The Sketch: A swine called Maude brings home the nightmare of bureaucracy

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The Independent Online

Hugo Swire has a swine. That sounds like a nursery rhyme, let's start again. Hugo Swire told the House how hard it had been to register his pet swine. It's called Maude, he added. It seemed reckless for a Conservative backbencher to call his swine after the Conservative Party chairman. Mr Swire will go far. If he hasn't already gone.

Naming swine is the least of farmers' troubles. As Vincent Cable noted, smallholdings get sent documents and booklets comprising 357 pages telling them how to apply for this and exclude themselves from that as long they haven't precluded part A of the occlusion in paragraph 3 (iii). "As one example," he read out, "in an explanatory note to calculate the allocation of the Single Payment, it says 'replace throughout the word 'increase' with the word 'decrease'."

Back to the swine. If we'd ever really left. It seems the Rural Payments Agency is being reorganised. In an innovative practice for a payments agency, Edward Garnier pointed out, they weren't making payments. Eight billion quid is coming from Brussels but farmers are having to wait until next year to get it. Serve them right, you say, for relying on governments for their livelihood? You lack charity. But of course you're right.

Margaret Beckett cast her usual gruel before the House. She was very, very conscious of the issue. She was keeping on top of the situation. She was dealing with it as speedily as may be. She had had discussions with several banks about the implications. But - and listen to this cautionary note - it was important "not to do anything that might delay the main payment". They were giving farmers exactly what they wanted, she went on (and on, and on). A simpler, more straightforward, less bureaucratic way of making payments. What farmers actually want is, of course, the money.

Now then, you'll enjoy this, if you're students of the sugar subsidy regime. The Tories always miss the most important trick of the game. Anne Cryer placed the central moral fact of the Tories' opportunity: Kenyan sugar growers and factory owners are being put out of business by EU subsidies.

If Tony Blair were in opposition he would have drafted a strategy full of passion and purpose, and enough tax payers' cash to compensate his sugar-growing constituents. Free trade is fair trade. The Euro-subsidy regime is behind hunger in a time of plenty. Tories can feed starving children and bash the EU at the same time. But they don't. Their process of renewal hasn't observably begun.

NB: Oi! Buck up! No one from Labour was there for question time. Just 10 backbenchers were present - and that was only because we counted Ed Balls twice (old Treasury tradition).