Ombudsman upholds SFP claims complaints

Nine farmers who made innocent mistakes on their single farm payment applications are to be reimbursed thousands of pounds after an investigation by a government watchdog.

The parliamentary ombudsman, Ann Abraham, has upheld a series of complaints about the government’s handling of the Single Payment Scheme in 2005 and 2006.

In a report published on Wednesday (30 November), the ombudsman said the farmers complained to her office about the Rural Payment Agency’s handling of their claims on a number of counts.

They said the agency had provided poor-quality and sometimes ambiguous guidance on how to make a claim, failed to return telephone calls when promised and misdirected them about the status of their cases.

Farmers also said the RPA delayed letting them know that they would not be paid and did not explain their decisions properly.

Ms Abraham said: “Amid the confusion of a new system, these nine farmers made innocent mistakes in their claims for financial support.

“The farmers realised their mistakes only when their payments did not arrive at all, or fell far short of the amounts expected. By then it was too late for the farmers either to correct their mistakes or to plan ahead for having thousands of pounds less money than expected.”

The report said in one case, a farmer misunderstood the new SPS form and only claimed a subsidy for the year 2005. She did not activate her claim and subsequently did not receive the £13,000 payment she was expecting.

No one questioned her mistake and she only found out about her error almost a year later when she asked what had happened to her money.

As a result of the ombudsman’s investigation, the farmers have each received a written apology from the permanent secretary of DEFRA and compensation of £500 for the inconvenience, distress and frustration they experienced.

They will also receive individual payments to put right the financial impact of the RPA’s failures.

A DEFRA spokeswoman said: “We fully accept the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s findings.

“Significant improvements have been made at RPA since 2005. But there’s more to be done and agriculture minister Jim Paice is chairing the RPA Oversight Panel to drive changes at the agency which put the customer at the centre of its future plans and improve the speed and accuracy of payments.”

A spokeswoman from the Ombudsman’s office said if other farmers had complaints about the handling of their claims they should always first try to resolve them with the RPA. If they were unhappy after this process, they could talk to the Parliamentary Ombudsman but their case would need to be referred to them by an MP. Farmers considering going down this path could call the helpline for further guidance (0345 015 4033).

The RPA said the cases related back to 2005-6 and the agency had come a long way since then on driving up customer service standards.  “So if any farmer is not happy with the service they are receiving now, they can contact the RPA by telephone, email or letter. We will thoroughly investigate their complaint and respond.”