The dire performance of the Rural Payments Agency to pay almost £1.4bn in lifeblood subsidies to farmers over the past year has been laid bare in a new report from the National Audit Office.
Thousands of hard-pressed farmers have been made to wait months for either part payments or any payments at all, and even now the government agency is still processing top-ups after thousands of initial settlements were miscalculated.
By last Monday the Agency had identified that at least 10,500 farmers had been underpaid by a total of £27.4m and that just over 1,000 underpayment claims were still being processed, according to the NAO report.
Some 6,900 farmers were paid at least 1,000 euros less than they were entitled to in initial payments and the RPA expects more cases will arise as farmers continue to query their settlements.
From our files: Catalogue of chaos wrought by bungling civil servants at failing government payments agency:
So many farm businesses are on a knife edge.Rishi Sunak, Conservative MP for Richmond
The scale of underpayment is “staggering” said Baroness Anne McIntosh of Pickering, while Richmond MP Rishi Sunak said many farm businesses were “on a knife edge” heading into the new payment round.
The inaccuracies occurred due to the failure of a new payments programme to deliver the revised EU Common Agricultural Policy. Problems with the RPA’s online application system saw farmers revert to paper-based applications and computer system problems made it difficult for the RPA to maintain its payment record.
The NAO reports that one in six farmers (16 per cent) had not received any Basic Payment Scheme money by the end of March, meaning the RPA missed its target to pay more than 92 per cent of claims at that stage by eight percentage points.
Tory MP Mr Sunak, who is a member of the Parliamentary watchdog which scrutinises the RPA, said: “This is very disappointing news given the number of times the head of the RPA has given evidence to the select committee and expressed his confidence that the Agency would meet its targets. Here we are, just a few weeks before the next payment window opens, and some farmers haven’t received what they were entitled to almost a year ago. The amounts of money involved are not insignificant, especially when so many farm businesses are on a knife edge.”
Baroness McIntosh, a former chairman of the same watchdog, said: “The work of the RPA has really let farmers down at what is a very challenging time for them. It vindicates the concerns raised by the EFRA Committee when the whole system was being agreed.”
The NAO report reveals that while payments were prioritised for farms which suffered flooding last December, those affected in Lancashire were overlooked.
An RPA spokesperson said: “All eligible farmers have received a payment on their 2015 BPS claim apart from exceptional cases, such as those that cannot be paid for legal reasons like probate. The RPA will investigate new queries which customers raise and make any top-up payments due.”
The RPA added that it was focussed on paying 90 per cent of farmers their 2016/17 BPS monies by the end of December.