Easter is traditionally the time of year when minds start to turn filling out the annual SPS application form. Isabel Davies offers some pointers for farmers in England who are preparing to take the plunge
Online is the clear winner from the Rural Payment Agency’s point of view when it comes to filling out this year’s single farm payment application form – for those farmers who feel it is an option.
The RPA would like to see as many people as possible completing their SP5 form online on the grounds that it is a quicker, easier and safer process than filling out the paper version.
The computer programme checks for common errors helping people avoid mistakes like forgetting to activate entitlements or accidentally using an ineligible crop code on land on which payment is being claimed. There is also no need to drive to a drop in centre to deliver it or pay for registered postal delivery.
“Farmers tell us that using SPS online is quicker and easier and more reassuring,” said RPA stakeholder manager Simon Lunniss. “The feedback has been very positive – 99% of users would use it again and 99% would recommend into others.
“Because SPS online checks for common errors as you enter your information, they can be corrected before you submit your application. You receive an instant on -screen acknowledgment, followed by an email confirmation of receipt.”
More than 31,000 farmers out of about 105,000 completed their SP5 form online in 2011 and the agency is hoping for a significant increase again this year.
From an RPA point of view dealing with online applications is preferable. As they don’t need to be scanned into the computer system it is more cost-effective and fewer manual checks are needed which speeds up handling.
And with VAT and PAYE already moving to an online-only basis, it is only a matter of time before the same happens with SPS. The RPA has already hinted that by 2015 all applications may have to be submitted online – although acknowledges that it will be a daunting prospect for some and barriers like poor internet access do need to be overcome.
For now the option of a paper form is still there. The agency says all 85,000 applicants who submitted a paper form last year should now have received their 2012 claim form. Any farmers who haven’t yet got their form should contact the Customer Service Centre immediately.
All farmers who claimed online in 2011 have been sent an application pack with the 2012 SPS supplement but not a paper form. One can be requested from the CSC if it is required.
With the scheme now in its eighth year farmers will be pleased to hear there are relatively few changes in the actual layout of the form for 2012.
But whether looking at a paper or online version then there are some areas that farmers need to bear in mind in order to avoid mistakes.
There is no additional Protein Crop Premium available for peas and beans this year which means that protein crops should be coded OT1, rather than with the old protein crop code.
Checking that the land parcel numbers included in column C2 tally with those on your latest Rural Land Register maps and the correct land use code is in column C8.
The correct area you are claiming SPS on should also be in column C9. This figure must not be more than the figure entered into C4 (maximum are eligible for SPS) and any temporary ineligible features in the field should also be deducted. Both C8 and C9 need to be completed to claim payment although you should not handwrite them in if the pre-populated entry is correct.
The information that is pre-populated on the forms (both online and paper) is based on the data that was held on the Rural Land Register in January and is not updated in real time. This means the information will not reflect any RLE1 changes that have gone through the system since. These will need to be corrected or added as the form is completed.
One important change for this year – and one which will make life easier for some farmers – is that it is no longer necessary to specify the order in which entitlements should be activated to avoid falling foul of the ‘use-by’ rules.
As 2012 is the first year that entitlements will be paid at the 100% flat rate value all entitlements will be worth the same (other than the variations according to the payment area the land falls into). This means the RPA will activate any entitlements not used in the previous scheme year, removing the need for an SP11 form to be completed in many instances.
Other areas where farmers need to take care:
CAP reform proposals to protect permanent pasture have got some famers worried they may end up locked into a position that might not suit them in the years to come. What happens come 2014/15 is impossible to predict, but the RPA points out that the UK is already obliged to have a certain level of permanent pasture under the current CAP agreement.
The agency is keen to make sure all grassland is coded correctly to give an accurate picture of the total amount of land down to permanent pasture. Current legislation is such that if permanent pasture falls below a certain trigger level the RPA could be forced through cross-compliance to force farmers to return land to permanent pasture.
Therefore any land that has been down to grass for six consecutive SPS application forms, even if this grass has been reseeded during this time, should be recorded as PP1 and not TG1. Land does not have to be gazed to be considered permanent pasture.
An exception to this coding guidance is where field headlands have been grassed down for more than six consecutive claims. To keep things simple and avoid the need to submit sketch maps the RPA says these don’t need splitting out and can be coded with the main land use code for that field.
The RPA has updated its guidance to tighten on the issue of dual use. This is where a farmer may be claiming SPS and then someone else (typically a landlord) may be using the same land to claim under a Rural Development Programme for England scheme such as stewardship.
The agency says in these instances it expects to see written records between the two parties which make clear the rights and responsibilities of each party so both sets of scheme rules are met. Verbal agreements will make it harder to prove that both parties are meeting the scheme rules.
Tying in with this is clarification on who is eligible to claim SPS. The rules state that in order to claim the land must be “at your disposal” on 15 May 2012, which rules out landlords claiming SPS even if this has been agreed with the tenant.
Similarly, graziers who only have a licence to graze or mow the land are not regarded as having sufficient control of that land to be at their disposal and therefore won’t be eligible to claim SPS on that field.
Farmers are being reminded that they should not include common land on part C of the application as all common land should be dealt with in part CA. If you include land in part C and then another farmer is found to have rights and has included it in part CA of his then the land will be removed from your claim.
Read the SPS guidance booklet before starting. Note that the 2012 version is a supplement only and not a full handbook so it needs to be read in conjunction with last year’s.
Applications must be returned by midnight on 15 May to avoid late penalties.
Double check that your form has been signed and dated and make sure you use black ink throughout if you are using the paper version.
Remember to send in any supporting evidence and a covering letter detailing anything on your claim that may need further explanation.
