The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) has been heavily criticised by MPs over its delivery of the 2015 Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) and the confusing communications that accompanied it.
In a report published on Tuesday, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee described the agency’s failure to meet its March BPS target as ‘unacceptable’.
The report highlighted numerous concerns with the 2016 application process and demanded steps to ensure significant improvements in how the scheme is delivered over the next 12 months and beyond.
This includes the RPA keeping to its commitment to deliver 90 per cent of full payments in December 2016 and much greater clarity for farmers about when payments will arrive.
EFRA chair Neil Parish said: “Farmers face extreme hardship as prices for produce are low.
“Many producers rely on CAP payments to pay their bills so it is unacceptable that farmers are left uncertain over when their payments will arrive.”
“This is unacceptable,” the report concluded.
The MPs welcomed the decision to issue bridging payments to farmers still unpaid at the end of April but said it was ‘disappointing that it took so long for them to be issued’.
The report said: “CAP reform has created a particularly large challenge for the RPA in making accurate and timely payments in 2015–16, but for farmers awaiting payment, the delays are causing significant financial hardship and anxiety.”
The payment delays have been compounded by ‘confusion over communications from the RPA about payments and the length of delays’.
“Farmers have repeatedly criticised the RPA for poor communications,” the report said.
“The RPA failed to deliver Mark Grimshaw’s commitment to pay 92-95 per cent of claims in March, but did not tell the farmers still expecting their payments that previous communications about that missed target were invalid.”
It said phone lines have been ‘inadequately resourced’ to deal with the volume of complaints and issues arising from an overlap between 2015 payments now being made and 2016 applications now feeding through, with farmers placed in queues of up to 63 callers.
Mr Parish added: “Many farmers have struggled to work out what their entitlements are under the new CAP system, and it has been difficult for them to clarify their numbers with the RPA.”
The MPs express major reservations about the 2016 application process and make a number of recommendations to ensue the scheme runs more smoothly than the 2015 version.
Mr Parish said: "As the RPA now has to take applications for next year at the same time as paying the remaining 2015 claims, it needs to make sure that next year’s process is set up to provide good customer service for farmers, and to minimise the fines that will be charged by the EU for any errors in the payment processing.
"We expect a return to 2014’s performance levels of 90% payments made by the end of December this year.”
In conclusion the committee called on Defra and RPA to stop using the ‘complexity in the CAP as an on-going excuse or justification for delays in payments to farmers'.
The MPs promised to hold Mr Grimshaw and Defra to account if farmers again face delays and confusion over their 2016 payments.
An RPA spokesperson said: “English farmers are on track to get their BPS 2016 applications in on time, and over three quarters of applications have already been submitted or are in progress.
"All claims should be submitted by the deadline of midnight on 16 May.
“As in previous years we will endeavour to ensure 2016 payments are made as promptly as possible within the payment window.”
The RPA and Defra will consider and respond to all of the report’s recommendations 'in due course'.
Recommendations in the report include: