Serious doubts have been cast on claims by Rural Payments Agency (RPA) chief executive Mark Grimshaw that most commons Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) payments will arrive by the end of this month.
Last week, Mr Grimshaw told MPs the relevant IT to pay commoners was due to ‘go live’ this 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,” he told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
The latest figures from the RPA, published on Friday, showed about 72,700 farmers had been paid £1.15 billion.
This represented just 84 per cent of the payment population, suggesting the RPA still has some way to go to reach Mr Grimshaw’s target of delivering 92-95 per cent of all BPS payments by the end of March.
Julia Aglionby executive director of the Foundation for Common Land (FCL) has cast doubt on whether RPA would be in a position to deliver a significant amount of commons payments this month.
The agency sent out requests last month for further information from commoners with a 28-day response deadline, which in most cases falls next Wednesday (March 23). The majority of common land units have had at least one request.
Under new rules for calculating commons payments, forced by a legal case by Gloucestershire commoners earlier this year, only once this information has been processed for every claimant on a common can any commoners on that common be paid.
“The consequence is most commoners can expect payments arriving from mid April onwards; not March as Mark Grimshaw told parliament,” Ms Aglionby said.
She said Mr Grimshaw’s assurances appeared ‘optimistic given commoners have until around 23rd March to respond’.
“These responses then need to be processed and queries resolved by the RPA. Only then can claims be batched for payment.
"It is therefore more likely that we will not see any significant numbers of commons payments received in bank accounts before mid-April."
She urged ’all commoners to respond by their given deadline to ensure their claim is paid promptly and in full’.
So far only approximately 5 per cent of commoners had been paid, leaving over 4,500 still awaiting their payment.
She said the payments were vital to ensure the sustainable management of the uplands by commoners, many of which run small marginal businesses where BPS represents over 25 per cent of their gross farm income.
Responding to Ms Aglioby’s comments, an RPA spokesman said: "We are working to pay all remaining claims, including those with commons, as promptly as possible."
NFU vice-president Guy Smith said RPA would need to deliver about 6,000 payments over the next fortnight to reach its March target, having issued just 5,000 payments during the last six weeks.
“IT dropping in for commons payments will help, but why are they are only dropping it in halfway through the payment window?” he said.
Mr Smith also expressed concern that only about 1,000 claim statements had been delivered so far, leaving 86,000 still to go out, which he warned could put pressure on BPS 2016 applications.
“Until people see their claim statements and pre-populated 2016 claim forms, they cannot be sure they have been paid correctly or if there is a problem,” he said.
Mr Grimshaw said last week claim statements would start to go out in batches of 5,000 from next week, in ‘good time’ for claimants to address any issues ahead of the May 16 application deadline, while pre-populated online forms are expected to be available from Saturday (March 19).
He also revealed he expected the agency to deliver well in excess of 90 per cent of BPS 2016 payments by the end of December, returning rapidly to payment rates seen in the last years of the Single Payment Scheme (SPS).
The RPA has responded to criticism from farmers about the vague nature of communications regarding the timing of payments.
Farmers who have not yet received their 2015 BPS payment will receive an email (or letter if they don’t have an email address registered in the Rural Payments service) during March to provide clarity over when the payment will arrive.
The agency has reminded BPS applicants to ensure that their registered email address in the Rural Payments service is correct and if it isn’t to amend it using the service.