Union demands better service for new farm payments round

The NFUs vice-president Guy Smith has welcomed the Governments move not to take up the payments deadline extension, saying it will not solve the problems.
The NFUs vice-president Guy Smith has welcomed the Governments move not to take up the payments deadline extension, saying it will not solve the problems.
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Customer service has been a “big casualty” of the new European payments regime run by the Rural Payments Agency, the impact of which has not yet been fully felt, the National Farmers’ Union has warned.

All eligible farmers have now received either all or part of their 2015 Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) money as the process has been dragged out since the payment window opened in December - and there are concerns that the situation will have a hangover into 2016 payments.

The application deadline for BPS 2016 is in just two days’ time, at midnight on Monday, despite the European Commission offering the opportunity of an extension.

But Guy Smith, the union’s vice-president, believes the Government is right not to take up the extension - contradicting the views of MPs on the Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee (EFRA) who published their report on the delivery of 2015 payments this week.

Mr Smith, who farms in Essex, said: “We welcome the Committee’s continued interest into the administration of CAP within England. The report does paint the all too vivid picture of what has been the sorry tale of BPS in 2015; cash flow problems caused and made worse by delays to payments and the level of timing and financial uncertainty knocking the industry’s confidence. All of this comes at a time when the support payments were needed more than ever.”

But, he added: “We do not share the Committee’s views on extending the 2016 application deadline past May 16. The RPA has made it clear that the source of so many concerns around the 2015 claims and 2016 form completion will not be clarified until this summer. An additional period of time now, in our view, will not help resolve these fundamental issues.”

Earlier this week, the Rural Payments Agency said more than three-quarters of applications for 2016 payments had been submitted or were in progress.

When EFRA’s report was published this week, committee chairman Neil Parish MP said the RPA needs to make sure next year’s process is “set up to provide good customer service for farmers” and that MPs expect a return to 2014’s performance levels of 90 per cent of 2016 payments made by the end of this December.

The NFU’s Mr Smith said he was pleased by the comments, saying: “It’s encouraging that the report picks up the inconsistent service given to farmers and says that all farmers should experience prompt payments and good communication.

“It’s vital the RPA avoids generic communications, vague promises and long waiting times for responses to calls and correspondence.”

Mr Smith added: “We also welcome the call for RPA to look at their customer service standards. Sadly customer service has been a big casualty with the introduction of BPS, the impact of which has not yet been fully felt.

“We are looking to RPA to be as pragmatic as possible with the processing of issues arising from poor customer service.”

Farming Minister George Eustice reiterated to MPs this week that he retains full confidence in the chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency, Mark Grimshaw, as the Agency looks to deliver a vastly improved performance during the next round of European payments.