MPs have passed a scathing verdict on government support for farmers who faced severe hardship as a consequence of administrative failures, which alone are enough to damage confidence in its ability to cope with looming Brexit challenges.
Too little help was extended to farmers worst hit by the botched 2015 European payments round which even today means some farmers have not received their full entitlements. In fact, no assessment has even been carried out of how payment delays impacted on farms, according to the cross-parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
The committee’s report, which is published today after an examination of the delivery programme of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), says that the extent of the Rural Payments Agency’s (RPA) failure to pay farmers on time and in full is now clear. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is responsible for CAP and the RPA, which pays out £1.8bn a year to English farmers and landowners.
MPs also accuse Defra of being “very slow” to fully address the risk of financial penalties imposed by the European Commission for failing to comply with CAP rules and that it failed to learn lessons from other countries that have been more successful in avoiding penalties.
MP Richard Bacon, the deputy chairman of the PAC, said: “The recent history of the Basic Payment Scheme is a sorry affair. Farmers have suffered badly from the collapse in service levels and Government has done too little to help them cope with the fallout.
“At the same time, taxpayers continue to be hit in the pocket by financial penalties arising from the Government’s failure to deliver the scheme properly – penalties running to more than half a billion pounds for England in the current period.
“Rapid and effective change is required during what is a critical phase for the RPA, whose chief executive is leaving at the end of this month, and Defra more widely.”
The Conservative MP for South Norfolk added: “If farmers are to be properly supported through Brexit and beyond it is vital their interests are represented at senior level. In particular, the RPA must be at the table during discussions of any future subsidy payment scheme.”
Guy Smith, vice president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), welcomed that the PAC report also echoed NFU concerns about the accuracy of land mapping in calculating payments and the need for extra RPA resources.
“In particular we were pleased to see them lay down the challenge to the RPA that they need to get be getting over 90 per cent of payments out in the first week of December,” Mr Smith said.
Commenting on the report, Defra said: “The CAP is a complex and bureaucratic scheme. The UK Government is working to improve the system and ensure farmers get the support they are entitled to.
“We have made major progress - this year the RPA has already met its target to pay 93 per cent of farmers by March 2017, and it is working hard to get outstanding payments into bank accounts.
“We are leaving the EU. This represents one of many opportunities to design a better system which supports farmers and our agricultural economy, and cut unnecessary red tape.”