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Lord Carter: My Lords, will my noble friend respond to my question on advance payments?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we are not ruling anything out until we hear more from the chief executive, but if advance payments are effectively part payments, there are considerable dangers in doing that. We would have to be satisfied that they would not arise. We would have to make sure that the systems set up to make such payments actually worked. In addition, making part payments might well affect whether the 2006 payments are made on time.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, does the noble Lord know that the extra payments made to hill farmers are dependent on the single farm payment in the first place? It is now lambing time for hill farmers, who are supposed to be buying supplementary food for their ewes so that they can cope with their lambs, but they are not able to because they cannot get credit from feed companies any more.

Can the Minister say what will happen to Johnston McNeil? I must say that when I first heard that he had been appointed to the Rural Payments Agency, my heart sank because I had seen how he coped with the demise of our abattoirs. I had a lot to do with that issue at the time. Is he still on full salary? If so, for how much longer will that go on? Has he told the Secretary of State how much he knew about the disastrous state of the agency? Finally, a report in Private Eye stated that immediately after Mr McNeil left the agency the IT
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system crashed yet again, losing quantities of data. What data have been lost and what effect will that loss have on payments?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I shall respond to the noble Countess in a moment. Earlier I referred to Friday 21 March, but of course it was Friday 24 March.

Let me just say that Mr McNeil has been removed from office because we needed to strengthen the leadership at the RPA. No decisions have yet been taken on his future duties. Also, so far as I know, he is in receipt of his salary at present. However, I do not think that I want to say anything further on that because he is entitled to some rights, as are the farmers who are suffering today.

I accept what the noble Countess has said about the particular difficulties caused by this situation for hill farmers currently involved in lambing.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, I understand that Reading is the best performing office. How many offices are there in total; which are the three worst performing; and if Reading was performing at 100 per cent, which in percentage terms is the worst performing office?

Lord Bach: My Lords, Reading is the best office in terms of mapping. No one would argue that any office was particularly better than another overall, and I certainly do not have any information to that effect. But the mapping issues have worried noble Lords for a long time. One of the first steps taken by the new chief executive has been to remove mapping from the other offices where it has taken place and to concentrate it in Reading. I cannot answer the noble Lord's other questions.

Lord Northbrook: My Lords, in the Statement the Minister said that the RPA faced substantial problems in getting SPS payments out to farmers. We have not heard many details of what the problems were and how we can avoid them happening again. I declare an interest as a landowner. The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, suggested that interest be paid on late single farm payments. Is that a possibility?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I have answered the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, on compensation. I am afraid that it is not an answer that the noble Lord will want to hear: we are still waiting to hear what has stopped it being possible for the bulk of payments to be made by the end of March. It clearly has something to do with the validation of claims. It certainly had something to do with authorisation of claims. As I have already said, the new chief executive has acted on that. It is clear that Ministers should have been told earlier that the RPA was not likely to meet its target of making the bulk of payments by the end of March.

Lord Palmer: My Lords, I am delighted to hear that Reading is such a fine centre of excellence because
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I was born there and my title is of Reading. I am a little disappointed that the Minister has not yet answered my noble friend Lady Mar's question about the computer crash. Will he take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, about an interim payment? In Scotland I have already had 81.9 per cent—a magical percentage—of my single farm payment, but an interim payment would ease the burden of hardship on an enormous number of farmers. Even 50 per cent would be something. One must not forget that, particularly with the very wet spring that we have had, most farmers are at least a month behind in their cultivations, which means that harvest will be a month late and payments for arable farmers' harvests will be in turn a further month behind.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I repeat that part payments have not been ruled out altogether; we are awaiting further advice from the chief executive. As I pointed out, part payments involve problems of their own: they affect IT systems and the ability to make 2006 payments.

On IT failure, we believe that the real issue is leadership of a complex organisation, not IT issues. All the main IT systems for the single payment scheme are in place and have produced the entitlement statements and first payments as planned. However, we know also that it has not been possible to ramp up the validation and distribution of payments as planned. The key objective of the new chief executive is to identify the problems and to develop and drive forward plans to overcome them.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I apologise to the Minister, because I was not here for the Statement, but I have read it. I am afraid that I let my attention wander from the annunciator in my office. Mentioning the word "Defra" or anyone employed by Defra to any of my agricultural friends—I declare an interest as a farmer—raises a combination of amusement, despair and horror. Were not large sums of money involved, the gates in Essex would be shut, if Defra representatives came to farms nowadays. The situation is that bad, and it is a matter of great regret that it should be so.

I plead with the Minister to consider seriously the issue of advance payments. Payments on account, which is what any other commercial organisation would have in these circumstances, would go a long way to relieve the problem. While I understand the difficulties in doing so, the Minister's attitude that it cannot be done will only increase farmers' derision about Defra at present. It is a matter of immense sorrow. However, does the Minister accept that responsibility for this difficulty really lies not with the agency—the idea for which might have originated under a Conservative government—but with the people who took the decision to put the system in place and required the agency to implement it?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Lord must have misheard me. I did not say that part payments could not be made; it is clear that they could be, but we have
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to make sure that they will be successful in IT terms and that they will not affect adversely the 2006 payments. The people to whom he may speak about Defra will of course tell him what he has told the House. The people I speak to think that the improvement in the department of the environment, which includes farming, is a huge improvement on the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Democratic Republic of Congo

7.15 pm

The Lord Bishop of Winchester rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what assistance they propose to offer to the Democratic Republic of Congo to facilitate the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, in asking the Government what assistance they propose to offer to the Democratic Republic of Congo to facilitate the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law I intend to focus on the situation in that huge and suffering country in these next weeks and particularly after the elections that should take place before the end of June this year.

