It is not the just the delays in receiving Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) payments that have caused the anger and frustration so evident across the farming community.
The misery has been compounded by a ‘fog of confusion’ about when their money will arrive as Defra and the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) have implemented a vague and often evasive communications strategy.
This was a recurring theme during a debate on BPS in the House of Commons last week.
Somerset MP James Heappey, who secured the debate, summed up the mood, lambasting Defra and the RPA for a ‘shocking failure of expectation management’.
Figures released by the RPA on Wednesday showed by the end of January:
Farming Minister George Eustice was keen to accentuate the positives, identifying the ludicrously complex Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and in particular the new greening rules, as the ‘root cause’ of the problem.
He quite rightly pointed out the RPA’s overall performance stacks up well against some other administrations, notably Scotland, where barely a third of part payments, and just 15 per cent of the fund, had been delivered by the end of January.
Wales has also been forced to resort to part payments, which bring their own problems down the line, something RPA has steadfastly refused to do.
Heaping praise on the RPA leadership and staff, Mr Eustice contrasted the current situation with the disastrous implementation of the 2005 Single Payment Scheme when nobody received any money until into the spring.
The message was, given the circumstances including the last-minute switch to a paper-based application system which pushed the window back by a month, delays of up to two months for the ‘vast majority’ was not a bad outcome.
Yet any positives for Defra and RPA have been largely drowned out by the uncertainty felt by farmers - many already under huge financial pressure due to the market downturn and facing mounting bills - about when their desperately needed money would arrive.
NFU vice president Guy Smith, who coined the ‘fog of confusion’ phrase, described the communications around BPS as ‘shambolic’.
He said: “It is not just the lack of money that is causing the anxiety, it is the lack of information. How can you run a business when you just don’t know if you are going to get paid?”
Shadow Farming Minister Nick Smith agreed. He blamed the delays on the new Rural Payments IT system, which he described as ‘useless’, amid suspicions IT problems have been at the heart of the delays in some payment categories.
"The farmers I have spoken to echo the NFU’s concern that there is a “fog of confusion” as to when farmers will now receive their money," he said.
Very few public statements on progress have been issued, compared with previous years, and detail has been thin, for example, initially there was no mention of fund value as smaller payments were prioritised to meet the December target.
MPs poured scorn on Defra’s target of paying the ‘vast majority’ of payments in England by the end of January, a phrase Mr Heappey pointed out was ’awfully hard to define’ and said epitomised its failure of expectation management.
As RPA chief executive Mark Grimshaw and Defra Ministers, epitomised by Liz Truss’ performance at the Oxford Farming Conference, have continually refused to be pinned down on what the phrase means, farmers have been left in the dark about the RPA’s intentions.
So has the RPA met its target? Is 77 per cent the ’vast majority’?
Nobody can really say and that appears to be the point as the phrase has been used by Ministers to duck accountability, as this comment from Mr Eustice when challenged on whether he thought ’above 75 per cent’ met the much-vaunted commitment:
“We can agonise over the definition of the vast majority. As far as I am concerned over 60,000 farmers is a vast amount of applications and a vast amount of work has gone into processing," he said.
What we can infer is, with only 13,000 letters sent out warning of post-January payment and 20,000 payments outstanding, the performance fell short of expectations.
Getting them to admit it is entirely another thing, however.
The RPA has tried to communicate with various groups it identified back in August as unlikely to be paid before the end January, as part of a strategy of paying groups in segments from the start of the payment window.
But in many cases this has only made matters worse.
In November, about 15,000 farmers received the ‘letters of doom’ informing them they were unlikely to be paid before the end of January.
This included 8,927 farmers subject to inspections, 4,722 commons farmers, 379 cross-border claims and 342 with ’multiple issues’.
Yet, despite the RPA having made the decision in August, the biggest group, those subject to inspections, including 6,500 by remote sensing, have only just officially learned why they were placed in the late payment group.
Cornwall farmer Martin Howlett, who is still waiting for his claim of about £20,000 due to a ‘spy in the sky’ remote sensing inspection, described the ‘shock’ of being informed in November his payment was likely to be delayed.
“Those of us who had remote sensing inspections had no inkling and we were never told by RPA that was why the payment was late. They only talked about the commons,” he said.
“What is really annoying is the fact they knew full well back in August the computer system would not be ready for these categories. In fact it is only just ready. That has created a lot of mistrust.”
A Defra spokesman explained EU rules prevented the agency giving farmers any information about when inspections were about to happen.
With inspections continuing into November and December, it could only officially on this as a cause of late payments until January when all inspection were complete, she added.
“Letters to these farmers were issued as soon as possible once we had established which individuals were affected,” she said.
Then in January, 13,000 letters were issued informing farmers they were still in the late payment category.
