Complacency claims on subsidies

The Government is today accused of "unacceptable complacency and bad planning" in the handling of one of the most important changes in farming for decades.

The Government is today accused of "unacceptable complacency and bad planning" in the handling of one of the most important changes in farming for decades.

The stinging criticism is contained in a report covering the introduction of the Single Farm Payment (SFP), a system which replaces a host of subsidy payments under the Common Agricultural Policy reforms.

The main grievance levelled at the Government is the delay in vital payments, traditionally made between October and January of each year, but set to be held up until February this year - at the earliest.

The outfit charged with delivering the payments service, the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), an arm of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), has already attracted a vote of 'no confidence' from the National Farmers' Union at national level, as has the minister involved, Lord Bach.

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But a hard-hitting report, published today by a cross-party group of MPs, has ramped up the criticism to new levels, citing lack of foresight, bad management and planning, ministerial complacency and alarm at the spiralling cost of IT provision.

It also appears to have rubbished Government claims that delays were less damaging because "viable" businesses would not fail as a result of delayed payments.

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Food and farming minister Lord Bach has been accused of "an unacceptable degree of complacency" about the financial impact on the industry.

The report, written by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, has said: "For individual businesses, on the margins of viability, the added costs of interest and arrangement fees could be too much to bear.

"It would be unacceptable if farms were put out of business due to delays by the RPA in making payments."

Last night, George Harcourt, the NFU's Norfolk chairman, said criticism of the RPA and Lord Bach was "very justified".

"Farming is very precarious at the moment anyway and this has made matters worse. The only saving grace in Norfolk is the fact we are getting sugar beet money in, but people are finding it very difficult.

"Farmers are a pretty proud bunch and I've not heard anyone say this will finish them, but I would think a lot have had to go to their banks and ask for extended overdrafts, which will obviously end up costing them money."

Other report comments included:

Criticism of the long hours being worked by RPA staff, which could have been avoided "had the project been better managed;

The fact English farmers had been disadvantaged in comparison to those in Wales and Scotland, where many have received a partial interim payment;

Dismay at the complacency of the minister, who "refused to admit any mistakes had been made or anything done differently to avoid the problems;

The "staggering" fact that, so close to the proposed date for making payments, the minister could still not give a definitive statement about when payments would be made, or whether they would be full or only partial payments.

Committee chairman Michael Jack, Conservative MP for Fylde, said: "The result of these failings is extra cost and more worry for England's farmers and a bill for the taxpayers of an extra £18m."

Current RPA targets are to start making payments to farmers in England next month and pay 96pc of eligible claimants by the end of March.

But today's report was the result of "significant concerns" about the RPA's ability to meet that deadline.

The report concluded the best way forward was for a definitive announcement to be made on the timing and nature of payments.

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