Rural Payments Agency boss vows to restore farmers' confidence by becoming conduit to government

The much-maligned Rural Payments Agency must change to become a conduit to government for farmers so that the transition to a new era of agricultural support is handled sensibly, the body's chief executive said.

Paul Caldwell, chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency, speaking at a presidents' breakfast at the CLA stand at the 161st Great Yorkshire Show in Harrogate. Picture by Tony Johnson.
Paul Caldwell, chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency, speaking at a presidents' breakfast at the CLA stand at the 161st Great Yorkshire Show in Harrogate. Picture by Tony Johnson.

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Paul Caldwell, speaking at the second day of the Great Yorkshire Show in Harrogate, said his agency - which administers support payments to farmers - had taken strides in improving the payment of direct support to farmers but admitted he still had work to do to restore farmers' confidence.

Addressing the Country Land and Business Association's (CLA) presidents' breakfast, the agency boss, said: "We are now going through an era of change and for me, one of the things that signifies, is that the RPA needs to change as well.

"We need to change the way in which we operate so that we can act as a conduit for policy intent to the real world because in our dealings we hear lots about what's happening in the real world... so we can be that conduit, to work with you to advise.

"You are at the heart of the future, it's not necessarily about the policies, it's about how our agricultural landscape evolves."

Mr Caldwell succeeded Mark Grimshaw who resigned from the top job at the agency in January 2017, following a troubled period of administration that was largely attributed to IT issues and left thousands of farmers waiting months and sometimes years for payments to be made.

Mr Caldwell used his appearance at the show to re-iterate that his team is "committed to the job that they do and making the rural economy a more thriving place", saying that he sometimes feels as though his staff's endeavours "are not necessarily thought of in that regard".

The agency has just recorded its most successful year ever in terms of making direct support payments in a timely manner. Around 99.7 per cent of the latest round of claims have been paid, with 65 per cent of farmers having been paid on the first day of the payments window in December 2018.

He said that since he was appointed he had encouraged farmers to raise outstanding issues about unpaid and mispaid claims and that the RPA had dealt with "tens of thousands" of questions from farmers asking the agency to examine outstanding payment issues dating back to 2015.

"The reason for that commitment was quite simple," he said. "It's a key principle for me and the team working for me to recognise the importance of cash flow to the rural community but we do need to do need to do this with one eye on disallowance."

The Government recently announced that Treasury funds will be used to settle all outstanding agri-environment scheme payments and Mr Caldwell said those payments will have been made by the end of this month.

Countryside Stewardship schemes - which reward farmers for undertaking tightly-prescribed environmental measures on their land - have been criticised by farmers for being inaccessible and overly bureaucratic, and Mr Caldwell said that while the schemes were still not perfect, his agency had improved how it administers the schemes.

"We have increased the percentage of capital claims paid to around 78 per cent in January from its previous 35 per cent 12 months before," Mr Caldwell said. "We have also reduced the time taken to get to mid tier and higher level offers in 18 months by about half and we will continue to look at ways in which we can make the process simple enough."

A new £15m round of small grants was announced by the Government this week to help farmers buy equipment that will improve their productivity and the RPA chief said: "It's all part of the diversity of maintaining cash funding to the sector because that way we will restore faith hopefully and it's important for me to restore that faith because we need to work with people like the CLA to be that conduit to Defra to make sure we have a sensible transition from where we are now to the future."

Reflecting on the Great Yorkshire Show, Mr Caldwell added: "Whilst we live in times of huge change, some things are in fact timeless and there is a sense of heritage and custodianship that goes right through the heart of shows like this, that remind us that we need to redouble our efforts in making those changes that we need to, but not lose the essence of the value of generations of knowledge and our ambition and my commitment to you is that we will work with you to make that future that we all want."