DEFRA has written to EU agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel asking for an extension until mid-October to the deadline for single farm payments to be paid to English farmers.

Mrs Fischer Boel told the European parliament’s agriculture committee in Brussels this week that the letter was sent on 12 April and her services were “examining this request”.

Under the current rules, the UK would be fined if it failed to make all 2005 payments by 30 June.

Agriculture committee member Neil Parish accused DEFRA secretary Margaret Beckett of duplicity.

“The payments were first promised in January, then in February, then in March and then in June.

Now for the first time we hear that Mrs Beckett is manoeuvring behind our backs to secure an extension until the autumn.

“How on earth can our farmers remain economically viable if they are not paid until October?

How can they be expected to fill in their (2006) claims next month without even knowing if their 2005 claims have been accepted?

Mrs Beckett needs to find answers to these questions fast.”

DEFRA confirmed on Wednesday (26 April) that it had put in the request to Brussels for an extension to the payment window, though insisted this was “just a precaution”.

“We still aim to meet the end of June deadline,” said a spokeswoman.

“But if we go down the partial payment route, it is possible we will go beyond 30 June, so we are looking to cover for this eventuality.”

The 15 October date had been chosen as this was the end of the EU’s financial year, she added.

The NFU said it was not surprised by DEFRA’s request, as at the current rate of SFP validation, final payments would not be made until well into the autumn.

“But if DEFRA is to avoid penalties for late payments, then farmers should be let off fines for late submissions of their 2006 claim forms,” said a spokeswoman.

Extending the deadline to October also gave DEFRA another escape route from paying interest on delayed payments, she added.

On the subject of interim SFPs, farming leaders have been told that they should get a rough timetable for partial payments at next week’s stakeholder meeting (Thursday, 4 May).

Appearing in the House of Commons last week, the only commitment DEFRA secretary Margaret Beckett was prepared to make was that “all those who are eligible will receive full or substantial part payments by the end of June”.

Brussels will be publishing legal proposals later this month to pave the way for 20% national modulation, taking SFP funds from farmers to finance rural development initiatives.

Only the UK is likely to make use of this provision.

Single Farm Payment Scheme special report from FWi

fwnews@rbi.co.uk