AN influential parliamentary watchdog has vowed to hold the Rural Payments Agency’s “feet to the fire” to ensure farmers receive a new round of lifeblood support payments on time.
European payments will start landing in farmers’ bank accounts from today, as 2016 Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) monies worth almost £1.5bn begin to be distributed by the much-maligned government agency.
The warning from MPs sitting on the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee was spelled out in a letter to the Agency’s under-pressure chief executive Mark Grimshaw on the eve of today’s new payments window.
Neil Parish, the committee’s chairman, said: “Given the reliance of so many farmers and the wider rural community on the timely delivery of these payments it is vital that the RPA’s words are matched by its actions.
“Mr Grimshaw expressed confidence in evidence to us earlier this month that the Agency will meet its target of paying 90 per cent of BPS claims by 31 December 2016.
“We will be holding the RPA to this commitment.”
The RPA head has repeatedly promised a far superior performance to that which left thousands of farmers facing real hardship as they were made to wait months for vital support payments during the 2015 payments round. As well as promising Mr Grimshaw it would watch closely to ensure the December payments target is met, the EFRA Committee also used its letter to give the RPA chief notice that it will follow up with him in spring about the agency’s performance.
In their letter to Mr Grimshaw, the committee said: “We note the RPA’s expectation that it will deliver a much improved performance from that of last year. This will be welcome news to farmers, especially those disadvantaged by the RPA’s previous failings.”
The letter added: “We will talk to you about the Agency’s performance nearer the end of the payment window, once the December performance information is available.”
A copy of the correspondence was also sent to Environment Minister Andrea Leadsom.
In addition to paying 90 per cent of 87,000 eligible farmers before the end of the year, Mr Grimshaw has also gone on public record as saying 93 per cent of farmers will be paid by the end of March 2017.
Such results would constitute a step change in performance compared to 2015 payments. By January 19 this year, just two-thirds of farmers had been paid.
The delays came after computer systems problems meant an online-only approach to BPS applications was abandoned early in 2015 and farmers were referred back to part-paper applications.
Despite extra staff being drafted in to help process applications, the RPA still had to pay vast numbers of farmers months after last December’s payments window opened, and last week Mr Grimshaw said 1,000 hill farmers were still challenging mispayments.
According to the Foundation for Common Land, some of the worst affected farmers of common land are relying on food banks. EFRA committee chairman Mr Parish described the RPA’s performance in paying 2015 claims to ‘commoners’ as “lamentable”.
The MP said: “We expect much improved performance this year on paying these complex cases.
“We’re holding the RPA’s feet to the fire to ensure farmers get their payments on time.”