The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) is expecting to deliver in excess of 90 per cent of 2016 Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) payments in December, the agency’s chief executive has told MPs.
Mark Grimshaw has also revealed the agency is set to release 3,500 commons payments and some inspections claims in the next few weeks as it strives to complete ‘almost all’ BPS 2015 payments by the end of March.
BPS 2015 has proved to be a challenge for the agency, with more than 12,000 eligible claimants still waiting to be paid in mid-March.
But, as the online application process went live this week, RPA boss Mark Grimshaw told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee the 2016 scheme is set to be a significant improvement on 2015.
Mr Grimshaw suggested the RPA was on course to surpass the suggested target of delivering 90 per cent of payments in December recommended by the EFRA Committee in its recent report on food prices.
He told MPs the ambition was to see payment performance return rapidly towards 2014 Single Payment Scheme levels when 95 per cent of farmers were paid on the opening day of the payment window and 97 per cent by the end of December.
He said: “My ambition and one of the reasons we built the system in the way we did is to get back to that position as quickly as possible and I see no reason why we should not be back in the high 90s during December.”
Asked by committee chair Neil Parish if he meant December 2016, he said: “I think that is achievable.”
Mr Grimshaw later appeared to tone down the ambition slightly by suggesting it would ‘feasible that we could get into the mid- to high-90s by BPS 2017’.
Mr Grimshaw also shed more clarity about the situation with BPS 2015 payments.
He revealed, as of Tuesday morning, 72,324 payments had been delivered in England.
But while the total claimant population is just over 87,095, the number of eligible BPS 2015 claimants still waiting to be paid stands at 12,529, with just over 2,000 claims deemed ineligible for various reasons.
That meant 85 per cent of eligible claims have been paid, with about £300 million still owed.
Mr Grimshaw said: “I do expect almost all farmers will be paid by end of March.”
Pressed on what this meant, he said: “My expectation is we will be in a range by the end of March of 92 to 95 per cent paid.”
The RPA only delivered 4,800 payments in February and to reach 95 per cent by the end of month, it will have to deliver about another 8,000 claims in three weeks.
Asked whether the agency was capable of upping its performance, Mr Grimshaw revealed would soon be in a position to pay many of the commons and inspection claims.
About 4,800 commons claims and 9,000 inspection claims were placed in batches and put at the back of the queue by RPA back in the summer of 2015.
Mr Grimshaw said: “We haven’t been able to pay that many commons claims up to now.
Commons functionality goes live next week. Once the functionality goes live then we are able to make pretty much all of the commons payments, about 3,500, during March, except those linked to complex cases.
“We will also see much more of the inspection payments get paid. The digitisation is also being completed for the complex cases.”
Mr Grimshaw also used the hearing to finally reveal what he had meant by the target of delivering the 'vast majority' of BPS payments by the end of January.
After a year in which the figure had been kept firmly under wraps, much to the frustration of farmers, he casually mentioned the RPA's internal target was 75 per cent. In the end it delivered 77 per cent by the end of January, satisfying Mr Grimshaw, the 'vast majority' target had been met.
He also announced a belated change of tack to address concerns voiced by farmers about the 'fog of confusion' over when payments would be delivered.
Throughout March the agency will be contacting farmers, mainly by email, who have not yet been paid to 'provide greater clarity' on timings.
It will now provide a 'more precise period in which they can expect to be paid', which will vary depending on the circumstances of each claim.
Mr Grimshaw was also challenged on delays in the delivery of 2015 claim statements. Mr Parish said it was difficult for farmers to apply for the 2016 scheme with any confidence without knowing the detailed breakdown of 2015 payments.
Mr Grimshaw said the first 1,000 claim statements went out last week, with more starting to go out in batches of 5,000 from next week.
But with statements set to be still being delivered in April, Mr Parish said some farmers might only have two weeks to prepare their 2016 applications.
Since the 2016 application process went live on the Rural Payments system on Monday, thousands of farmers and agents in England have started their claims, the RPA said.
Over the first 48 hours the system was in use, 2,200 BPS entitlements and over 5,500 hectares of land were transferred using the service as ‘several thousand people logged on’.
Mr Grimshaw said the pre-populated online forms, which farmers and agents can usse to make applications, are expected to be available from March 19.
Mr Grimshaw questions over the Government's handling of the BPS 2015 application process, after it was branded an 'appalling Whitehall fiasco' by MPs earlier this month.
Asked who was accountable for what went wrong last year when the online-only approach had to be abandoned at the eleventh hour, Mr Grimshaw said 'all four senior officers' given responsibility for the project shareed responsibility.
He is now in sole charge but MPs were critical of the situation where so many senior civil servants assumed leadership at some point for delivering the new online system.
He said he had been raising concern to Ministers about the problems with the online approach 'for some time before we pulled that system' in March 2015.