Earlier this week the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) told Farmers Weekly it was “committed to getting back to the level of performance experienced under the previous Single Payment Scheme”.

Following what has been arguably the worst year in the history of direct payments delivery, the news is welcome.

The past 10 months have been beset with problems – late payments, underpayments and even overpayments, not to mention poor communication, shifting deadlines and broken promises.

BPS Watch logoSee also: Read more about the Basic Payment Scheme

It has been a similar tale in Scotland – worse in fact – with serious issues caused by a flaky IT system and the introduction of a new payment system.

Such poor performances have caused real hardship for many producers, already struggling with depressed prices and challenging weather for much of 2016.

In an endeavour to improve, the Scottish government has already agreed to a new loan system to get money flowing in November. Northern Ireland is doing even better, with 70% advance BPS payments starting next week.

New targets

The RPA has also set itself new targets, aiming to make sure 90% of claimants receive their BPS money in the month of December.

If that is achieved, it will mark a massive improvement on 2015, when just 51% of claims were met in that first month of the payment window.

But there are lingering concerns about where things will go from there.

According to the new targets, the RPA’s next objective is to ensure 93% of customers are paid by the end of March.

That is just 3%, or about 2,600 more claims, settled over a three-month period – not exactly ambitious.

More worrying still, that suggests about 7%, or more than 6,000 farmers, will still be waiting for their money next spring.

These are not just numbers. They represent real people, with real bills to pay and real families to feed.

BPS Watch

Given the importance of BPS to keeping most farm businesses afloat, Farmers Weekly is this week launching BPS Watch.

As the name suggests, we will be keeping a close eye on the RPA’s delivery performance, as well as that of the devolved administrations, highlighting any areas where they fall short.

We will also seek to ensure greater transparency, so that farmers are kept properly informed about when they will be paid and how their payments are calculated.

And we will be watching how the payments are prioritised. Will the value match the volume? Will the people who were at the back of the queue this year be at the back of the queue next year? Will they be offered bridging payments to keep them going?

As part of our BPS Watch, we will also be inviting farmers to share their experiences, so that any failings or slippage in BPS delivery is put into the public domain.

We are mindful that all the administrations in the UK have promised to do better this time round. Let’s face it, for most it would be hard to do any worse. What is crucial is that they now deliver on their promises.

Philip Clarke
Executive editor