Farm payments boss admits customer service must improve

Paul Caldwell, chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency, addressed farmers at the Northern Farming Conference in Hexham.
Paul Caldwell, chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency, addressed farmers at the Northern Farming Conference in Hexham.
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The chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) has said every decision he has taken has been about getting the most money out to the most farmers as possible, as he publicly acknowledged shortcomings in how the country’s European farm support payments had been handled.

Promising at least the same level of performance as last year, which was much improved on 2015, when the next annual payments window opens at the start of December, Paul Caldwell said the agency was now working through “legacy” issues from the difficult opening years of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS).

Andrew Robinson, morning chairman of the Northern Farming Conference, alongside Minette Batters, deputy president of the National Farmers' Union.

Andrew Robinson, morning chairman of the Northern Farming Conference, alongside Minette Batters, deputy president of the National Farmers' Union.

Mr Caldwell admitted that customer service had to improve for frustrated farmers many of whom had become saddled with extra debts in already challenging market conditions as a result of inaccurate and mispayments made by the RPA since the troublesome inception of BPS in 2015.

Today’s Northern Farming Conference at Hexham Auction Mart was Mr Caldwell’s first public address to farmers since he was appointed as RPA chief in January, initially on an interim basis following the departure of former boss Mark Grimshaw and he said he was trying to adopt “a more inclusive approach” to working with farmers.

He told delegates that the introduction of the BPS was a challenge in itself.

Problematic IT systems used to administer payments meant more than 12,500 farmers were waiting for payments worth a total of £300m four months after the first payment window opened and by August this year, 60 farmers still awaited payments they were entitled to two years ago.

Mr Caldwell said: “I understand entirely the importance of timely payments, I understand it’s all about cash flow and one of my commitments is to make sure the decisions when we take them are based around what gets the most cash out to the most people as quickly as possible.

“Sometimes they have been difficult decisions and I recognise that in taking those decisions our customer service for example has not been as it should be.

“I also recognise that in making sure that we are getting those payments out the door quickly can sometimes feel like we are not listening and despite our efforts it has taken a lot longer than I would have liked to be able to stabilise that position.”

He said the agency’s workload had increased this year as he was determined that no outstanding problem would be dropped and this month the RPA will be acknowledging all the correspondence it has received in all of the previous BPS years, many of which relate to payment issues.

“Gaining stability is the only real platform for going forward,” he said.

Minette Batters, the deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), also spoke at the Northern Farming Conference.

Making the case for farm support to remain post-Brexit, she said: “To put it into context: £3bn would run central government for two days so if we cannot make a case for those funds we are doing something badly wrong.”

Ms Batters has announced she will stand as a candidate to be the union’s president during NFU officeholder elections in February.

Last week, the NFU’s current chief, Welsh farmer Meurig Raymond, said he would not seek a new term after serving as an NFU officeholder for 14 years.

NEW CALL FOR ONLINE APPROACH

Administrative computer system issues meant a move to online-only payment applications was abandoned in the first year of the EU’s Basic Payment Scheme but after work to improve functionality, Paul Caldwell said he was keen for more farmers to apply online.

He said that the information collected digitally from farmers was an early step towards collating data that could help inform future domestic agricultural policy decisions.

The NFU’s Minette Batters added that the industry needs to learn how to better share data about on-farm performance, citing as an example how a comprehensive database could be used to clearly demonstrate Britain’s high welfare standards to government and consumers.