Wealthy minister earns £2m in EU farm subsidies which his department tried to cover up
By Robert Verkaik
The family of a Government Minister whose department has covered up details of who receives EU farm subsidies has earned £2 million from the same payouts.
Richard Benyon is one of the richest MPs in Parliament. The great-great-grandson of three-times Tory Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, he can trace his ancestry back to William Cecil, the chief political adviser to Elizabeth I.
Tory MP Mr Benyon, the Environment and Fisheries Minister, has received income from a family trust which owns a 20,000-acre estate worth £125 million.
The Englefield Trust, which owns the land on the Berkshire-Hampshire border, was paid more than £2 million through the controversial Common Agricultural Policy farming grants from 1999 to 2009.
In 2009 alone the family farms were paid nearly £200,000, placing them in the top one per cent of beneficiaries of the EU scheme.
Farming Minister Jim Paice has also received several thousands of pounds in EU subsidies for his farm in Cambridgeshire over the same ten-year period.
Mr Benyon was appointed a Minister at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) last May. Some time after November the department decided to block all information about how much farmers had earned from subsidies. More than 100,000 British farmers were paid the majority of the £3 billion available in EU farming subsidies for last year.
Ministers argue that they are following advice from Brussels, but freedom of information campaigners claim they have deliberately taken draconian steps to protect rich farmers from public scrutiny.
Labour MP Paul Flynn said that Mr Benyon’s position was unjustifiable. ‘This is wrong in so many ways. How can Ministers benefit from EU payments while at the same time introduce an information-denial policy?’
Mr Benyon, 50, a former officer with the Royal Green Jackets, is the son of Sir William Benyon, himself a former Tory MP. Mr Benyon shares the family seat, Englefield House, with his father and his own wife, Zoe, 40, their two sons and three more sons from a previous marriage.
Englefield House is in a private walled estate of 20,000 acres that includes thriving farmland, woodland and a model village. It was built during the reign of Elizabeth I, who granted the manor of Englefield
to her ‘spymaster’, Sir Francis Walsingham. The house came into the Benyon family’s possession in the early 19th Century. The gardens are open all year but the house is open only to pre-booked group tours.
The Benyons also have land and property interests in London and Scotland. Mr Benyon, MP for Newbury since 2005, owns a £1.5 million house near Westminster.
According to farmsubsidy.org, a freedom of information campaign group which continues to publish the list of EU subsidy recipients in the face of the Government blackout, the Benyon estates received more than £2 million in aid between 1999 and 2009.
Mr Benyon has declared his family business in the Commons register of interests. But under the information blackout, it is not possible to know how much his family estates received last year from the EU.
Mr Benyon resigned his chairmanship of the family business, Englefield Estate Trust Corporation Limited, when he became a Minister last year. In the members’ register he says he remains ‘the trustee of various family trusts in all of which either I or members of my wider family have beneficial interests’.
After the department for which he is a Minister decided to grant anonymity to all farmers who receive EU farming subsidies, a Defra spokesman said that it was not possible to reveal details of any individual farmers because this would breach their privacy. All details identifying large industrial farming concerns and individual farmers have been removed from Government websites. Ministers say this follows a directive from Brussels which requires all EU member states to comply with a judgment from the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
Plans for the publication of a list of the individuals who have benefited from the EU subsidy last year, which was due to be released at the end of April, have now been halted.
This would have included millions of pounds paid to scores of wealthy landowners including the Queen, Prince Charles and the Benyons.
Freedom of information cam-paigners argue that the Government has over-reacted to the ruling because the judgment bans the identification of private individuals but not the naming of industrial farming enterprises, which include large agricultural concerns such as the Englefield Estate.
EUtransparency.org said that there were dozens of public figures who are in receipt of public funds who should be identified in the public interest.
The decision represents a reversal of an important freedom of information victory in 2005 when the Government was ordered to release the names and payouts of all those benefiting from the subsidies.
Two German farmers took their case to the European Court of Justice last year, arguing that their personal rights had been infringed by the publication of their names on a German government website.
But the EU Commission has confirmed that not all member states followed the same approach to identification as the UK.
At the end of November 2010, member states were asked to stop publication of data concerning private individuals but crucially to keep on publishing data related to companies.