Make sure your Soil Protection Review is up to date as you will have to show it if you have an inspection.
If you are doing your claim online, don’t leave it until the last minute. If you need to submit any supporting documentation such as sketch maps they need to be sent by post or dropped into an office ahead of 15 May deadline. Your application won’t be regarded as complete without them.
There is a new Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) rule this year which means no spread zones apply for both organic and inorganic fertilisers applied close to lakes, rivers, streams and ditches. Details are in the 2012 cross-compliance handbook.
SBI barcode labels should be used on any correspondence or maps that do not carry a pre-printed code. If you need extras for this year’s application ask the RPA.
Stay on top of mapping changes. You can send in an RLE1 form informing the agency of mapping changes at any time of the year. RLE1 forms need to be filled out if there are any boundary changes, entitlement transfers or registration of new land. If farmers do this throughout the year then it means that forms can be pre-populated with the most accurate data.
If in doubt, ask for help. The Customer Service Centre can handle general queries on 0845 6037777. If you are still unsure about whether you qualify or how to proceed then seek independent professional advice.
How has online caught on?
- 2009 566 online applicants (pilot only)
- 2010 16,000 online applicants
- 2011 31,000 online applicants
The software for applying online is accessed via a Business Link web page.
Claims can also be submitted using one of the two approved farm software packages from either Farmplan or Paul Holliday Software.
If you are a first time user then you will need a PIN number the first time you register for SPS online. These have been posted to every SPS applicant but if you have lost yours you can request another.
Farmers will also need to be registered with the Government Gateway. You may be already be registered – for example if you use Cattle Tracing System Online.
You can get chapter and verse on how to sign in to RPA online for the first time in its guidance booklet.
Save a copy of your personalised electronic form before you start to fill it out. You can then refer back to your starting point should you need to
You can save the form at any point and come back to it later.
If you find an error after you have submitted the form you can re-open it, correct it and them re-submit. However, if you are making an amendment after the 15 May deadline you must also send an email explaining what you have done or the system will assume you are resubmitting your claim and late application penalties could apply.
There have been improvements in the online system for 2012. It has become harder to lose data as the user saves at pretty much every stage and error messages have been made clearer.
Farmers who want to leave their form in person can visit a drop in centre from 26 March 8.30am to 5.00pm Monday to Friday excluding Bank Holidays. Open will be Carlisle, Crewe, Exeter, Lincoln (this replaces Nottingham) Newmarket, Northallerton, Reading and Worcester.
- 2 April 2012: Deadline for RLE1 forms where transferring entitlements for the current scheme year.
- 15 May 2012: Deadline for submission of SPS forms without late application penalties
- 31 May 2012: Deadline for making amendments to SPS without penalty
- 9 June: Final deadline for 2012 SPS applications subject to 1% penalty per working day received after 15 May.
Henry Robinson, Gloucestershire
Farmer and businessman Henry Robinson was an early convert to the benefits of SPS Online and would never consider going back to paper applications.
Mr Robinson, who lives and works in Gloucestershire and is also deputy president of the Country Land and Business Association, uses the free system offered by the RPA on the Business Link website which can be accessed at www.businesslink.gov.uk/sps-claim
“The online system saves me from myself,” he says. “It automatically checks for errors so I don’t make the sort of silly clerical mistakes which could hold up my claim. Just transposing a couple of numbers could make a big difference and that’s just the sort of thing the online system picks up on.”
“Once you’ve registered, it’s very easy to navigate and, as my children will tell you, I am no computer wizard. I also like the fact that if I get interrupted, I can log right back on to where I was.
“In the bad old days of paper applications, I used to send the claim by recorded delivery and I’ve even driven up to Worcester to hand deliver it. Now we no longer have to photocopy the forms, go to the post office, pay for stamps and envelopes, wait in a queue or risk our application becoming lost or delayed in the post.
“For farmers, without a doubt, completing an SPS application is the single most important thing we do in the entire year. It’s the one piece of homework, we have to get right. So if there is a tool to make it simpler and more secure, then I am all for it.”
Terry Miller, Somerset
It took Terry Miller from Higher Monkton Farm in Bridgwater, Somerset a bit of time to pluck up the courage to try completing his SPS online, but in the end he found the process very quick and easy.
Mr Miller completed his using a copy of Farmplan’s Single Payment Planner which he bought in 2011, but waited until this year before having a go.
“My first reason for using it is that it fairly obvious that the RPA and DEFRA are trying to make people move to online submissions. My other reason was that I felt that there was much less room for error,” he says.
“When I was completing a paper form I had to manually total up all the columns and I was repeatedly checking to see if I had got that right. When you do it online this is all done for you.”
Mr Miller says that typically it took him a day to complete a paper form but using the online version took him less than an hour.
“Having used the SPS Planner I have to say it was really quick and easy. We were already registered on the Government Gateway and the next thing I needed was a PIN which the RPA had sent me. Having entered these items on the first page it was very easy to download all the details of my fields.”
Mr Miller said he appreciated the fact that all the crop codes were there so you could check the as you went along. He also particularly liked that fact he got immediate email confirmation that his application had been received rather than having to pay for recorded delivery.
“Another advantage is that up until the 15 May I can go in and alter something and it will just overwrite my previous submission. It was all very easy.”
Got a question about filling out your 2012 single payment scheme forms?
Help is at hand, because a team from the RPA is answering questions on our website forums.
All you have to do is add your question to the forum thread and the RPA will be posting responses in a bid to help you complete your forms – either on paper or electronically – as quickly, easily and accurately as possible.
So, if you’re confused about which code to put in a box or baffled by a column which you are not sure how to complete, then don’t miss this opportunity.