Thousands of farmers face an uncertain wait after Rural Payments Agency boss Paul Caldwell refused to say when they would receive their basic payments for 2016.
Some 2,546 claimants in England are still waiting for their 2016 payments, Mr Caldwell told MPs on Tuesday (22 March).
The number represented almost 3% of eligible farmers, he told members of the environment, food and rural affairs select committee.
See also: Farmers reveal basic payment anguish
Committee chairman Neil Parish said it seemed the system seemed to grind to a halt every time there was a minor issue – even when no problem was found.
Mr Parish said: “We are now nearly at the end of March and there are still people left to be paid.”
Mr Caldwell said he was focused on paying the farmers still waiting for their money. He said he was working very hard to do so.
Cases that required an inspection took longer to process than those that didn’t, he said. Detailed checks were undertaken to avoid farmers being penalised.
“We committed to [pay] 90% by December and 93% by the end of March,” said Mr Caldwell.
Although those targets had both been met, the agency wouldn’t be happy until “as near to 100% of farmers” as possible had been paid, he said.
South Pembrokeshire MP Simon Hart said: “I get that. But in terms of the target as we move forwards, you have just indicated that you want to achieve 100% results.”
Mr Hart asked Mr Caldwell: “So what is your target? As part of your internal objectives, you want to pay 100% of farmers by when?”
Accepting that the agency needed to improve, Mr Caldwell said he wasn’t going to commit to a date because it would risk becoming an unhelpful point of focus.
He said: “I am not going to commit to that, I am afraid. It is for ministers to consider targets.”
Bridging loans would be paid to farmers who hadn’t received their payments by the end of March, said Mr Caldwell, who is the agency’s interim chief executive.
And he suggested that his predecessor, Mark Grimshaw, had only agreed to targets “under duress” during a previous appearance before the committee of MPs.
Mr Hart said most farmers regarded bridging loans with a heavy heart. It was one-sided for the agency to refuse to commit to a single date for the completion of payments – especially when farmers had to meet challenging deadlines for tax and other payments.