Farming Minister George Eustice has told MPs he expects at least 75 per cent of Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) payments to have been delivered by the end of January.
At the end of debate in the House of Commons on Thursday during which Defra and the Rural Payments Agency were accused of ’letting down’ farmers, he suggested such a figure would constitute the ’vast majority’ of payments, as long-promised by Defra and RPA.
But MPs were sceptical about whether the agency could claim to have reached its ambiguous January target and highlighted the cash flow difficulties and immense hardship some of their constituents were suffering as a result.
They were heavily critical of the communication strategy from Defra and RPA, while questions were raised about the new IT system and the quality of the RPA’s leadership and staff.
MPs also sought assurances significant improvements would be made for BPS 2016.
Opening the debate, Wells MP James Heappey said there had been ’real anger and uncertainty in the farming community over the Basic Payment Scheme’.
"The difficulty is that there has been a shocking failure of expectation management by the RPA, and that comes down to the agency’s use of the term “vast majority”," he said describing the term as ’awfully hard to define’.
Mr Eustice, who went out of his way to praise RPA staff and give his backing to its leadership team, said the latest payment run had taken the number of farmers paid to 61,172, just over 70 per cent of the total payment application.
A further payment run this weekend, which will see the money arrive in farmers’ accounts in the middle of next week, would he said ’would take us to the vast majority of payments being made’.
"The final batch will take it probably above 75 per cent. We are still working on that now," he said.
Challenged to confirm whether he believed that would represent the ’vast majority’, he said:
"We can agonise over the definition of the vast majority. As far as I am concerned over 60,000 farmers is a vast amount of applications and a vast amount of work has gone into processing."
Mr Eustice insisted the 'core' of the Rural Payments system had been working well and insisted the 'root cause' of the delays was the complexity of the new Common Agricultural Policy, notably the additional burdens associated with greening rules.
He revealed between 800 and 1,000 people had been 'in the RPA working on this seven days a week to try to get these applications on the system and to get payments out to farmers as quickly as possible'. In a typical year, the figure would be nearer 400.
He described criticism of communications as 'probably a little unfair'.
"A letter went out in November and a further letter has gone out to those not receiving payments now, in January.
"The RPA has held almost weekly meetings with key NFU office holders and regularly attends NFU councils, so I do not accept the allegation that people have been kept in the dark and not informed."
Mr Eustice contrasted the RPA’s performance with the situation in Scotland, where only a quarter of farmers have received their initial part payment, and with the RPA’s disastrous implementation of the 2005 Single Payment Scheme when no-one was paid for the first few months.
He said Defra had taken steps to help farmers facing financial difficulties, including a hardship fund to 'fast-track' payments to those most in need, as well as seeking help from the banks.
Mr Eustice concluded by seeking to reassure MPs things would improve for BPS 2016 and beyond.
"We are confident that having done all the difficult work to get those applications on, from here forward it will be far easier," he said.
Earlier Shadow Farming Minister Nick Smith said: "I have been talking to many farmers since the Rural Payments Agency started making payments in December.
"They are worried, facing mounting bills and waiting for money that the RPA refuses to give them a meaningful deadline for."
He said farmers did not deserve ’an IT system designed to give them peace of mind to stall in such a spectacular fashion’.
"The farmers I have spoken to echo the NFU’s concern that there is a “fog of confusion” as to when farmers will now receive their money," he said.
"When I and colleagues warned the Government that thousands might be left without basic payments for months, we were confidently told the “vast majority” of payments would be made by the end of January."
"I am sorry to say, unless the Minister has much better news for us, that the “vast majority” target set by his boss has been missed by some margin."
"The new Basic Payments Scheme IT system has been useless. Consequently, increased payments to Brussels look inevitable.
"Many farmers have been badly let down."
NFU county delegate for Somerset James Small, who was one of a group of farmers whose meeting with Mr Heappey prompted the debate, said: “The RPA's implementation of the BPS scheme in 2015 has been beset by problems resulting in delays and additional stresses to hard pressed farmers across the country.
NFU Vice President Guy Smith added: “For the thousands of working farmers still waiting for their BPS payments two months after the opening of the payment window it will be reassuring to hear Westminster takes this issue seriously."