Alarmingly slow progress by the Rural Payments Agency to pay thousands of farmers still awaiting lifeblood support payments has led to calls for rapid action.
Almost 73,000 farmers - around 84 per cent of those eligible for the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) - have received the European support money since the start of December however the National Farmers’ Union is concerned that progress has stalled dramatically in recent weeks.
Only 1,000 farmers have been paid this month despite agency chief Mark Grimshaw promising just last week that somewhere between 92 and 94 per cent of all farmers will be paid by the end of March.
A spokesman for the agency said it remained committed to paying the outstanding claims as soon as possible. This year’s payments have taken far longer to distribute than in previous years because of the failure of a new IT system to cope with a more complicated EU agriculture policy.
Richard Wordsworth, the NFU’s senior BPS adviser, said: “The NFU appreciates the RPA keeping the industry informed with the progress of 2015 payments, but with between 12,000 and 14,000 farmers still to be paid, and as at 18 March according to RPA’s own figures only around 1,000 payments made this month, compared to well over 10,000 per month in December and January, this shows that payments have dried up alarmingly.
“We are now over half way through the seven-month BPS payment window and the delays in payments are continuing to impact significantly on many in the industry.
“Most of those not paid are those with common land, had inspections last year or farm in England and another part of the UK and have been impacted by the state of the industry. We need to see this position improve rapidly in the coming weeks to avoid further impact on farmers.”
Those who have been paid have received, in total, £1.15bn of the UK’s share of subsidy payments, the RPA said, and that it had made attempts to keep those left waiting better informed of how the agency was making progress.
Last week, agency staff started contacting farmers who have not yet received their payments to provide greater clarity on when they will receive the money.
An RPA spokesman said: “We remain committed to paying as many farmers as possible as quickly as possible and aim to have paid almost all eligible claims by the end of March.
“The claims we have left to pay are more complex so they take longer to process as they did under the (predecessor) Single Payment Scheme.”
Payment delays are all the more galling for farmers who are coping with some of the lowest farm gate prices for years.
RPA boss Mr Grimshaw told MPs at a session of the EFRA Select Committee earlier this month that struggling farmers had so far applied for around £5m from a hardship fund.
During the hearing, he promised a vastly improved payments service come December 2016 when he said at least 90 per cent of farmers’ claims would be settled in the first month of the payment window.
Farming Minister George Eustice is due to face the same group of MPs this week. Mr Eustice has been asked to provide a further update on the progress of payments and how the programme will be taken forward.