Defra will still be able to make subsidy payments to farmers on time – despite the failure of its online application system, farm minister George Eustice has insisted.
“We will be able to make payments to farmers when the payment window opens in December 2015,” Mr Eustice told MPs on Tuesday (24 March).
The statement was aimed at reassuring farmers who fear they will face a lengthy for cheques from the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) after the government said it was reverting to paper-based applications.
But it failed to reassure shadow Defra secretary Maria Eagle, who asked why repeated assurances by ministers that the system was working had turned out to be inaccurate.
Although the payment window opens in December 2015, Defra can legitimately make payments to farmers at any time until the payment window closes at the end of June 2016.
In recent years, most farmers have received payments soon after the window opens, but the RPA has stopped short of saying that will be the case this time around.
Asking what Mr Eustice expected farmers to do while awaiting their cheques, Ms Eagle said: “For farmers expecting their payments in December, that is far from reassuring. It is disastrous.”
Mr Eustice said 80% of eligible farmers had so far registered so they could submit a Basic Payment Scheme application. Those who had not done so should still register online as soon as possible before completing applications on paper.
The priority had always been to ensure that farmers could submit their claims by the application deadline, said Mr Eustice. The deadline was extended by Brussels last week from 15 May to 15 June.
“The core of the new system does work – and we are not abandoning anything.”
George Eustice, farm minister
All data entered on to the online system had been saved and would be used by the RPA to complete farmers claims this year, said Mr Eustice.
The agency was also exploring the possibility of giving some agents direct access to the system so they can complete applications more quickly, he added.
“The core of the new system does work – and we are not abandoning anything,” Mr Eustice told the House of Commons.
“We will continue to use it. It will enable claims to be processed efficiently this year and will be the basis for improvements in service for future years.”
Farmers and their agents now had the option of using paper-based forms to finalise their claim. Information from these forms would then be inputted into the computer system.
Farms with little change to their land would be fast-tracked and businesses which were predominately permanent pasture would not have to map those details, said Mr Eustice.
Some 39,000 farms fall into this category. They are set to receive an email in April with instructions about how to complete their application by email.
Farm businesses which need to map new areas would be able to use blank existing forms to prepare their claims before being sent a pre-populated form in April.
Ms Eagle remained unconvinced, saying she was “astounded” that it was Mr Eustice addressing MPs on the issue rather than Defra secretary Liz Truss.
“Many farmers will be depending on the Basic Payment Scheme to keep their businesses afloat – and on prompt payment to maintain vital cashflow,” she said.
“Given the seriousness of this matter, I am astounded that the parliamentary under-secretary of state has been sent to this House to deal with it. Where is the secretary of state?”
Mr Eustice responded by reminding Ms Eagle of the last Labour government’s record when making subsidy payments to farmers.
He said: “Let’s not forget that in 2005, the system that they introduced led to £600m of [fines from Brussels] for this country. Payments were regularly a year late. ”
Mr Eustice added: “Hardly any farmers ever received their payments on time and it took a Conservative-led government coming to power in 2010 to sort it out.”