The Rural Payments Agency has said it is on schedule to start paying English farmers the full single-farm payment in February 2006.

The government admitted last week that there was a possibility that only an interim payment would be made in February because of changes proposed to the administration system by the EU (News, 7 October).

But DEFRA has successfully persuaded Brussels to give the UK a derogation from the new arrangements. This means the RPA will not have to rewrite its computer software, which it feared would take at least a month.

Speaking at NFU Council on Monday, RPA chief executive Johnston McNeill said the RPA remained on target for payments to start in February. All the IT systems needed were now in place.

 The RPA had also built in a month’s contingency to give it breathing room should anything go wrong.

“We know that the timetable is very challenging, but the good news is that the RPA remains on target for payments to start in February and we can pay within three weeks.

In addition, in the event that something happens between now and February, we are developing an interim payment system that will allow us to make a partial payment in February.”

Mr McNeill indicated that if problems forced the agency into making interim payments, then they could be between 40% and 50% of the full amount, although Brussels would decide on the final arrangements.

But the cash was unlikely to come before February because part-payments were “not as straightforward as has been suggested”.

This comment was in direct response to a claim that EU farm commissioner Marian Fischer Boel has indicated that member states should be able to pay 50%-60% in December.

RPA operations director Ian Hewett also confirmed that definitive entitlements will be notified to farmers as early as possible in the new year.