Union fears thousands more farmers have been underpaid

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Thousands more farmers are feared to have been underpaid subsidy payments than the 10,500 already identified by the much-maligned Rural Payments Agency.

National Farmers’ Union vice president Guy Smith expects an “avalanche” of complaints from farmers as they continue to question settlements from the Basic Payment Scheme, whereby farmers receive annual subsidies under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

As reported by The Yorkshire Post yesterday, a National Audit Office (NAO) report has revealed the scale of inaccurate payments made by government agency, the RPA, since December 2015. By last Monday, the RPA had identified underpayments totalling £27.4m and admitted it may have to make further top-up payments.

As well as being plagued by inaccuracy, the first round of BPS - after revisions to the CAP - was beset by delayed payments due to RPA computer systems failures.

Essex-based farmer Mr Smith said: “The line can never be drawn under the sad saga of 2015/16.

“This year the RPA hasn’t sent out claim forms to farmers which detail the full breakdown of what they’ve been paid. I wonder how many more people out there have not had an accurate payment? I suspect there are thousands.

“How many will trigger the complaints procedure is the next question and you can be sure there will be an avalanche.”

Mr Smith bemoaned the lack of transparency in how farmers’ claims were settled, saying the information void made it particularly difficult to table appeals.

However both Mr Smith and the NAO said there were positive signs of the RPA having improved its processes ahead of the next payment window opening on December 1, with the NAO report stating: “The RPA is addressing issues encountered in 2015 to improve the timeliness and accuracy of payments, and has made significant improvements to the process for 2016 and future years.

“In addition to improved progress with the applications this year, there have been technical improvements that have either been made or are in the process of being made.”

The RPA has pledged to deliver at least 90 per cent of payments by the end of December and 93 per cent by the end of March 2017.

Baroness Anne McIntosh of Pickering, who scrutinised the Government’s CAP Delivery Programme when she chaired the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, said: “I will personally seek assurance from the RPA that the next payment window will work more smoothly.

“Farmers should not have to jump through hoops only to be left out of pocket.”

Among the farmers worst affected by the botched 2015 payments were those who farm common land, where more than one farmer has rights to use the land, for grazing for example.

Mr Smith wants ‘commoners’ to avoid being “at the back of the queue” this time, saying it would be “tantamount to victimisation” if they are among the last to be paid for a second successive year.

The RPA insisted it had learnt from the problems of the 2015 payments round and said common land farmers would be included in the 90 per cent of claims it has resolved to pay in December this year.

An RPA spokesperson said: “Lessons have been learnt from 2015 and these are already having an impact for 2016, which the RPA expects to be easier for our farmers. It has already got off to a good start with a record number of online applications received.

“The Agency will make 2016 BPS payments once the payment window opens on 1 December. Our focus is on paying 90 per cent of farmers by the end of December. This will include a cross-section of claims such as commons.”

On claims transparency, the RPA said it issues “remittance advices and revised claim statements once claims are finalised and payments made”.