Farmers due to receive their Single Farm Payments by the end of his month now face a delay of several weeks with the body responsible for the payments, the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), still in a chaotic state.
In a written ministerial statement to Parliament farming minister Jim Paice said the target of making 95 per cent of all payments for 2010 by the end of March this year would not be met.
Mr Paice said the deadline had proved “particularly challenging given the legacy of system and data problems that need to be corrected before accurate payments can be made” and that the RPA was still facing a “substantial backlog” of cases which were in need of review.
The news provoked dismay from the country’s leading farming organisations who expressed their “extreme disappointment” at the delay, with Yorkshire landowner and Country Land and Business Association (CLA) president William Worsley questioning whether efforts to reform the agency were resulting in any progress.
Mr Paice’s said: “The previous years’ achievement of targets have been at the expense of accuracy resulting in EU fines and a massive backlog of cases where it is believed overpayments or underpayments have been made.
“The RPA Oversight Board which I chair decided that this state of affairs could not continue.
“It therefore decided to ensure RPA make full use of all options open to us to reduce the backlog of error cases by not pursuing those where the farmer could not reasonably have been expected to identify an error.”
Inaccurate and late payments have besmirched the reputation of the RPA and led to it being hit with more than £200m in fines from the EU in recent years.
However Mr Paice said that the agency would now make it a priority to ensure that payments for 2011 are accurate so that “a line can be drawn under past failures”.
He estimated that around 90 per cent of payments would be made by the end of the month and said: ”I am very conscious that for many if not all farmers the further potential delays could involve considerable hardship or costs.
“We already make manual payments to hardship cases referred to us by farming charities and representative bodies. However if the RPA is finally to put the legacy of chaos, errors and disallowance behind it we need to ensure that payments made this year are based on accurate data so that we can move forward.”
However his words did little to convince National Farmers’ Union president Peter Kendall who said farmers had faced delays “too many times before” and called upon Mr Paice to make a partial payment to all those affected.
He said: “We obviously appreciate the desirability of full payments, avoiding EU penalties, and the need to ensure taxpayers are getting value for money. But we have now reached the stage at which doing so is having a disproportionate effect on farmers – time is running out for many.”
Mr Worsley said: “The news today makes it apparent to all of us that no tangible progress is being made. Meanwhile significant numbers of farmers continue to suffer considerable levels of frustration and hardship.”
And the Tenant Farmers Association chairman, Greg Bliss, said: “With rent cheques due to be paid this month on top of all the other farming costs normally faced at this time of year we need action from the Government to get manual or at least partial payments out now.”