Rural Payments Agency (RPA) chief executive Paul Caldwell has warned that it will take time to improve the way support payments are delivered to farmers, amid mounting concern that lack of cashflow this winter could drive some farmers out of business.
In his first major speech since being appointed in July, Mr Caldwell addressed farmers at this week’s Northern Farming Conference.
The agency’s customer service had sometimes not been what it should be, he admitted to delegates at Hexham Auction Mart, Northumberland.
The conference on Wednesday (8 November) was held just three weeks before basic payments are due to start in England, on 1 December.
Mr Caldwell said he wanted to adopt a more inclusive approach to farmers and would not “close the door” on anyone with an outstanding problem.
He added: “I understand entirely the importance of timely payments. I understand that it is all about cashflow.
“One of my commitments is to make sure that our decisions – when we take them – are based around what it is that gets the most cash out to the most people as quickly as possible.”
Last year, some 78,000 (91%) of farmers in England received their 2016 Basic Payment by the end of December, with a further 2% by the end of January 2017.
Mr Caldwell said: “I have gone on record as saying that our performance this year should match that of last year.”
Mr Caldwell said he was reluctant to go further because of the agency’s commitment to sorting out the legacy of past problems. But he faced stiff questions from farmers in the audience, who described the agency’s on-going performance as a shambles.
Mixed organic farmer Christopher Pitt, of Whenby, North Yorkshire, said some schemes had become so complicated, many claimants were forced to use agents.
They should be simplified so ordinary farmers could make their own decisions and applications, he suggested.
Cumbria livestock and arable farmer Giles Mounsey-Heysham said: “We have only just been paid our final payments for 2015 and 2016. It caused huge difficulties.
“We stopped any investment; we were looking at laying off people and we were in permanent discussions with the bank.”
Mr Caldwell said he was working to improve the service provided by the agency.
But he cautioned: “I don’t think you will see a change next week. It is a bit like trying to change the plumbing without first turning the stopcock off. You’ve got to work in sections.”