Outrage as another computer fiasco halts farmers’ online payments

PLANS for farmers to switch to online-only claims for EU subsidies have been suspended after “performance problems” with a new computer system.

Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss and NFU President Meurig Raymond at the 2015 NFU Conference

The move came after what the National Farmers’ Union described as “weeks of significant frustration to farmers”, some of whom had spent hundreds of pounds trying to submit claims in time for the May deadline.

Farmers in England are now being contacted - by email - to be told they can submit their claims using traditional paper forms. The new system will be used only for farmers to register and download forms to print out.

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The Rural Payments Agency insisted the change will not prevent it completing the necessary work on time to make payments to farmers from December.

RPA chief executive, Mark Grimshaw said: “My priority is to ensure that every farmer and agent has the help they need to make their claims on time. Using tried-and-tested RPA forms will make this happen.

“Having listened to feedback, the RPA will now combine existing forms that farming businesses are used to, with data that the Rural Payments system already has.

“This will mean that everyone who is registered and wants to complete a 2015 Basic Payment Scheme claim can do so.”

The European Commission has offered a one-month extension to June 15 in the deadline for BPS applications.

NFU President Meurig Raymond said Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss had assured him that enough resources would be made available for payments to be made “in good time”.

“We’ve been working tirelessly on behalf of members over the past few months pushing for a system which is robust and fit for purpose,” said Mr Raymond.

“It is clear that the situation has become untenable for our members who are justifiably frustrated, angry and anxious about the developing situation and lack of functionality and communication.

“This has been made increasingly worrying and costly for our members as time is running out and the day-to-day business of farming cannot be put on hold nor can we waste any further time at this critical period in the farming year.

“The NFU has encouraged our members to register onto the new system in good faith, but we have been let down time and time again.

“We know that some farmers have already spent hundreds of pounds on agents’ fees and this is an unacceptable situation and the failure of the mapping capability of the systems has been a particular bugbear to our members.

“RPA must now work with the NFU and farmers, sharing its planning and progress throughout the application window and beyond to the payment in December 2015.

“What we need now is a very clear timetable for the new application approach, and assurance that farmers can apply without increased risk of penalties or error and will be monitoring the situation closely in the coming weeks.”

The RPA said that while the core computer system and registration operations were “working well”, there were performance problems with the online interface used by farmers and agents.

The Parliamentary EFRA (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) Committee will seek an explanation for the problems and clarity on the future of the applications process without the new IT system on Wednesday.

The Committee’s chairman, Anne McIntosh, Conservative MP for Thirsk, Malton and Filey, said: “This is what the Committee warned would happen. We kept saying that farmers were very nervous about it being an online-only system but Defra and the RPA wouldn’t tell us what the contingency plan was.

“I welcome the fact the European Commission has agreed to offer an extension of the applications deadline but the fact is that farmers have spent and wasted hundreds of hours mapping their farms that weren’t going to go into applications online because of the problems.

“It’s great that common sense has now been wrought (by reverting to paper applications) but £155 million has been spent on a computer system that’s not fit for purpose when we were told it had been tried and tested across the EU.

“And we can’t roll out an online-only system when the very people we are trying to reach don’t have fast speed broadband.”

Maria Eagle MP, Labour’s Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, questioned why it had taken the Government so long to accept Labour’s call for a paper-based contingency.

“We’ve known for weeks about the problems with the IT system while ministers were burying their heads in the sand and pretending everything was fine,” she said.

“They’ve finally admitted to their incompetence at the last minute and caused chaos and confusion for hardworking farmers. The Government must now clearly explain what they’re doing to fix the IT system problems in the shortest time possible.”

Defra said it supported the practical measures that the RPA is taking to ensure farmers and their agents can submit their Basic Payment Scheme claim on time but refused to be drawn further on criticism of the IT failings yesterday. Defra is also yet to confirm whether it will be taking up the European Commission’s offer of an extension to the deadline for BPS applications.

Despite assurances from the RPA that payment dates will not be affected, Will Terry, York East county chairman for the NFU, said he was concerned.

“The big worry is that it puts farmers at a worrying risk of delayed payments,” Mr Terry said, who runs an arable and sheep farm near Robin Hood’s Bay.

David Airey, a sheep farmer near Keighley, fell victim to RPA computer problems in 2005 when he received his subsidy payment five months late and he felt an online-only application process was destined to fail from the start.

“From past experiences we know this isn’t the end of it. It’s a shame it hasn’t worked because the consequences could prove to be very stressful and financially-challenging, and at this time of the year, at the start of lambing season, we didn’t need to be worrying about it.”

In November 2013, The Yorkshire Post reported that fears were growing of a repeat of the previous rural payments fiasco as the Government prepared to introduce the new IT system.

Politicians and farmers in rural Yorkshire voiced deep concern over the Government’s decision to make applications “digital by default”.

In 2010 the Government stepped in to take closer control of the RPA in the wake of a damning report into its leadership, systems and value for money.