Ministers summoned to parliament to explain digital payments for farmers fiasco
- Credit: Archant
Labour has accused the Government of burying its head in the sand over performance problems with a new computer system for farmers to claim EU subsidies online.
Plans to switch to digital-only claims were suspended last week after the National Farmers Union described 'weeks of significant frustration to farmers', some of whom had spent hundreds of pounds trying to submit claims in time for the May deadline.
Farmers in England are now being contacted - by email - to be told they can submit their claims using traditional paper forms. The new system will be used only for farmers to register and download forms to print out.
Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle said today she was 'astounded' her opposite number had not come to answer an urgent question on the matter in the Commons, sending farming minister George Eustice in her place.
She added: 'Many farmers will be depending on the basic payment scheme to keep their businesses afloat and on prompt payment to maintain vital cash flow.
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She criticised the 'disastrous late admission' from ministers that the mapping function of the system does not work, calling it a 'serious blow' to hard-working farmers.
'We have all heard rumours for weeks, but the Government has blithely continued, heads in the sand, simply insisting everything will work,' she added.
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'Many farmers who have endured incredible frustration trying to use the system to map their land or have paid agents to do it for them now face having to do it all again on paper and at one of the busiest times of the farming year.
'How frustrating and wasteful of time and hard-earned money.
'Can you please tell the House why have ministers repeatedly given assurances that the system works that have turned out not to be accurate?
'For those farmers who have paid agents to make their claims online, will they be compensated for having now to pay them again to submit the same information?
'There has previously been insistence the scheme is too complex for paper. Now we have reverted to paper. Is there therefore an increased risk of errors which could result in penalties?'
Mr Eustice said the 'core' part of the system used to process data was working fine, but admitted there had been problems with the portal which enables registration and the mapping of land parcels.
As a result, the Government has adjusted the system so farmers have the option to submit their data on paper, he added. It will then be inputted by staff at the Rural Payments Agency.
He also sought to reassure MPs that all information submitted to date had been saved so farmers or their agents would not be required to start from scratch.
The Government's 'pragmatic response' meant farmers would be able to receive their subsidies when the payment window opens in mid-December, the minister said.
He also told the House that other EU countries had experienced similar problems, prompting the commission to extend the deadline for basic payment scheme applications to June 15.
He went on: 'The core of the new system does work and we are not abandoning anything. We will continue to use it. It will enable claims to be processed efficiently this year and will be the basis for service improvements in future years.
'However, the actions that we announced last week will ensure that farmers can submit their applications successfully this year and it has been welcomed by stakeholders and those in the industry.'
Responding to Ms Eagle's speech, Mr Eustice criticised Labour's own record on the RPA.
In 2005, the system introduced led to £600 million of dis-allowance for the UK, he said, with payments regularly more than a year late.
He said it remained the Government's position that the new Common Agricultural Policy is too complex for paper.
He added: 'That is why the core of the system will still be what we use to process the data ... we are not removing a digital approach, we are simply having RPA officers enter that information on behalf of the farmers.
'This is not a paper-only system, it is a paper-assisted system.
'We have adapted our plans and acted to ensure farmers can get their applications in on time this year. That is the responsible thing to do.
'It would have been wrong to have abandoned the system and abandoned attempts to sort out the portal, particularly the part that sorts out land mapping, prematurely.
'The steps we have taken have been welcomed by the farming industry.'