If not chaos, then close to it. The Rural Payments Agency”s handling of registrations for the single payment scheme is a mess.

As the May 16 deadline looms, calls from farmers seeking information about the SP5 forms have risen to 2000 a day, according to the agency. They are the lucky ones. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, more farmers are trapped in telephone hell – trying desperately to contact the agency but failing repeatedly. One North Yorks consultant phoned RPA on behalf of a client nearly 60 times one morning without success.

Frustratingly, there”s not even a telephone queuing system. When calls are answered, sometimes staff cannot supply the information required or give conflicting answers to questions. There are delays, too, in registering land with the Rural Land Register. The processing of maps is causing particular headaches.

Much is at stake. Miss the May 16 deadline and progressive punitive penalties apply until the final deadline of June 10. If that deadline is missed farmers jeopardise their entitlement to receive any support from the single payment scheme.

Mistakes on completed forms, whether due to farmers” errors or incorrect information supplied by the agency, could also attract penalties.

The agency must call a halt to this shambles. It has already pledged to recruit more staff for its telephone helpline. But that is not enough.

 Farmers deserve assurances that they will not be penalised for delays when registering land. Also there should be no penalty for errors that have stemmed from inaccurate maps or poor RPA advice.

Meanwhile, farmers can help themselves by tackling the forms as soon as possible to maximise their chance of meeting the May 16 deadline. But the RPA must do more to help.

News, p6; Arable, p41