Defra has been forced to make a humiliating U-turn and reinstate the paper form for farmers applying for the new Basic Payment Scheme this year.
In a press briefing on Thursday (19 March), Mark Grimshaw, chief executive of Defra’s Rural Payments Agency (RPA) admitted farmers, landowners and agents in England were “very concerned” about the slowness and complexity of the online BPS mapping tool.
He said the mapping tool simply wasn’t working properly and he had decided that “enough was enough”.
“We are essentially going back a year, giving people the paper option,” conceded Mr Grimshaw.
With the BPS deadline for applications extended by one month to 15 June, all farmers are now being offered the opportunity to complete applications on paper forms.
Up to Thursday, 74,000 farm businesses in England had registered for the service – equivalent to 84% of eligible businesses. The RPA is trying to reach the 12,000 – 14,000 businesses that have not yet registered.
Need to register
Mr Grimshaw stressed that despite the reintroduction of paper-based applications, all farmers still needed to register for the new BPS Rural Payments service – either online or by contacting the RPA helpline on 03000 200 301 – to be able to make their claim.
The NFU said it had been given assurances by the RPA that the full BPS mapping service and functions would be available for registered farmers to use from last weekend.
But Mr Grimshaw admitted to “performance problems” with the online interface and he had resort to a contingency plan of paper-based applications.
“The bit that we have had all the problems with is the ‘update my land mapping’ functionality, because it is slow, it’s difficult to explain to customers. Quite simply, it isn’t doing what we need it to do,” he explained.
“The release at the weekend was supposed to fix it. It didn’t. So I have taken the decision that enough’s enough. We have spent the rest of this week in discussions with Defra and the decision is that we will not be re-establishing the land element of the portal.”
Mr Grimshaw said his priority now was to ensure that every farmer, landowner and land agent is given the help they need to make their claims online. “Using tried-and-tested RPA forms will make this happen,” he added.
From Monday 23 March, two paper forms will be available to download on the RPA website – www.gov.uk. These are:
- RLE1, which allows claimants to transfer land and entitlements and make changes to their land
- BP5 (formerly known as “SP5”), the new BPS paper claim form.
Mr Grimshaw said: “From Monday, customers can download a blank BP5 and start to fill it in in reference to their particular holding.
“It is feasible that by the end of play Tuesday, the first customer could have completed their land BP5, marked up their paper map, completed the assurance document, which will be straightforward ticks to say that they are who they say they are, ticks around active farmer, grouped it all together and sent it back to us.
“We will be sending out paper maps to everyone who needs a paper map. That will be everybody who doesn’t fall into the ‘straghtforward’ category and anybody who hasn’t received a paper map from us in the last six months.
“We have already sent out 17,000 paper maps in the last six weeks, mainly to agents.”
He added: “We will also be putting up on the website the RLE1 for land and entitlement changes. Both forms are well known to the industry.”
The RPA has identified 39,000 registered farmers who they believe need little change to their land, based on inferred 2014 land use. These customers will be fast-tracked and receive an email in April that summarises the land and entitlement information already held.
“We will be writing to every one of these 39,000 registered customers this Friday,” said Mr Grimshaw. “They don’t have greening, EFAs (ecological focus areas), they are less than 10ha, or they have got more than 75% permanent pasture.
“We are going to send them an email to tell them what we are doing – quite simply, paper is back, drop-in centres are back.”
Farmers and their agents will also be able to get tailored help at the 50 digital support centres around England, which will now act as drop-in centres. And the RPA will provide mobile units to help reach the most isolated and vulnerable farmers.
Agents and larger farmers will be offered the opportunity to be trained to use the closed network of the digital BPS service, which is also used by RPA staff to process claims.
Mr Grimshaw said: “It will take us 3-4 weeks to set up a network access for large agents and customers who actually want to be trained to use the service; to be able to get in and use it.
“They can then use that in perpetuity. It will be at the core of our proposition from here on in.”
All land agents will have received maps of their clients’ land from the RPA by the end of next week. Those dealing with the most complex cases will be offered additional support. The RPA is also working to give them direct access to the system.
George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA), questioned whether Defra had learned anything from the last payments fiasco which rocked the industry in 2005.
He said his association had been expressing concerns about the functionality of the system as long as two years ago.
“It was being driven by Defra/Gov.Uk service philosophy that ‘digital by default’ was the right way to go – we didn’t think it was appropriate,” he added.
“We thought this was going to end in tears. It’s quite evident that the RPA has been left in an extremely difficult position by GDS and Defra, who created a system that was never going to work.”
But Mr Dunn said it would be completely unfair to single out Mr Grimshaw for blame.
“This is by no means RPA’s fault. It’s only of late that the RPA has managed to get a hold of the IT exclusively to try and get it to work. It has been a Defra-run project to this point,” he added.
“Mark Grimshaw has secured victory out of the jaws of defeat by moving to a paper-based system. We would congratulate him on being able to secure such a fundamental change in position from the government.”
Mr Dunn said he felt concerned that Mr Grimshaw would take the blame himself.
“He’s going to be the fall guy for Defra’s faults. But if it was not for Mark and his tenacity, we would still be fiddling around with a system that was never going to work.”
Ross Murray, deputy president of the Country Land and Business Association, said: “We are disappointed that landowners are now put in the position of having to revert to a paper-based system. However, given the concerns about the capabilities and functionality of the IT system we are relieved that the RPA has listened to us and taken action, before it is too late.
“We will continue to meet with the RPA to ensure that every measure is being taken so that claims can be made on time and payments made at the earliest opportunity. We are also pressing government for adequate resources to be made available for this change in process.”
But shadow Defra secretary Maria Eagle tore into the government for spending £154m on an IT system which now needed to be backed up by paper forms.
Ms Eagle said: “It’s good that the government has finally accepted Labour’s call for a paper-based contingency but why has it taken them so long?
“We’ve known for weeks about the problems with the IT system while ministers were burying their heads in the sand and pretending everything was fine.
“They’ve finally admitted to their incompetence at the last minute and caused chaos and confusion for hardworking farmers. The government must now clearly explain what they’re doing to fix the IT system problems in the shortest time possible.”
A Defra spokesman said: “We support the practical measures that the RPA is taking to ensure farmers and their agents can submit their BPS claim on time.
“Our priority has always been to ensure that everyone who is registered wants to make a claim has the help they need to do so.”