MP rues '˜shambolic' agency as farm payments target is missed

The Rural Payments Agency has been branded 'shambolic' and 'not fit for purpose', as new figures reveal a target to settle thousands of outstanding farm support payment claims has been missed.

Thousands of farmers are still waiting to receive their Basic Payment Scheme instalments, with the Rural Payments Agency having missed a target to pay 92-94 per cent of farmers by the end of March.

Agency chief Mark Grimshaw had promised that between 92-94 per cent of Basic Payment Scheme claims would be paid by the end of March, but estimates suggest as many as 15,000 farmers are still to be paid, 18 weeks after the payment window opened.

In 2014, 97 per cent of farmers had received their payments by the end of December.

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Farmers who rely on receiving the payments each year but have not yet been paid are facing hardship as a result, but even among those who have been paid there are reported to be problems.

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) said it feared “tens of thousands” of claimants have been underpaid, and in the most serious of cases, some have received less than half the amount they expected.

CLA president Ross Murray said: “Communications appear to be an increasing problem. It is particularly disappointing to hear examples of farmers who received letters in March promising payment within three weeks that subsequently did not arrive.

“The failure to meet these commitments is causing serious issues for businesses that are already facing cash flow challenges in a difficult marketplace.”

“We are also very concerned about the extent of BPS underpayments.

“There is an urgent need for the RPA to acknowledge the scale of the underpayment issues and put in place systems to resolve the problems.”

Tim Farron, MP for South Lakeland, Cumbria, who has written to Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss about the Agency’s performance, said: “Farmers face real difficulty at the moment, and the incompetence of the RPA is threatening the viability of some farms.

“The whole scheme has been run shambolically. Mark Grimshaw has serious questions to answer about the RPA’s performance this year.”

In his letter he adds: “Farmers have been deeply let down by the RPA, which has shown itself to be not fit for purpose.”

Guy Smith, vice-president of the National Farmers’ Union, said he awaited an update on how the RPA performed at the weekend, but he did say: “We think they’ve paid less than 3,000 in March which is very disappointing to say the least. We are calling on Defra to tell those who are impacted - and we think there are 10-13,000 who have still not been paid - what the problem is. We think it’s IT functionality and if that’s the case, they have to think about part-payments.”

Asked if he retained faith in Mr Grimshaw as RPA leader, Mr Smith added: “Given the pressure the RPA is under this is not a time for people resigning or whatever, however Mark Grimshaw went to the EFRA committee two weeks ago and said 95 per cent by the end of March and now he will be called back to explain this.”

A spokesman for the RPA insisted that the agency understands the importance of payments to farmers and its priority has been to pay as many as possible as quick as it could since the payment window opened in December.

The spokesman said: “We understand the frustrations expressed by farmers and our efforts are now fully focused on paying the remaining claims. We are now dealing with increasingly complex claims which are proving harder than we anticipated.

“We continue to give our best estimates but are dealing with increasingly complex claims. Particularly for commons and some inspections cases it has taken longer to collect and validate all the information needed to make a payment that does not risk disallowance. Our focus remains on making compliant payments. Some 75,630 2015 BPS claims have now been completed.”

They insisted that the Rural Payments service is working and has been used to make all payments to date, whilst is is also enabling customers to make their 2016 claims.

On underpayments, the spokesperson said: “The payments we make are based on the entitlements and eligible land data we hold on the Rural Payments service. Payments could be less than last year because of factors such as the exchange rate, a new calculation method and the optional greening element. It is also possible that not completing a claim to the level of detail required could also change the value of a payment.

“We will investigate BPS payment concerns flagged to us by farmers and agents and we can make amendments. If a farmer thinks their claim statement is wrong they need to write to us and explain why by emailing [email protected] or by writing to RPA, PO Box 352, Worksop, S80 9FG. They should use ‘BPS 2015 payment 2015; as the heading and include their SBI and business name.”

FEARS FOR NEW CLAIMS HANGOVER

Farming leaders are now concerned that the delays to last year’s payments will compromise the capabilities of the Rural Payments Agency to administer 2016 payments.

The application window for the new payment round closes in six weeks time.

NFU vice-president Guy Smith said: “We are always worried the fall-out from the saga that was BPS 2015 will start to compromise 2016 and it looks like it might be for many people.”

And CLA president Ross Murray added: “It appears that there are still serious weaknesses in the RPA systems. Many of our members have reported missing or incorrect data in their 2016 applications, which does little to restore confidence in the online system.”

RPA chief Mark Grimshaw has told the EFRA Select Committee that he expects at least 90 per cent of farmers will be paid when the next payments window opens in December this year.