Somerset farmers ‘must prove stress’ to get payments

A group of farmers in Somerset is suffering massive financial stress because the Rural Payments Agency failed to pay them on time, the Farm Crisis Network has said.

The network has been inundated with calls from farmers in severe financial strife, said Somerset co-ordinator Suzie Wilkinson. “We have had 12 referrals in January alone – and that must be the tip of the iceberg. There is an awful lot of money which still hasn’t been paid out.”

Those families alone were awaiting payments of £295,545, which should have been paid in December.

“Farmers are relying on these payments. They haven’t had an easy winter, and when they can’t pay suppliers, their overdraft, or mortgage, it gets very stressful,” said Ms Wilkinson.

Some farmers had faced threats of eviction by the bank, while tenant farmers were struggling to keep up rent payments. Others were unable to pay for feed, particularly where they were under TB restrictions.

Tessa Munt, Liberal Democrat MP for Wells, said the situation was “absolutely disgraceful”. She called on farm minister Jim Paice and DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman to take immediate action to improve the RPA systems.

“These farmers are on their knees and are about to lose their homes and families. The government needs to sort it out, and not just talk about it.”

One farmer was unable to get the RPA computer to recognise his claim because he milked sheep, not cows. Another, Bob Pether, had suffered incorrect payments every year since 2005.

The RPA had admitted it owed Mr Pether £967.48 from December 2009. But it would not release a cheque until he could prove he was suffering from stress. To do that he had to contact the Rural Stress Helpline to get a case number, said Ms Munt.

“This is shambolic – it is just total inefficiency. The idea that you have to be begging, with your head in a noose, before they will write a cheque is an outrage. This kind of incompetence affects us all. The RPA is a large organisation whose repeated failure to serve its customers affects the whole rural economy detrimentally.”

Mr Paice said the RPA had met its target of paying 85% of 2010 claimants by the end of December. “But there is still much to do and it will inevitably take some time to address some very long-standing problems fully. I am determined that the RPA should find a way forward to get some cash into the hands of those people as soon as possible.”

Contact the Rural Stress Helpline on 0845 094 8286, email or visit their website.

Contact the Farm Crisis Network Helpline on 0845 367 9990, email or visit their website.

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