Trust in the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) is at an all-time low, despite agency chief Mark Grimshaw’s appearance before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee this week where he attempted to provide farmers with some reassurance on the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS).
Throughout the hearing, Mr Grimshaw defended the RPA’s performance and told the committee he expected the agency to perform much better on 2016 payments, though he said bridging payments for claimants who are not paid on time would be made if ministers decided it was necessary.
He also said cross-border claimants and commoners could expect much swifter payment for 2016, claiming some commoners were certain to be paid on December 1.
But Mr Grimshaw’s confidence in his own abilities and the performance of the RPA was panned by commons charities.
Julia Aglionby, chair of the Foundation for Common Land, said: “Mark Grimshaw told the Efra Committee that he understands the BPS system better than anyone. That may be the case, but does not fill us with confidence as it is only in the last week the RPA acknowledged their system has failed to deliver for more than 25 per cent of common land claims.”
Ms Aglionby remains concerned the RPA will not meet its target to pay these businesses – which make up over 15 per cent of commercial hill farms – their correct 2015 payment by the end of January 2017 because of the ‘complexity of the errors in the control data’ and the prioritisation of paying 90 per cent of 2016 payments.
“The shortfall in cash suffered by the 1,200 identified cases is impacting on lives. We know commoners in some cases are resorting to food banks and in one case the bailiffs have turned up as credit ran dry. It seems these same people will again be at the back of the queue as they do not get paid in the initial tranche”, she added.
Paul Caldwell, the RPA’s operational director, told the committee the difficulties experienced by commoners were due to the fact commons were unique to the UK, so they required a ‘bespoke’ system.
But Ms Aglionby said commons occur across most of mainland Europe and the problems arose because the UK Government chose to buy inappropriate software built for Malta where there is no common land.
Commoners were faced with more bad news as Mr Grimshaw confirmed the RPA has decided, due to budgetary constraints, it will not be developing the functionality to allow commoners to view common land maps or informing commoners how the area of land they are eligible to claim has been calculated.
Ms Aglionby said: “This puts commoners in an inferior position to farmers who claim on non-common land. On all other land claimants can view the land parcels. For common land they cannot.
“We appreciate there are software challenges in making this happen, but commoners should not be disadvantaged as otherwise he [Mr Grimshaw] makes it impossible for commoners to check whether or not the area allocated by the RPA is correct, for instance where the field parcel area is reduced because the RPA decide land is ineligible for grazing e.g. bracken, then a commoner cannot challenge that decision.”
Mr Grimshaw also told MPs farmers who are not paid by January would now have access to individual caseworkers as part of a new drive to improve the RPA’s communication with industry.
However, committee chair Neil Parish questioned why it had taken the RPA 12 years to make this change, saying: “Considering [from] 2004, the whole idea was to say there should be a single point of contact, I am just amazed that you are coming here and saying in a great moment of glory this is the solution.”
Mr Grimshaw replied the move was not a solution on its own, but part of a ‘suite of changes’.
As part of its communication drive, the RPA has sent a BPS update to all claimants this week.
The update says farmers who have not been paid in December will be contacted in January with information about what happens next and when they are likely to be paid.
Paper copies of guidance for the 2017 scheme will not be sent out to claimants, but the update confirms farmers who applied on paper and did not use an agent in 2016 will receive a paper application form again this year.
The RPA has warned farmers about fraud, advising farmers not to reveal online passwords, PIN numbers or bank account details over the phone as BPS payments are made.
Senior BPS adviser at the NFU Richard Wordsworth said the union was aware of several cases where people had lost significant amounts of money through fraud.
If you have been a victim of fraud and would be happy to share your experience with Farmers Guardian, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01772 799511.
For advice or to register concern about any fraudulent activity, contact Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040.