Defra Secretary Liz Truss has insisted the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) remains ’on course to make almost all payments by the end of March’.
She told journalists ’a few thousand of the more complex cases would take slightly longer’ but refused to be drawn any further on that figure, insisting the intention was to get as many payments out as possible over the next five weeks.
The latest figures from the RPA showed 70,880 farmers, just over 81 per cent of all eligible claims, have now received their BPS 2015 payments.
This brings the total paid out for the 2015 scheme to £1.11 billion and means a further 2,300 claims have been paid in the past fortnight since the previous update.
NFU president Meurig Raymond criticised the performance of Defra and RPA in delivering BPS 2015 in his opening speech at the NFU conference.
He said many farmers had been left ’without a clue as to when they would receive their payment.
"You cannot run a business like that," he said. "For me, it’s simple Secretary of State. This can’t go on. In 2016 the system has to work. And it’s got to work well."
Mrs Truss said the complexity of the CAP had ’unfortunately caused real problems in the basic payment scheme’.
She acknowledged Defra and RPA had not got as many payments out as they had hoped but insisted the processing had to be accurate to avoid EU disallowance fines.
Mrs Truss said: "When farmers are already facing price pressures, I fully understand the concerns of those who have not yet received payments.
"It is vital we do the calculations properly or we could face huge fines from the EU. Disallowance is already running at £70million a year, money we should be investing to improve the growth prospects of British food and farming."
She said Defra had given RPA chief executive Mark Grimshaw ’all the support he needs’, with RPA ’working seven days a week with between 800 and 1,000 staff processing applications’.
She added: "For farmers who have not been paid, we will continue to work with the banks so they are able to access finance.
"We also have a hardship fund, which has advanced BPS payments to 268 farmers, worth an average of £16,400."
"I know there have been issues in areas like allocating land across commons and in cross-border claims, which will be speeded up when new systems for exchanging data with Scotland and Wales go live in April."
Mrs Truss sought to reassure 1,400 delegates, having entered all the data on the system, the 2016 application round would be ’much simpler, particularly for people who do not need to make any changes’.
"Farmers will be able to apply online this year, and that will include land and entitlement transfers. And of course, for those who need it, we’re retaining a paper option," she said.
BPS applicants in England will be able to start their online claim from the first week of March, the RPA has announced.
The agency is encouraging farmers and agents who are planning to apply online to start their applications as early as possible, with a view to submitting completed applications from around mid-March.
Mr Grimshaw said: “I want to encourage applicants to claim BPS online in 2016. We have learnt from 2015 and have made changes to the Rural Payments service for 2016.
“Lots of farmers and agents have told us they are keen to apply online again but we also understand that some farmers may need a paper option and this will be available for those who need it.”
Applicants will be able to view their maps online for the first time and the service has built-in elements that help to check the application.
There are four stages to completing applications.
From the first week of March until around the middle of the month, applicants will be able to check the information the RPA holds already and begin to make changes, including transferring land and entitlements.
From around mid-March onwards, applicants can complete their declarations and confirm the information in their application before final submission.
There will be on-screen assistance and the option to call the Rural Services helpline on 03000 200 301 if further support is needed.
In March, the RPA will send all registered customers paper guidance about how to apply online.
The application deadline will be midnight on 16 May 2016.