Farming Minister George Eustice has revealed the Government intends to fast-track some commons Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) claims but has blamed the current delays on the actions of commoners.
The situation is now so bad for some commons farmers are having to put feed bills on credit cards to keep livestock alive, according to the NFU’s North East region.
About 4,700 farmers with common land in England, many already suffering on the back of low lamb prices and flooding, have found themselves at the back of the BPS payments queue.
Mr Eustice said Defra understood the difficulties faced by commons farmers and was ‘focused on trying to find solutions’.
He said the intention was still to pay ‘some commons claims in February’.
"We are looking at means to expedite the processing of the commons elements of some of those big claimants, so we can unblock things and pay people more quickly," he added.
This was a reference to complex claims like the National Trust, which are often to be paid late in the payment window, even in normal years.
Mr Eustice acknowledged there was ’an issue’ with commons payments but said it had been created by a change to a ‘more complicated’ policy forced by a legal case brought by Minchinhampton and Rodborough commons, in Gloucestershire, last year.
It means the full eligible agricultural area of each common is now available to claiming farmers, so all claims on a particular common have to be resolved before the first payment on that common can be issued.
The RPA has only just started requesting information it needs to clarify individual common rights from commoners, who have 28 days to reply, potentially creating further delay, particularly on the more complex commons.
Mr Eustice said the previous system, where entitlements were allocated based on the proportion of rights each commoner held, was ‘simple and logical’ and allowed for quick payment.
The new policy means ‘it is very difficult to pay anyone until you have assessed everyone’s claim’, he said.
“But it has been inflicted on us by the commons themselves. A lot will get a windfall payment in time but in the short term that (legal) challenge has created all sorts of difficulties for us,” he said.
The NFU’s national hill and upland spokesman Robin Milton said it was wrong for Ministers to try and shift the blame onto commoners.
He pointed out the decision that resulted in the change of policy was made by a court.
“I don’t think they can blame the commoners because it was wrong implementation of EU regulation.
“If they are that desperate to avoid disallowance they should implement implement the policy correctly.
“Is he really saying, if it wasn’t for Minchinhampton the commons farmers would have been paid for by now? I don’t think so.”
An RPA spokesperson said last week the agency had ‘started to send letters out’ requesting the information from commons farmers, where necessary.
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.
North East hill and upland farmers have spoken of the hardship they have been facing as a result of the delays during recent meetings.
Many commons farmers fear they could be waiting into April and beyond, according to Laurie Norris, the regional NFU’s lead on hill and upland issues.
Ms Norris said: “We have heard some desperate stories at these meetings, with some people having no choice but to put feed bills on credit cards to keep their animals alive.”
She warned the delays would ‘stretch finances well beyond breaking point’.
“With lambing time just around the corner we are extremely concerned about how many of these marginal farm businesses will survive,” she said.
She added: “Everyone I’ve spoken to has criticised the lack of meaningful communication from the Rural Payments Agency (RPA)."
The Rural Payments has insisted it remains 'on track' to have paid 'almost all eligible farmers by the end of March', despite a disappointingly slow progress in the past fortnight.
The RPA’s latest payment run last week saw fewer than 2,000 farmers paid in England, prompting fresh concerns things are not going to plan.
A total of 68,572 farmers, 78.7 per cent of eligible claimants, have now been paid, leaving about 18,500 farmers still owed payments worth £390m.
There was no update this week.
Writing in his blog NFU vice-president Guy Smith said the ‘rather worrying’ figures suggested things were ‘not as they should be’ and said the RPA ‘remains hopelessly silent as to what is going on’.
He said delays in commons and inspections payments ‘smacked of significant IT problems’.
"Not only do we have 6,000 unpaid who the RPA clearly thought last month would be paid by now but it is also now clear that the commons category is woefully behind where it should be in terms of processing," he said.
"On top of this we have 9,000 in the inspected category who remain unpaid and yet no one seems to have heard how the inspections went.
"Additionally the RPA are clearly not getting payment information out to those who have been paid in they way they thought they would."
But the RPA said it was ‘not unusual to have stages where we see smaller batch sizes’.
A spokesman said: "Yes, we are on track. Our aim is to have paid almost all eligible farmers by the end of March with a few thousand of the more complex cases taking slightly longer, as they did under the Single Payment Scheme."
He said the RPA had 'always been clear that more complex claims would be processed and paid later in the payment window'.
He said almost all farmers who remained unpaid at the time, were contacted between the middle and the end of January and given a reason why their claim was still being progressed. Some of these farmers will now have been paid.
"We developed a plan to deliver the Basic Payment Scheme 2015 back in March 2015, when we announced the new approach.
"We have had to make some difficult decisions with a view to paying as many farmers as possible from the opening of the payment window. We remain focused on paying the remaining claims as promptly as possible.""
Chief executive Mark Grimshaw said he understood farmers wanted more communication.