To add to the frustration, the recent letters failed to give recipients the information they were expecting on when their money would arrive.
In Mr Howlett’s case it told him his claims was still being worked on and claims like his would start to be paid ‘from February’.
“That didn’t indicate anything in reality,” said Mr Howlett.
Some farmers who had been paid received the letters, which only added to the sense RPA was not on top of the job.
As January wore on, farmers who had still not been paid but had not received a ‘letter of doom’ understood they would be paid before the end of month.
For many this has not happened as early February arrived with 20,000 payments outstanding. Some have only very recently received letters and emails ‘out of the blue’ informing them they would be paid from February, in many cases as a result of inspections.
Mr Smith suggested these farmers had been deceived. "You could go as far as to say these people have now been ‘deceived’ with an inferred promise that has been broken.
He added: "We still have 20,000 farmers unpaid and this just isn’t acceptable. While the 67,000 ‘haves’ are now satisfied, the 20,000 ‘have nots’ become more frustrated as every unfulfilled day goes by.
"To make matters worse, RPA communications have been nothing short of shambolic."
CLA President Ross Murray said: “This is a very difficult time for those still waiting for their payment, and it is crucial that the RPA’s focus remains on ensuring that all outstanding payments are made as soon as possible.
“Farms can’t plan without clear and reliable information about the timeframe in which they will be paid, and it was disappointing that a number of ‘inspection’ emails were sent in error causing unnecessary confusion in the last week.
"We are reassured that the RPA is addressing this confusion as a matter of urgency.
Mr Grimshaw has finally shed some more light on when those in the late category will be paid, albeit with the usual ambiguity applying.
He confirmed the agency intended to have paid ’almost all eligible farmers by the end of March’, with a ’few thousand’ of the more complex cases would take slightly longer, as they did under the Single Payment Scheme, he added.
While RPA has not confirmed the figure it is understood the aim is to have paid 95 per cent of eligible claims by the end of March.
One of the most unfortunate elements of the saga is that among those at the back of the queue are upland farmers, hit by low prices and in many cases horrific flooding, who arguably need the money the most.
The delay with commons claims was driven a legal case last year, which forced a change in the law meaning all claims on a particular common have to be resolved before the first payment on that common can be issued.
But commons farmers have only recently been sent letters asking them to confirm commons entitlements, which they have 28 days to respond to.
Exmoor farmer Robin Milton, whose own claim of about£25,000 claims is delayed by the £2,500 commons element, said for more complex commons this could result in ‘substantial delays’. “You will be dependent on the slowest person in the race.”
Mr Milton, the NFU’s upland spokesman, said there were ‘an awful lot of really desperate people’, many of which have also been hit by flooding in northern England and falling lamb prices.
“I understand why it is difficult but I still can’t recognise why the lowest income sector has been put at the end of the queue,” he said.
The situation is equally worrying for cross-border claims, which will be partially dependent on progress in Wales and Scotland for the timing of their payment.
But worst off of the lot are the ‘super-complex’ claims, including some of the very large claims and some with a mix of commons, inspections and cross-border elements, who are likely to be waiting until after Easter.
Mr Eustice described MPs’ criticism of the communications around BPS as ’probably a little unfair’.
"A letter went out in November and a further letter has gone out to those not receiving payments now, in January,” he said.
"The RPA has held almost weekly meetings with key NFU office holders and regularly attends NFU councils, so I do not accept the allegation that people have been kept in the dark and not informed."
He also sought to reassure MPs and farmers things would improve for BPS 2016.
"We are confident that having done all the difficult work to get those applications on, from here forward it will be far easier," he said.
A spokesperson for Defra and RPA said: “We understand the importance of these payments to farmers and our priority has always been to pay as many farmers as possible as quickly as possible.
Responding to criticism of the lack of detail on payment timings in the 13,000 January letters, she said the letters gave farmers ‘an estimate of when payments for their type of claims will start, to help them manage cash flow’.
She insisted the Rural Payments system was working. Back in March the agency developed a plan that would take claim segments through to payment.
“We are delivering on that plan. Payments will continue to be made as they are completed and checked,” she said.
On the wider criticism of the communications strategy, she said: “The RPA engages and communicates with stakeholders in the farming industry in a proactive manner and on a frequent basis.
She added: “The agency has been making and will continue to make regular announcements providing updates on getting payments to farmers.
"We are listening to feedback and we understand farmers want more communication. Claims will continue to be paid as they are checked and completed.
"This CAP is the most complex scheme ever and delivering it has been challenging - we’ve always been clear about that.
“We are always considering areas for improvement and we will use this experience to provide insight for BPS 2016.
"We have been very grateful for the support we have received from industry bodies and associations and we’ll continue to work alongside them on a daily basis to help and respond to requests for information.”