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Farmers are being failed 'on multiple levels' by Rural Payments Agency, say MPs

PUBLISHED: 10:04 15 May 2018 | UPDATED: 08:11 17 May 2018

The Rural Payments Agency has been criticised by MPs for its management of EU subsidy payments to UK farmers. Picture: Julien Behal/PA Wire

The Rural Payments Agency has been criticised by MPs for its management of EU subsidy payments to UK farmers. Picture: Julien Behal/PA Wire

Archant

The agency which delivers support payments to British farmers is "failing on multiple levels" to pay on time and give vital financial stability to rural businesses, according to MPs.

The Rural Payments Agency (RPA), which is responsible for administering EU subsidies and environmental payments, was criticised in a report published by the government’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) committee.

The report says repeated failures are causing significant difficulties for farms, and raises concerns over whether the RPA will be capable of rising to its post-Brexit challenges.

It concludes it is “unacceptable” that more than 3,000 farmers had not been paid their 2017 Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) money by March 2018, while communications complaints handling service were “poor”, following widespread concerns over errors from mapping updates and inaccurate payments.

The Efra committee also says the RPA’s role in delivering the Countryside Stewardship agri-environment scheme is “concerning, given that it places an existing burden on an organisation that appears unable to manage its current duties” – with further challenges on the horizon when the agricultural funding model changes after Brexit.

Committee chairman Neil Parish said: “The farming industry relies on EU support for financial stability, and on the RPA to distribute subsidies on time. It is crucial that our farmers can rely on consistent and accurate payments.

“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 2018. We have real concerns that the RPA is incapable of providing timely support payments in the pre- and post-Brexit world.

“Substantial improvements across the organisation are needed to address this. The RPA should set itself more stretching targets, set out a clear strategy for how it will improve handling of complaints, and detail how it will properly deliver the Countryside and Environmental Stewardship schemes.”

The report’s recommendations include that the RPA should aim to make 98pc of BPS payments by the end of March each year.

AGENCY RESPONSE

Paul Caldwell, chief executive of the RPA, 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 96pc 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.”

CASE STUDY: NORFOLK FARM AWAITS £130,000

A Norfolk farm manager is still awaiting £130,000 for environmental stewardship work, almost 18 months after the last payment was received.

Jamie Lockhart, of Honingham Thorpe Farms, said while mapping problems and administrative hold-ups are a recurring issue with Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) direct subsidies, his biggest problem is the damaging delay in receiving agreed money for agri-environment schemes.

On one of the other farms he manages, which is in the middle of a 10-year Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreement, he said the outstanding figure amounts to £130,000.

“It seems pretty appalling,” he said. “The RPA did an inspection and they took a year to get the findings to Natural England.

“I know there are relatively few things they are concerned about, and the last indication was that it would be paid by the end of June. That is 18 months from the last time we were paid.

“It is hugely damaging to be more than £100,000 down on cashflow in the current climate, after a difficult spring.

“We need a degree of understanding that we are dealing with a moving feast. We are dealing with managing margins and growing a crop and they are not going to be perfect every year.

“It is right that we are inspected, and that the system is robust, but there seems to be a complete lack of resource and lack of will to push things forward. It becomes a source of mistrust.

“Some of these options require annual management and when you end up 18 months behind it does not fill you with confidence to spend the money.

“We are now buying seed mixes for wild birds, and pollen and nectar mixes, and we are doing it all on the assumption that we will be paid at some point.

“If we don’t do that, they will come and inspect and we will be fined. That is where the playing field is not level. We do our side of the bargain but on the other side of the fence the payments slip and no-one is held to account. They need to be held to account.”

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