Rural livelihoods are being significantly harmed by the failure of a government agency to correctly perform its core duty of paying farmers, a watchdog committee has warned.
In a report published today following a detailed inquiry, a cross-party group of MPs warns that the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) is not capable of rising to its post-Brexit challenges as they demanded “substantial improvements”.
They accuse the agency of doing “the bare minimum” after more than 3,000 farmers in England were forced to wait for at least three months longer than others for their lifeline support payments under the European Union’s Basic Payment Scheme (BPS).
Payments are based on the size of a farmer’s land, with the RPA paying out over £2bn each year.
The money is crucial for farmers’ cashflow and their ability to invest in their businesses because they operate on tight margins, and any delays cause “significant hardship”, MPs said. Yet, despite years of late and miscalculated payments, partly due to IT systems issues, the RPA is still failing on multiple levels, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said in its report.
Committee chairman, MP Neil Parish, said farmers rely on EU support for financial stability, and on the RPA to distribute subsidies on time, adding: “The RPA is failing on multiple levels, which is causing significant harm to farmers across the country.
“It is simply not good enough that over 3,000 farmers had not been paid by March.”
MPs are concerned about the RPA taking over from Natural England this autumn the handling of the Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship schemes, which pay farmers for environmental work. They fear it will pile an extra burden on the agency when it “appears unable to manage its current duties”.
“We have real concerns that the RPA is incapable of providing timely support payments in the pre and post-Brexit world,” Mr Parish said.
The inquiry found that the RPA’s communications with farmers and its complaints handling remain poor and there have been errors over recent mapping updates.
MPs want the RPA to set more stretching targets to drive improvements and for it to aim to pay 98 per cent of farms by the end of each March. They also want to see a strategy for improving communication and handling complaints, and for ambitious performance indicators for the delivery of Countryside and Environmental Stewardship.
RPA chief executive Paul Caldwell promised to review the report’s recommendations.
Mr Caldwell said: “The RPA is working hard within the current EU regulations to deliver payments to farmers. We have made improvements to our overall payment performance, including 96 per cent of 2017 BPS payments delivered by the end of March.
“We recognise that our communication with farmers has not been good enough, which is why we are making changes to the overall customer experience, led by a newly appointed RPA director. This includes a dedicated team to work on more complex BPS queries that cannot be solved through the helpline and further guidance on mapping queries.
“We will review the recommendations of this report carefully as part of our plans to improve our future performance.”