A major hold-up on agri-environment payments has prompted industry leaders to consider a legal challenge if farmers can gather enough evidence.
Speaking at NFU Council on Tuesday (January 29), NFU vice-president Guy Smith referred to what he called a ‘torturous four years’ for the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), with only 690 Countryside Stewardship (CS) payments made by the 2018 year-end.
About 4,800 Entry and Higher Level Stewardship (ELS and HLS) final payments for 2017 were still also waiting to go out.
Mr Smith said: “What we have gained in the improvement of Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) payments [93.4 per cent of payments were delivered by the end of December], we have lost in terms of a deteriorated performance of agri-environment payments.”
Mr Smith said it was clear RPA chief executive Paul Caldwell had been told to prioritise BPS and the resources going into it, but had refused to confirm when and how he could fix ‘the fundamental IT problem’ he said was an issue in cases of Entry and Higher Level Stewardship, specifically where there had been a mapping or inspection issue.
Defra Secretary Michael Gove previously admitted the delivery of CS payments had been ‘shambolic’ and ‘snail-paced’.
“If the bloke at the top admits things are not right, where do you go from there?” Mr Smith said.
“The really worrying part of agri-environment is the delayed ELS and HLS payments, which absolutely befuddles me because they were in a reasonably good place two years ago and they have now fallen off a cliff.”
In terms of making a legal case, farmers were asked to provide evidence of when payments were promised.
Mr Smith said: “If anyone in council has evidence to suggest when payments would be made via email, or a letter, please can you forward it to me as we are short of legal evidence on this.
“I am determined that if we can make a legal challenge, we will do.”
Cumbria beef and sheep farmer and NFU north west regional board chairman Alistair Mackintosh added: “I cannot understand how a Government department can be allowed to get away with such a poor and disastrous service.”
An RPA spokesperson said: “We have been clear that the delivery of CS and ES payments is not good enough. While we have made improvements, in comparison to the previous year, we acknowledge that there is more to do.
“We are continuing to simplify the administration of the schemes as far as possible under the current EU system, streamlining processes, and boosting workforces to speed up processing.
“The RPA is focussed on improving the performance for CS and ES schemes and is working hard to overcome challenges that stem from EU rules and requirements.”