The Rural Payments Agency’s (RPA) ongoing difficulty in delivering the 2015 Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) in England is generating growing unease about the 2016 application process.
Problems are mounting and the agency is looking increasingly helpless to address them as the May 16 deadline for 2016 applications nears with 10,000 farmers in England still waiting to receive their 2015 payment.
A month ago, RPA chief executive Mark Grimshaw confidently told MPs he expected ’92-95 per cent’ of claims to have been paid by the end of March.
By the middle of this week, a total of 75,630 2015 BPS claims have now been paid in England, representing about 89 per cent of the 85,000 eligible BPS claimants.
Only about 3,000 claims had been delivered during March, well short of the RPA’s expectations.
The agency’s explanation for why it had fallen short - that it was proving harder than expected - was not exactly reassuring.
An RPA spokesman said: "We are now dealing with increasingly complex claims which are proving harder than we anticipated.”
"Particularly for commons and some inspections cases it has taken longer to collect and validate all the information needed to make a payment that does not risk disallowance. Our focus remains on making compliant payments."
"We understand the frustrations expressed by farmers and our efforts are now fully focused on paying the remaining claims."
The agency was unable to give any clear timetable for when the outstanding payments would be made.
NFU vice president Guy Smith, who has still not received his payment, said there is now a ’moral obligation on DEFRA to tell those unpaid as to what is going on and why payments aren’t getting out’.
"It’s now eighteen weeks since the opening of the payment window. As one of those still unpaid I’ve had my patience unreasonably played with," he said.
Country Land and Business Association president Ross Murray said: "The failure to meet these commitments is causing serious issues for businesses that are already facing cash flow challenges in a difficult marketplace."
Beyond the growing cashflow problems for affected farmers , including commons, inspections and cross border claims, numerous other concerns are mounting around the RPA’s handling of the situation.
Communications: Some farmers received letters in March promising payment between March 14 and 31 which subsequently did not arrive, adding to the ‘fog of confusion’ which has dogged BPS 15 from the start. "Communications appear to be an increasing problem,” said Mr Murray.
Underpayments: Mr Murray said there were indications ‘tens of thousands’ of claims might have been underpaid, in some cases with errors of more than 50 per cent.
Missing or incorrect data: Mr Murray said farmers were reporting ’missing or incorrect data in their 2016 applications’, which he said ’does little to restore confidence in the online system’.
Helpline: Farmers are still reporting huge waits, often in excess of 45 minutes, when they contact RPA, as farmers seek clarifications on paid and unpaid 2015 claims and 2016 applications.
Welsh payments: Welsh farmers and Ministers are now blaming the RPA’s problems on delays to the final batch of Welsh payments. Cross border claims cannot be paid until the Welsh Government has received the necessary data from the RPA.
BPS 2016 fears: The big question now is how this will play out with the deadline for 2016 applications just over a month away. Late payments, incorrect payments among those that have been delivered, errors on 2016 applications and overrun helpline are not instilling confidence.
Mr Murray said there were ’still serious weaknesses in the RPA systems’ but ’very little clarity about what a claimant can do to resolve underpayment or missing data issues’.
The RPA spokesman said: "The Rural Payments service is working and has been used to make all payments to date. It is also enabling customers to make their 2016 claims.
He urged to press on with 2016 claims, even if they were not convinced they had all the relevant data at their disposal.
He said: "Farmers can make a BPS 2016 application based on the latest information they have available.
"If they’re not sure what the correct information is, they should claim payment for what they believe they are entitled to, based on the evidence they have."
On cross border claims the spokesman said: "We are working with the Welsh Government to share the relevant information in due course."
NFU uplands spokesman Robin Milton said the situation was becoming ‘increasingly desperate’ for commons farmers, who were still in the dark about the timing of their payment despite being told to expect it to arrive in March.
On March 10, Mr Grimshaw had predicted most commons payments would have been delivered by the end of the month.
Into early April, few have been paid, with cash flow problems biting hard on what Mr Milton as the country's 'toughest farms'.
He said he was not aware of any commons farmers in a position to submit 2016 applications because of all the uncertainty surrounding their 2015 claims.
Mr Milton said: “Not only are they not being paid but they are also being asked to starting putting together their 2016 claim when they haven’t got knowledge of what the situation was this year.
“I fear the situation with the application process could become worse this year than it was last year because at least then they had completed 2014 SPS payments.”
But he urged farmers not to pin all the blame on RPA boss Mark Grimshaw, who he said had been had placed under ‘intense political pressure by Defra to deliver something patently undeliverable’.