Defra minister George Eustice faces a grilling by MPs over the slow delivery of basic payments to farmers in England.
Mr Eustice is due to give evidence to the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on Wednesday (23 March).
During the evidence session, MPs will quiz Mr Eustice about progress with payments for 2015 and the government’s views on progress with applications for 2016.
It follows a similar evidence session earlier this month during which Rural Payments Agency (RPA) chief executive Mark Grimshaw sought to explain the reasons for the delays.
Up to 14,000 farmers, including 4,500 common land farmers, are still waiting to receive their basic payment in England, according to the latest government figures.
Some 72,700 farmers – almost 84% of eligible claims worth a total of £1.15bn – had been paid up to Friday (18 March), said the RPA.
But industry leaders have raised serious concerns about the slow progress being made on the processing of the remaining £250m to farmers.
So far this month only 1,000 more farmers have received their single farm payment – despite Mr Grimshaw’s pledge to MPs that 92-95% of farmers will be paid by the end of March.
The RPA said most farmers who have not been paid are those with the “most complex” cases – including common land or those who had inspections.
According to the Foundation for Common Land, to date only 5% of commoners have been paid, leaving 4,500 still waiting for their BPS cash.
Foundation director Julia Agonbly described Mr Grimshaw’s pledge as “optimistic” and said it was more likely that most commons farmers would be paid in mid-April and not mid-March. She urged those farmers facing financial hardship to contact the Farming Community Network (FCN) on 03000 111 999.
Even if this target is hit, it will leave close to 5,000 unpaid farmers who will have been waiting for over 120 days since the payment window opened, said NFU vice-president Guy Smith.
Hard to believe
“It’s hard to believe the RPA have good cause or reason to keep this many waiting this long,” said Mr Smith, writing on his NFU blog.
Mr Smith is also concerned that about only 1,000 claim statements had been sent out so far, making it difficult for farmers to apply for BPS 2016 with any confidence.
The scheme has now opened online for applications and the deadline to submit claims is midnight Monday 16 May 2016.
“Until the claims statements go out we can’t be sure the RPA is functioning properly nor can we be sure the 2016 application process will be any smoother than last year’s prolonged chaos,” he added.
The RPA said it had now started contacting farmers who have not yet received their 2015 BPS payment to provide greater clarity on when they will be paid.
Farmers would receive an email – or letter if they don’t have an email address registered in the Rural Payments service – during March. The RPA said it hoped to contact everyone by the end of this month.
Focus on prompt payment
An RPA spokeswoman said the agency’s focus was on prompt payment of remaining 2015 BPS payments and supporting farmers to make 2016 BPS claims by the 16 May deadline.
“The Rural Payments service is working well and 72,700 farmers have received their payment,” the spokesperson said.
“The payments we make are based on the entitlements and eligible land data we hold on the Rural Payments service.
“Payments could be less than last year because of factors such as the exchange rate, a new calculation method and the optional greening element.
“It is also possible that not completing a claim to the level of detail required could also change the value of a payment.
“We will investigate BPS payment concerns flagged to us by farmers and agents and we can make amendments through post-payment adjustments.”
In Scotland, around 11,500 hill farmers and crofters have received letters informing them of arrangements for a national pot to deliver payments to the most remote and fragile areas.
The £200m national pot will be used to provide a cash advance to farmers and crofters still waiting for their first instalment at the end of March.
Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) in Northern Ireland said it had paid 97% of eligible farmers their BPS money by the first week of March.
Northern Ireland farm minister Michelle O’Neill said: “This performance reflects how I and my department view the importance of these payments to farmers.
She added: “My staff remain focused on clearing the remaining claims as quickly as possible.”
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