Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett must resign over the "incompetence" which led to her department failing to pay annual subsidies to farm-ers, an MP demanded yesterday.

Peter Luff (Con Mid Worcestershire) said: "Farmers are having to take out bank loans and go deeper into debt to get by. I can't believe the Government has got away with this."

Ms Beckett was fiercely criticised when she spoke in the House of Commons yesterday, after she conceded that farmers faced a "human crisis" over the Single Farm Payments scheme.

But she defended her department's performance - and praised Environment Minister Lord Bach's "assiduous work" in overseeing the scheme.

Less than a quarter of the #1.6 billion owed to Britain's 120,000 farmers has been paid because of a computer fiasco, the Government admitted this week.

Ms Beckett admitted on Wednesday that the money would not be received before the end of June, the deadline set by the EU.

She has authorised "substantial" interim payments to farmers in England instead.

Under fire from angry MPs in the Commons, she said: "I fully recognise there is a human crisis in the farming community and that is why we're doing everything we can to resolve it.

"There is genuine distress, genuine concern and, in many quarters, anger at these difficulties and real anxiety for many in the farming community.

"I would say, however, that does not justify looking for a scapegoat where someone is, in fact, an assiduous and hard-working Minister."

Mr Luff said: "I am shocked that we have seen such spectacular incompetence from Ministers, and shocked that they seemed to have no sense of shame. It is not an exaggeration to say this is a resigning issue, for Margaret Beckett or Lord Bach, or both.

"They chose the system that would be used. Scotland and Wales have simpler systems. A farmer I talked to yesterday in Worcestershire said he is waiting for the first suicide."

Shadow agriculture Minister James Paice warned farmers were facing "huge amounts of debt" and suppliers were also suffering after extending credit to them.

For the Liberal Democrats, Chris Huhne asked Ms Beck-ett: "There was also a policy decision involved here, as we can see from the difference in the payments in England and in Scotland and in Wales, for which you and your team must take responsibility and will you now consider your position accordingly?"

Mrs Beckett said she would not.