Thousands of farmers are facing financial meltdown as a result of failings by the government agency which handles their support payments, say farm leaders.
They claim that Defra and the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) have consistently refused to listen to demands, from the NFU and other farming organisations, to pay Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) part payments.
The inaction left thousands of farmers without a clue as to when they would be paid their BPS, in one of the most challenging farming years in living memory.
More than four months after the BPS payment window opened on 1 December, the RPA announced last week that some 9,000 farmers still waiting for their money would receive 50% Treasury-funded bridging payments to ease their hardship.
RPA chief executive Mark Grimshaw also assured the NFU that all farmers would be paid in full by the end of June.
But farm leaders say the decision to bankroll 50% bridging loans does not go far enough to save some farmers from financial meltdown.
Devon farmer Richard Haddock said some tenant farmers may even be under threat of eviction because their single farm payments were now months behind schedule.
He criticised ministers for allowing the crisis to rumble on for weeks after the Scottish government stepped in to offer interest-free loans to tide its farmers over.
Mr Haddock, who is also chairman of the Conservative Rural Affairs Group, said the government’s indifference to the scale of the confusion at the RPA – and its consequences – had been “scandalous”.
He pointed out that in March Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon had authorised 100% interest-free loans to unpaid producers north of the border within hours of being alerted to the scale of the crisis.
Mr Haddock asked: “What have we seen by way of intervention by a government led by a party which claims to have the interests of the countryside at heart?
“Absolutely nothing until this week – and if you listen to the farming charities 50% payments are not going to be enough to save many people from going under.
“If one farm business fails, if one family is evicted as a result of this monumental breakdown of government machinery I shall hold David Cameron and Liz Truss personally responsible.”
Mr Haddock hit out as the NFU and Country Land and Business Association (CLA) issued a joint statement, urging Defra secretary Liz Truss to take urgent action to respond to the criticisms of the 2015 BPS scheme and the consequences for 2016.
‘Firm leadership’ needed
The NFU and CLA have written to Ms Truss to demand urgent assurances in four key areas:
- When will the 2015 payments round be completed and when can those receiving a 50% bridging payment expect to be paid in full?
- Will the RPA have sufficient staff resource to support and resolve post-payment adjustments before the end of August and will such cases receive interest on outstanding payments?
- What safeguards will Defra give to 2016 BPS applicants that they will not be penalised for RPA’s maladministration, especially given unexplained changes to 2015 application data and payments in the coming months on issues created since the delivery of the BPS in spring 2015?
- Will RPA’s system allow applicants to make timely applications before the window closes on 16 May?
NFU vice-president Guy Smith, who is still to receive his own BPS payment, said: “We need the Secretary of State to now show firm leadership on this issue and give some much needed guarantees to our members.
“Last week we received the announcement that the RPA would be making 50% bridging payments to those yet to receive full payments, but ministers should not be surprised that this latest decision by the RPA has created further distrust rather than assurance amongst farmers.”
Farmers Weekly has requested a response from Defra.