There is growing concern within the commons farming community in England about the timing of desperately-needed Basic Payments, amid signs of further delay.
About 4,700 commons farmers in England, were already in the post-January late-payment category due to a change in policy resulting from a legal case brought by those with rights over Minchinhampton and Rodborough commons, in Gloucestershire, last year.
The change means all claims on a particular common now have to be resolved before the first payment on that common can be issued, adding further complexity to commons claims.
The RPA is having to contact some commoners where key information about grazing rights was missing on their forms but is is only just sending the letters out now.
Farmers have 28 days to respond and only when all farmers have responded can claims be processed on that common, according to Exmoor farmer, Robin Milton, who’s own claim of more than £20,000 is being delayed due to its commons element.
Mr Milton, the NFU’s upland spokesman, said the letters were meant to go out two weeks ago but, as far as he was aware, none had been received by the middle of this week.
Commons farmers received letters in January informing they will be paid ‘from February’.
RPA chief executive Mark Grimshaw said last week the aim was to pay ‘almost all’ the 20,000 outstanding BPS 2015 claims by the end of March, with a ‘few thousand of the more complex cases taking slightly longer’.
But Mr Milton said commons groups feared few commons farmers would be paid by the end of March, with some complex claims potentially delayed until June and beyond.
“Realistically, if the letters haven’t gone out yet that takes us well into March before those replies would have to be back," he said, adding that the timing ahead of lambing could not have been worse.
There is a feeling among commons groups very little work has been done – they don’t think it will work.”
"The situation is really desperate. An awful lot of commons farmers feel they are at the bottom of the pile."
Many commons farmers were already suffering the effects of low lamb prices and, in the north, flooding, and, while some had secured overdrafts, banks’ patience was now wearing thin and interest was mounting, he warned.
Commons farmers were also being placed at a disadvantage against farmers who had been paid, he added.
"If these people are going to be left out until May or June, they are going into another financial year and are going to be pretty bloody desperate by then," Mr Milton said.
He urged the RPA to ‘come clean’ and say when payments would arrive or to issue part payments.
Julia Aglionby, chair of the Foundation for Common Land, said farmers needed ’some sort of certainty’ from RPA about the timing of payments.
She said: "What is extraordinary is that they only started inputting the data for commons last week. They have been sitting there since May with all this data but now they have to verify some of that data with farmers giving 28 days to respond. That is worrying."
By last week, the RPA had delivered 77 per cent of claims, with 20,000 outstanding, including 13,000 who had been formally told they would not be paid by the end of January.
These included 6,500 farmers who had been inspected, as well as the commons farmers and just over 300 cross-border claims.
More BPS payments were delivered this week, although the details were not due to be announced until Friday.
NFU vice president Guy Smith said the RPA had unofficially suggested delivering 95 per cent of payments by mid-March was ‘achievable’.
"We are into the second week of February and that 8,000 who understandably were expecting to be paid by the end of January and are still waiting are getting more anxious," he said.
“Until we start seeing people with inspections and commons being paid we will wait and see. We still do not know whether the IT issues will be sorted out in time."
An RPA spokesperson said the agency had ‘started to send letters out’ and was also contacting customers beforehand on the phone 'to give them as much time as possible to prepare their response'.
She said: "The RPA is working seven days a week, to get remaining payments to farmers. We are already processing, validating and verifying commons claims."
Asked if the IT system was ready for these claims, she said: "We are using the rural payments system to process and pay commons claims."