Lib Dems hit out at Defra bonuses


Lib Dems hit out at Defra bonuses
Staff at the underfire Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have been paid "absolutely astonishing" bonuses, according to the Liberal Democrats.

Speaking the day after environment secretary David Miliband admitted that there can be no guarantees about when farmers will receive overdue payments under the Single Payment Scheme (SPS), Lib Dem environment spokesman Chris Huhne has hit out.

He claims that Defra has awarded itself more than £7 million in total bonus payments over the last two years, at a time when "arguably rural England has had to suffer the biggest bureaucratic bungle in its history with the failure of the Single Payment Scheme".

According to Mr Huhne, the department's bonus total was just £180,000 three years ago.

"There was a 27 per cent increase in bonus payments between this financial year and the last financial year," he told the Today programme, adding that the "idea that we should be paying a larger performance bonus for what is a failing department seems to me to be quite astonishing".

The SPS is a rural grant scheme introduced across the EU in 2005/2006, which is designed to provide financial support for farmers and encourage environmentally friendly practice.

Its payment in Britain has been beset by difficulty, with the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) unable to deliver many of the grants on time.

Mr Miliband yesterday revealed a partial payment scheme to SPS claimants, pledging that the rural community will receive at least 50 per cent of payments by the end of February next year.

But this has left Mr Huhne unimpressed. "There is going to have to be another partial payment scheme this year because the government is not able to guarantee that farmers in England will be paid, despite the fact that the Scottish and Welsh schemes are up and running," he added.

"In Germany for example, which has a similar complex scheme to the scheme that we have in England, 85 per cent of all the payments were made on time in March this year, where we only managed to make 15 per cent."

Farmers' unions have welcomed the part-payment scheme but called on the government to do more to help rural workers who have been underpaid.

In a joint statement the National Farmers' Union (NFU), Country Land and Business Association (CLA) and Tenant Farmers' Association (TFA) said: "This confirms our worst fears about the ability of the RPA to deliver 2006 single payments."

"We have strongly argued for a part payment and for a clear timetable, so to that extent, we are relieved David Miliband has listened to our case. However this still leaves much of the industry in financial difficulties and we are very disappointed the payment is less and later than we wanted."

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