Defra under fire over late agri-environment payments

Defra farm minister George Eustice has been asked to explain why more than half of agri-environment scheme payments were late last year.

Lords scrutinised agri-environment payments made in 2017 under the EU’s rural development programme.

In a two-page letter sent to Defra, the EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee asks Mr Eustice to explain why 55% of agri-environment and forestry payments were not made by the 30 June deadline this year for the 2017 claim year.

See also: Woodland creation scheme moves to rolling application window

Throughout the year, Farmers Weekly was contacted by a number of farmers and landowners with Countryside Stewardship agreements asking to know why their payments were late. Many said they were awaiting payments for environmental work already carried out and income foregone.

The European Commission is bringing in a new regulation which means that if a member state is late in more than 5% of payments to recipients of the fund, the country will have the money they receive from the EU reduced.

New regulation

If the new regulation were in force today, this would have resulted in a £70m-£75m penalty for Defra.

Lord Teveson, chairman of the committee, said: “Given the large number of payments being made after the deadline, the committee has written back to the minister to ask for an explanation of why the figure is so high and what action the government is taking to speed up these payments.

“We have also asked for clarity on the extent of late payments in the different nations of the UK, and how any future financial penalty for late payments that came from the EU would be distributed among the four nations.”

Defra response

A Defra spokesperson said: “EU rules and requirements make the administration of Environment Stewardship (ES) and Countryside Stewardship (CS) needlessly complicated, and this does not work for us or our farmers.

“We know how important these payments are to farmers and have worked to speed up processing where we can.

“From Friday [14 September] we are writing to Environmental Stewardship customers awaiting payment from their 2016 and/or 2017 claim, to inform them they will receive a bridging payment by the end of September, to help ease customer cash-flow issues. Unpaid CS customers received a bridging payment earlier this summer.

“We want to improve the experience for customers, and from 1 October will be moving the administration of Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship to the Rural Payments Agency. Administration of these schemes in one organisation will provide a better service for customers.”