living in the vicinity, but this shouldn’t stop councils from attempting to restore some civic values to public life. Even though the current US election is the most unedifying ever, perhaps communities should draw inspiration from the most famous inauguration speech of all when President John F Kennedy implored his fellow Americans in January 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
Our young heroes: Awards are epitome of courage
UNDOUBTEDLY, the inspirational example set by Yorkshire’s Olympians and Paralympians has illuminated 2016 – and this was reflected in the warmth of the tributes to Jessica Ennis-Hill after Sheffield’s heptathlete in a million announced her retirement.
Yet, ahead of Team GB’s victory parade in Manchester on Monday, they, too, will draw inspiration from the adversity, determination and resilience shown by those incredible Yorkshire youngsters honoured at last night’s Children of Courage Awards.
Not only are their achievements heroic, heartbreaking and humbling in equal measure, but the fortitude shown by award nominees – and their uncanny ability to make light of their plight – is a reality check which puts daily trials and tribulations into perspective.