South Yorkshire MP Caroline Flint will demand answers over the Basic Payment Scheme “fiasco” when Rural Payments Agency and Defra leaders face a parliamentary watchdog committee next week.
Agency chief executive Mark Grimshaw and Defra’s permanent secretary Clare Moriarty will be quizzed by MPs in Westminster on Wednesday after the scale of inaccuracy in the RPA’s handling of payments to farmers was laid bare in a new report.
Labour MP for Don Valley, Mrs Flint, is the region’s only representative on the cross-party Public Accounts Committee which meets mid-week, and she told Country Week she wants the truth about mistakes at the Agency which led to farmers being underpaid by at least £27.4m in the 2015/16 payment round.
The MP said: “The administration of the Basic Payment Scheme has been a fiasco. The failure of the new online system - abandoned in March 2015 in favour of the old paper-based model - led to £200m of payments being delayed for two months.
“All this is happening at a tough time for farmers: many are suffering financially, and many - especially in Yorkshire and Cumbria - are still coping with the devastating aftermath of last winter’s flooding.”
The new payments round opens on December 1 and Mr Grimshaw has publicly promised that 90 per cent of 2016/17 payments will be made by the end of December, and some 93 per cent by the end of March 2017.
Guy Smith, vice president of the National Farmers’ Union, told The Yorkshire Post this week that the union would watch those targets very closely, not least since the RPA had missed other recent targets, namely to pay 92 per cent of claims by the end of March this year by eight percentage points.
Mrs Flint said: “The RPA has set itself ambitious targets to improve delivery. But we’ve seen the RPA miss its targets before. The Public Accounts Committee will be seeking assurances that the RPA and Defra have learned from these mistakes: we want to know what it is that they are doing differently to make sure farmers are paid the right amount, on time.
“Mr Grimshaw and his Defra colleagues will have to demonstrate to the Committee that they understand the human impact of failing to meet their targets. We will be seeking an honest explanation of why, having promised to deliver 92 per cent of claims by the end of March 2016, they failed to do so, and what concrete steps have been put in place to ensure that December and March’s targets will be met.
“Without this, the Department’s targets are meaningless.”
According to a National Audit Office report published last week, the RPA had identified that by October 17 at least 10,500 farmers had been underpaid BPS monies.
Mrs Flint added: “The fact that the RPA has underpaid 12 per cent of its farmers - it pays approximately 88,000 in total - is alarming. Their consistent failure to administer funds properly and efficiently has impacted the lives of thousands of people.
“The Committee will be seeking a guarantee from the RPA that these farmers will be awarded the full amount due to them within an appropriate time frame.”
AGENCY MUST BE TRANSPARENT
THe NFU’s Guy Smith has said he expects the RPA will face an “avalanche” of complaints from farmers as more BPS recipients question their 2015 settlements.
However he said the RPA has not provided sufficient detail to farmers so that they can easily understand how their payments have been calculated.
MP Caroline Flint said: “A more transparent and straightforward system is vital to rebuild confidence within the farming community and trust in Defra.”
In the last week, an RPA spokesperson told The Yorkshire Post: “Lessons have been learnt from 2015 and these are already having an impact for 2016, which the RPA expects to be easier for our farmers.”