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Farmers fear further IT trouble in rural payments



Parliamentary committee highlights agency’s failure to meet deadlines while farm groups express forebodings of more problems

Farmers have told MPs they fear further online chaos after applying for subsidies from the troubled Rural Payments Agency (RPA).

Major IT problems - which led to to “significant disruption and distress for farmers” last year, according to a Commons select committee – is likely to be repeated, they have said.

This week, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee strongly criticised “unacceptable” delays in making payments owed under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. It told the RPA to stop blaming “complexity in the CAP as an ongoing excuse or justification for delays in payments to farmers”.

Instead, the committee criticised the payments mechanism, including faulty IT systems – concluding: “The Rural Payments Agency failed to deliver its expected delivery standards for 2015 payments.”

In the 2014-15 financial year, 97% of payments to farmers were made by the end of December. But that proportion fell to 51% in 2015-16.

Although Mark Grimshaw, chief executive of the RPA, said “the vast majority” of claims would be paid by the end of January 2016, just 77% of payments had been made by that date. Then only 88% of farmers had been paid by mid-April - missing Mr Gimshaw’s pledge to pay “between 92% and 95% by the end of March”, despite the installation of better software.

Submission deadline

The web portal for applications for 2016-17 payments went live on March 7, with a deadline of May 16 - next Tuesday - for submitting claims.

Farmers’ representatives conveyed a lack of faith in the prospects for an improvement in their evidence to the inquiry.

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) said: “Many of our members have reported missing or incorrect data in their 2016 applications, which does little to restore confidence in the online system.

“Also there is very little clarity about what a claimant can do to resolve underpayment or missing data issues.”

Guy Smith, vice president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), said: “Most of those who have been paid still await their claims statements. This delay is worrying partly because time is dragging on and partly because many can’t understand the amount they have been paid and fear something is awry.

“The worst case scenario is that there are thousands of glitches and queries to correct before 2016 applications can be made with confidence.

“Until the claims statements go out, we can’t be sure the RPA is functioning properly. Nor can we be sure the 2016 application process will be any smoother than last year’s prolonged chaos.”

In its report, the committee concludes: “The RPA met its December and January targets by the barest margins. It missed its March target. This is unacceptable.”

It also calls for farmers to be offered extra financial help if the RPA misses its delivery targets again this year.

Earlier this year, the Commons Public Accounts Committee published a scathing report on the farm payments problem, attributing blame to the RPA, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Government Digital Service. It said they failed to work together effectively in creating a new digital front end for farmers.

Image from Donnylad, Creative Commons through Wikimedia

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