The Rural Payments Agency says it has made a “good start” towards distributing English farmers’ 2008 single payments.

In a statement to MPs, DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn said just over £700m had been paid to 21,000 claimants by 16 December.

Further payment runs were expected to be made before Christmas.

Mr Benn said the number of payments already made showed the RPA had made a good start towards meeting its target of making 75% of 2008 payments by the end of January.

It expected to complete 90% of payments by the end of March 2009.

However shadow agriculture minister Jim Paice said the progress made by the RPA needed to be faster, particularly as 84% of Scottish farmers were expected to receive their payment by Christmas day.

“Money is particularly tight in the run-up to Christmas and delays in paying invoices are really hurting small suppliers,” he said.

“But as Ministers lecture the supermarkets they themselves are presiding over unacceptable delays in payments to farmers.

“We are now into the fourth year of the Single Payment Scheme but progress is lamentably slow. Why should English farmers be the poor relation in Europe?

“It is time for the Government to practice what it preaches and get payments flowing into bank accounts.”

Last week the government was fined £75m for failing to get single farm payments out in time in previous years.

The RPA also announced this week (16 December) that it has been told to publish further personal details of farmers who have received farm subsidies.