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RPA criticised by MPs over 'unacceptable' BPS performance

The EFRA Committee has demanded a vastly improved performance from the RPA in delivering the 2016 BPS after failing to meet its 2015 targets and letting farmers down with poor communications.
MPs are unimpressed with Defra and the RPA's handling of BPS 2015.
MPs are unimpressed with Defra and the RPA's handling of BPS 2015.

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.”

 


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RPA targets

  • The RPA delivered 51 per cent of BPS 2015 payments in December, including 38 per cent on the first banking day of the payment window.
  • This compared with 97 per cent of Single Payment Scheme (SPS) payments delivered the previous December, including 95 per cent on day one.
  • It its target of delivering the majority of payments in December and the ‘vast majority’ in January, internally set at 75 per cent, by the ‘barest margins’.
  • But it missed its March target. When Mr Grimshaw gave evidence to the inquiry in March, he committed to pay ‘between 92 and 95 per cent’ by the end of March.
  • The integration of a piece of software would allow for ‘pretty much all of the commons payments, about 3,500, during March, except those linked to complex cases’
  • In the event, only 88 per cent of farmers had been paid by mid-April, about 3,500 short of the March target.

“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.”

 

Communication breakdown

 

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.”

 

Better performance in 2016

 

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.

 

RPA response

 

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'.

Key recommendations

Recommendations in the report include:

 

Hardship

  • The RPA should consider support for all affected farmers, regardless of the complexity of their claim, if it fails to meet its 2016 target of delivering 90 per cent of payments in December, to avoid hardship for farmers facing cash flow issues.
  • This should include early part-payment or interest-free loans for those who will be paid late next year owing to complications with their 2016 claim - including but not limited to inspections, land transfers, common land and change of use.

Communications

  • The RPA must communicate clearly in effective and informative language with its customers, and ensure that it is appropriately resourced with trained staff to deal with queries and complaints.
  • It should set Key Performance Indicators for communications and customer service.

2016 applications

  • RPA should take the opportunity offered by the European Commission to extend the application window by one month. This must not come at the cost of making outstanding BPS payments in full, or releasing hardship grants to farmers as quickly as possible
  • Defra must ensure the data in the system for 2015 claims is verified both by the RPA and by farmers, using accurate claims statements, to ensure that claims for 2016 are made from an accurate starting point
  • A mechanism must be found to ensure that the RPA, not farmers, is penalised for data issues
  • The RPA must ensure all farmers are registered for BPS 2016 ahead of the 16 May deadline even if their precise claim cannot be finalised until two weeks later.
  • The RPA must offer support to farmers to resolve queries and ensure that accurate claims are filed on time.

Disallowance

  • Defra must continue to work with the EU to reduce the amount of disallowance penalties that are charged as a result of payment errors, and within its own processes to minimise disallowance risks. The UK has paid more than £642 million in disallowance over the past 10 years – in effect, fines for wrongly apply the CAP rules.

 

 

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