Promised upgrades to the Rural Payments service this week could make or break the first Basic Payment Scheme application process in England, farming leaders have warned.
The roll out of the system has not gone as smoothly as Defra and RPA had hoped and, with just over two months to go until the May 15 BPS deadline tensions are rising.
The NFU said farmers’ patience was wearing thin as problems persist with the service despite previous promises of upgrades, while the Country Land and Business Association said many farmers’ claims were likely to ‘go down to the wire’.
During a recent meeting with farming industry leaders, RPA executives committed to making full mapping functions available from this weekend.
An RPA spokesman said more functions would be added to the system through March and April and promised farmers ‘will be able to finish their claim and submit well in advance of the May 15 deadline’.
But NFU vice president Guy Smith said: “If this level of functionality is not successfully dropped in this week then I’m sure the mood of the NFU and farmers will heighten from one of concern to one of justified alarm.”
“The RPA must deliver on its own mapping deadline as farmers will expect and deserve nothing less at this late stage.”
Country Land and Business Association (CLA) agricultural advisor Ed Barker predicted many applications would not be ready to submit in time if similar revisions and ‘down time’ were required to update the system to those introduced so far, “With around two months to go until the claim deadline, it is clear that for many farmers and landowners, it will go down to the wire,” he said.
But Farming Minister George Eustice said he remained ‘confident’ the system would deliver.
Mr Eustice said: “It is human nature that the closer we get to May 15, farmers will be anxious. But we are confident we are going to be able to get there.
“We recognise there have been issues in the last couple of weeks around the speed of the system. We are working on software updates we are going to start putting in this weekend that will hopefully improve the speed and the performance.”
By the middle of this week, three-quarters of the estimated 87,000 eligible farm businesses in England, had registered.
But the RPA is concerned about the 20,000 or so farmers who have still not registered.
An RPA spokesman said it was ‘really important those who have not yet registered do so as soon as possible’ (on 03000 200 301). “The most important thing is that people get registered now. And if you are already registered, make sure your friends and family are also online. It is quick and easy so please do not put it off,” he said.
The biggest problems so far have been with the failure of the mapping functions, a major requirement of the application process, given the new greening rules and the need to map ineligible features.
The system is frequently going down at short notice for upgrades, making it difficult for farmers and agents make progress on their maps.
Data processing has been ‘woefully slow’, according to NFU vice president Guy Smith, while farmers have also expressed concerns over missing and inaccurate field data on their forms.
There have been limited improvements in recent weeks, for example, in hedgerow mapping but the changes are ‘piecemeal’, according to CLA agricultural advisor Ed Barker.
There is also concern that other key functions such as the ability to record and entitlement trading still have not been added.
Many claimants are also struggling with insufficient broadband speed. According to Mr Barker, Defra said last year 1 MB/sec would be enough to process mapping but it is now clear at least twice as much is needed to process land based changes ‘without any severe delays or problems’.
Arable farmers have the most to do as they have more greening mapping requirements but livestock farmers, with spring lambing and calving underway, are also up against it, said NFU senior BPS advisor Richard Wordsworth.
According to Mr Barker, very large claimants with many parcels and features to add or amend and those who have different land use types under the same claim; such as lowland, common land and SDA land are facing particular difficulties.
New entrants and those who have transferred land and/or entitlements are also up against it, he said.
Agents are also reported to be struggling to make progress with the large volumes of claims coming their way.
With hundreds of BPS applications to complete, Bidwells said it faced a ‘formidable set of challenges to ensure that all claims are successfully submitted by May 15’.
A spoksperson said the problems arise when the RPA’s mapping systems are being updated.
“As we cannot see the maps, let alone make changes to them, this makes it very difficult to verify that the information the RPA holds about land attached to a particular business is correct. We wish to start applications as soon as possible but with limited information on when all functions will be available from the RPA time is becoming increasingly precious.”
“We face a huge task of mapping each of our clients’ individual Ecological Focus Areas, new ineligible features and possible crop splits, however it is hard to start as we do not wish towait for all of the functions to be available before acting. #
“But it has come to the point where we have to bite the bullet and compare the maps against our cropping schedules and see where mapping may be needed.”
She warned the delay in the full functionality of the BPS online system could push up the cost of BPS applications relative to SPS applications due to the extra time spent working on behalf of clients.
The issues stem from the ‘iterative’ approach taken to delivering the system, which has been released gradually and constantly updated, taking the system out of action, using feedback from farmers. The approach has undermined the confidence of farmers and agents who expected better performance from the system when they got to use it.
The RPA spokesman said: “We are constantly updating and improving the service based on the feedback we have received from users.
“Occasionally the service will be briefly interrupted while we make technical changes but we always endeavour to minimise disruption and update users in advance.”
Mr Eustice said the iterative process was preferable to a ‘big bang launch in April only to find there are all sorts of unpredicted problems’.
The RPA has outlined what the latest updates should deliver. In March it expects farmers to have the ability to:
In April they should be able to:
“Farmers will be able to finish their claim and submit well in advance of the May 15 deadline,” the spokesman said.
The industry, having being promised improvements previously, is taking a wait and see approach.
Mr Barker said: “If we have as many revisions and ‘down time’ for entitlement transfers, business changes and splitting or changing parcel boundaries, then we do not think that many applications will be ready to submit in time.
“We have been assured that these processes should be much simpler than the mapping, but this confidence will not be echoed throughout the industry.”
Mr Wordsworth said: “Defra need to get the online mapping and land functionality up and running, so we can get farmers to move from the registration and review phase to look at their land.
“We estimate about 90 per cent of time is going to be spent looking at the land element of the new online system, that also includes mapping any ineligible features outside as well as EFA and crop splits for crop diversification.”
The NFU and CLA are demanding that the RPA produce comprehensive guidance that can be easily printed off to help farmers complete the online form.
There is no plan to revert back to a paper-based system if things work out but Defra and RPA insist they are well aware of the pressures they face and are doing what they can to ensure forms can be submitted by May 15.
Mr Eustice said work was being ‘to see whether we can expedite things and make it a quicker process’, for example, reducing the detail required for mapping permanent pasture.
Resources are being made available to help those struggling with their forms. Options include help from a local source of support and attending support centres that have been set up across the country. Those who need help should call the RPA helpline on 03000 200 301.
The CLA is asking Defra to adopt a sensible approach to penalties. Mr Barker said is that there was ‘almost certainly going to be a large number of accidental errors made by farmers, as they make their claims for the first time’.
“As anyone who has used the system will have seen, such errors can easily be made as a result of as single click. The great fear is that after claims have been received, many penalties could be applied as a result of this, even though claimants have been trying as best they can to submit their claims accurately.
“The RPA and Defra must be prepared for this inevitable increase in minor discrepancies, and be prepared to accept that farmers and landowners are not trying to intentionally break rules.”
NFU BPS advisor Richard Wordsworth’s advice in the 2015 CAP Handbook for England