News man at Defra promises change

NEW SECRETARY of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, David Miliband, has vowed to sort out the farm subsidy payment mess left behind by predecessor Margaret Beckett.

The Foreign Secretary recently conceded that the Rural Payments Agency, over which she previously presided, would miss the EU-wide subsidy payment deadline of the end of June for giving farmers £1.5bn in grants. Miliband said the task was now to ensure that outstanding payments would be given the "highest priority". He said: "I am acutely conscious of the dif?culties endured so far, and the magnitude of the challenge that still lies ahead.

"The fact that previous estimates of payment timetables were missed, and the problems this has caused for farmers up and down the country are a matter of deep regret."

"I am determined that the right lessons are learned from our experience." He said more than 58,000 claimants - 48.5% - had been paid a total of £552 million. Defra has drawn up payable orders for another £730 million in partial payments, which means the money should reach farmers in the next week. Then, 85% of expected payments for the 2005 SPS scheme year will have been distributed.

"I am very excited to be leading a department whose agenda touches everyone's life - from the local environment in urban and rural areas, from the farm to the consumer, to the future of the planet," said Miliband. Industry groups hope he will be more approachable than Beckett; Miliband is the ?rst member of the cabinet to write a blog - - in which he will publish views that go beyond his ministerial brief. He said he hoped to "bridge the growing and potentially dangerous gap between politicians and the public".

Commenting on his appointment, NFU President Peter Kendall said Miliband was taking over at Defra at a time of both challenge and opportunity. Kendall added: "The challenge is to sort out the debacle over the delivery of the single payment scheme as quickly as possible; the opportunity is to work with the farming community to exploit the huge potential that British agriculture offers to the economy, the countryside and to the whole climate change agenda."

Political analysts reckon Miliband will put a big focus on the environment, as a way of countering the Conservatives' recent hijacking of the mainstream green agenda. Countryside Alliance Chairman Kate Hoey welcomed his appointment as a "breath of fresh air" and an opportunity for Defra to reconnect with rural communities. She said: "David is a very brilliant politician. The rural community is feeling fed up over all sorts of issues, the most pressing being the catastrophic failure of the Rural Payments Agency."

Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Rural Affairs Jim Paice promised Miliband would have the Tory party's support "if he sets about seriously addressing the problems that have left farmers and their suppliers facing severe ?nancial hardship".

Margaret Beckett was privately known to have called her old department 'Deathra' for the career-ending disasters it is capable of producing; she wasn't around to answer on her handling of how the Rural Payments Agency was going to pay farmers their subsidies.

David Miliband Fact File

The 40-year-old Oxford graduate entered the cabinet as the Minister of Communities and Local Government in May 2005, supporting the Deputy Prime Minister on housng, planning and regeneration and local government.

He is regarded by many as one of the government's rising stars and a Blairite, having headed up the Prime Minister's Policy Unit before being elected an MP.


Ian Pearson - Minister of State

The MP for Dudley South was appointed as a minister in the Northern Ireland Office in 2002 having previously served as a government whip and on the Education and Employment Select Commitee. He was previously Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Paymaster General at the Treasury and served on the Treasury Select Committee. Before his election, Pearson headed up WMEB group, an economic development company providing deelopment capital to businesses

Ben Bradshaw - Parliamentary Secretary (Commons)

Bradshaw was previously Minister for Nature Conservation and Fisheries at Defra and joined the department from the Privy Council Office where he was Parliamentary Secretary. Prior to that, he was Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The MP for Exeter is an ex-journalist for the BBC.

Barry Gardiner - Parliamentary Secretary (Commons)

Gardiner ran a company of international maritime arbitrators and was mayor of Cambridge before entering parliament as MP for Brent North in 1997. In Parliament, he has served on the Public Accounts Select Committee and on the Broadcasting and Procedure Select Committees. he was Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Competitiveness at the Department for Trade and Industry earlier this month.

Lord Rooker - Parliamentary Secretary (Lords)

Lord Rooker was elected to the Commons in 1974 and was awarded a Life Peerage in 2001. He was a minister at MAFF in the mid 90s and since then his positions have included Minister of State for Regeneration and Regional Development and, most recently, minister in the North England Office.

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