I cannot rehearse to your Lordships the terrible experience of the peoples of what is now the DRC, subjected successively to the kleptocracy of King Leopold, to life as a Belgian colony, to 30 years of the vicious, west-supported dictatorship of Mobutu, and then to the appalling history of the past 10 years or so in which well over 3 million people have been killed or have died of disease or as refugees, and millions more have been—to use a euphemism—displaced. Nor can I paint more than a sweepingly general picture of the DRC's situation today.

There is hardly a hint of a footprint of government, national or regional, in terms of services to the people across that vast country—larger than western Europe—anywhere after three years of the Transitional National Government; and this notwithstanding the constant advisory engagement with them of the committee of the ambassadors, the UK's prominent among them, of those states most engaged with aid and technical assistance.

The DRC has the largest currently deployed UN Force, MONUC, with some 17,000 personnel. MONUC's mandate is to disarm, demobilise, resettle or repatriate the bewildering number of armed groups, to integrate some of them into a new national army and to train it, and to assist this force to defend local people and to combat those who refuse to come out of the forests. But in many parts of the vast country militias continue to fight each other, the national army—which is as yet far from a reliable or disciplined force—or MONUC; whether for minerals, or for territory, or as proxies for neighbouring states that arm them, to settle tribal scores, or simply to survive.

Many hundreds of thousands of people have been freshly displaced this year both in the south and all up the east side of the country. That implies constant
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further attrition of the sparse and fragile provision, largely by the churches, of schools and health clinics. I doubt whether more people are killed each day in Iraq than in the DRC. The first appearance before the International Criminal Court in The Hague at the end of last week of a Congolese indicted for war crimes is a most important step; but there are many others much more prominent, and with as much if not more blood on their hands, than Thomas Lubanga; and it is vital that MONUC and Congolese forces work at bringing them too to justice.

Elections of a president and of a legislature, which will bring into effect a new constitution, should take place by the end of June: an immensely complex task for the Independent Electoral Commission which is very substantially supported by the EU. But on the closing date last week for the registration of candidates, two of the four chief protagonists were not among the four who had registered as candidates for the presidency; and there were many fewer candidates registered for election to the legislature than there are seats in it. The latter may be down to difficulties with communications and travel—both, as I know at first hand, are extremely difficult—but the former, much more seriously, shows that some individuals and parties are still jockeying for position and are dangerously suspicious of the electoral process and of each other. The commission has extended the registration period until 2 April.

It is most welcome that in these circumstances the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, spent three days last week in the DRC. According to reports he saw everyone he could usefully see, both privately and publicly, and in Kisangani as well as in Kinshasa; he said clearly and toughly to the politicians that the elections had to take place and that they owed it to the people to ensure that they did and to abide by the results; and he committed himself to the continued presence of MONUC after the elections because it still has so much to do.

I also welcome the Council of the EU's decision on Thursday to deploy a German-led EU force to support MONUC through the period of the elections. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that there will be some British participation in that deployment and that our ambassador in Kinshasa, with whom I had a stimulating meeting there last summer, is doing all he can to follow up and to reinforce the persuasive activity of the Secretary-General.

Looking ahead to the period after the elections and supposing for a moment that they yield a clear result and one that is largely accepted, I hope that the Minister will reassure the House about the intentions of the UK, with its EU and Security Council colleagues. How are we planning to support and encourage the new Government in approaching the unimaginably large agenda that will face it? The scale of the issues it will face is simply unimaginable.

Specifically and briefly, will we recognise, and hold partners to recognise, that this is the beginning of a long haul and that there must be no disengagement from support for the DRC and collaboration, to the
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greatest possible extent, with its government? Will we try to continue the mission of the committee of ambassadors under another guise? Will we—this is a critical point—encourage the new president, whoever he is, to be as inclusive as possible of the losers in the election in his government? Will we support at the UN the continuation of MONUC and the further development of its mandate and play our part in the still necessary struggle to control the inflow of arms into the DRC? Will we encourage international and DRC support for the further development into the DRC of the International Criminal Court process, with an eye especially on General Laurent Nkunda among those still to be hunted down and brought to justice?

Will we put much more effort and resources, with UN and EU partners, into assisting the DRC to gain control for its people's sake of its vast mineral resources and to police what is still at present their largely criminal exploitation? Will we take appropriate action both against neighbouring states and their nationals and against first-world companies and individuals, Britons among them? Will we try to ensure that the peoples of the DRC, longing for security and peace after 130 years or so of horror, see some real "democracy dividend" from these elections—and soon?

Lastly—and I do not expect more from the Minister in response to this question than an assurance, but let it be copper-bottomed, that the Government and their partners have contingency plans in place: what if the DRC, in these next months, should after all fall back—as it only too possibly may—into large-scale regional conflict and devastation, which could have—no, would have—very serious effects indeed more widely across the region?

I look forward very much to other speeches and to the Minister's response.

7.24 pm

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