Bridging payments worth up to £24m will be paid to farmers from the start of April to tackle an “totally unacceptable” backlog of payments for on-farm environmental work, the Environment Secretary has announced.
Michael Gove admitted that Countryside Stewardship scheme payments, some still owed to farmers from 2017, were still “in a mess” but that the Government is committed to improving the payment system.
The Government has committed to making payments to 95 per cent of 2018 Countryside Stewardship scheme participants by the end of next month.
Speaking at the National Farmers’ Union’s (NFU) annual conference in Birmingham, Mr Gove said: “To meet this target I can announce today that we will introduce bridging payments of between £24m and £28m in early April. So no eligible recipient will wait beyond early April to receive the payment that they deserve.
“We also expect to pay 95 per cent of Countryside Stewardship final payments by the end of July 2019.
“And in order to bring down processing times, and speed up completion claims by a month, we will move to making full Countryside Stewardship payments straight away.”
The payments are made in lieu of on-farm environmental enhancement work already carried out and paid for upfront by farmers.
The importance of timely 2018 payments - and quicker work by government agencies to process historic payments delayed by IT system failures - became all the more apparent as farmers faced extra costs to deal with a shortage of fodder as a result of last year’s cold and wet spring and then harsh summer drought.
Addressing Mr Gove at the first day of the NFU’s conference earlier today, the union’s president Minette Batters said: “If ever there was a year to get agri-environment payments out on time, this was it.
“And yet we have a totally unacceptable number of entry level and higher level scheme holders still waiting for their full 2017 payment, with no sign from the RPA (Rural Payments Agency) as to when they will be paid; over 4,000 farmers and their families who have delivered their side of the contract but have had to resort to taking loans and overdrafts out because the Government has not fulfilled its side of the contract.
“It is indefensible to leave people waiting months, if not years, after they have paid out to deliver their side of the bargain.”
Ms Batters added: “Please give the RPA the resources and IT they clearly lack so you can fulfil your side of the bargain or give these farmers a full payment right now.”
Mr Gove said the processing of farm support payments was already improving now that the RPA had taken over full responsibility for the scheme’s administration. Previously it was shared with Natural England.
The Minister said: “We have to do better in the delivery of countryside and environmental stewardship payments. They are still in a mess, the consequence partly of historic IT procurement decisions and the split responsibility for scheme administration, which led to inefficiency and confusion.
“It is the case that the rigidities of EU rule-making made delivery more difficult. But we must take responsibility in Defra for our share of the errors and I do.”