An influential group of MPs has vowed to hold rural payments chief Mark Grimshaw to account if farmers face any repeat of delayed subsidy payments which left them facing serious hardship.
The Rural Payment Agency (RPA) paid just 51 per cent of farmers their lifeblood Basic Payment Scheme monies in December, compared to 97 per cent in December 2014 - well below its expected standards.
Due to problems with the RPA’s IT system, some farmers have waited for more than 16 months between payments that should come yearly. This, a major downturn in farmgate prices for produce and devastating winter floods, left farmers “frustrated and financially vulnerable”, MPs said.
In a report published today, the House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee says Mr Grimshaw must ensure the Agency delivers on a promise to pay 90 per cent payments this December after failing to meet targets in the 2015 round.
Even now, 10 per cent of eligible farmers have not received full payments.
The government agency encountered problems with new IT interfaces as it made changes to react to the European Union’s revised Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), prompting it into a U-turn and accepting paper-assisted applications from thousands of farmers.
Neil Parish, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton and chairman of the EFRA Committee, wants the RPA to communicate better with farmers who have been confused about the progress of their claims, the length of delays and what they are entitled to claim for under the new CAP.
“Many producers rely on CAP payments to pay their bills so it is unacceptable that farmers are left uncertain over when their payments will arrive,” he said.
Mr Parish also said he was disappointed that ‘bridging’ payments to part-pay unpaid farmers in April took so long to be issued.
He added: “As the RPA now has to take applications for next year at the same time as paying the remaining 2015 claims, it needs to make sure that next year’s process is set up to provide good customer service for farmers, and to minimise the fines that will be charged by the EU for any errors in the payment processing.
“We expect a return to 2014’s performance levels of 90 per cent payments made by the end of December this year.”
Richmond’s Conservative MP, Rishi Sunak, a member of the EFRA Committee, said: “We will remain vigilant because the RPA has let farmers down in the past - on more than one occasion - and with the state of the industry it is ever more critical that farmers receive the money they are entitled to on time.”
For many farmers, the 2015 payment delays came at “the worst possible time”, the EFRA report states.
To ease cash flow pressures, the RPA, the Farming Community Network and the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution has provided support for farmers. By mid-April, more than £8m was paid to 505 farmers from a hardship fund.
Recommendations in EFRA’s report include making early part-payment or interest-free loans if farmers face more late payments next year; the RPA having enough trained staff to deal sympathetically with queries and complaints; and that the RPA takes the opportunity offered by the European Commission to extend the application window for 2016 claims beyond May 16.
The RPA said that both the Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will consider and respond to all of the report’s recommendations in due course.
An RPA spokesperson added: “English farmers are on track to get their BPS 2016 applications in on time, and over three quarters of applications have already been submitted or are in progress. All claims should be submitted by the deadline of midnight on 16 May.
“As in previous years we will endeavour to ensure 2016 payments are made as promptly as possible within the payment window.”