Delays to farm payments will end when the government changes the way agriculture is supported after the UK leaves the European Union, Defra minister George Eustice has claimed.
Mr Eustice said that, when it came to delays in Basic Payments from the Rural Payments Agency, Defra was doing everything it could to ensure farmers received their money on time.
Many of the delays had been caused by Brussels, rather than Westminster, he told an NFU fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference on 4 October.
Late decisions from the European Commission about how payment rules should work meant the RPA had to revert to paper-based subsidy applications claims in 2015, said Mr Eustice.
“In the end we couldn’t make the computer system work on time.”
The RPA had employed an extra 600 people to enter data manually from those paper claims into the computer system, with thousands of people working on the project for a year, said Mr Eustice.
“It would have been helpful if we could have taken a more proportionate approach to some of the applications – but that is against European law and would have resulted in significant fines.”
Mr Eustice said he realised this was no consolation for those farmers who had received their support payments late. But the RPA had still performed better than it had in some other EU countries.
“The long-term solution is frankly to move to a totally different way of supporting farming,” Mr Eustice told delegates at the Birmingham Rep Theatre.
It would be better not to have a system that required “every hedge and buffer strip to be mapped and the girth of every tree measured”, he said.
“This is the sort of madness that we’ve wrestled with in Defra,” said Mr Eustice, who campaigned for the UK to leave the EU.
He added: “One of the things we’ve floated is whether we could move to a totally different type of system where you help farmers manage risks.”
There was also the potential to have a system of eco-system services that rewarded farmers who signed up to certain UKAS-accredited schemes.
These schemes could reward farmers who committed to practices such as catchment sensitive farming, which aims to reduce water pollution.
Doing so would reward farmers in a “much more natural holistic way with schemes designed to work locally” without the “madness of trying to map every single feature in the country”.
While the UK remained in the EU, Defra was doing everything it could to make the existing farm support system work the best it could, said Mr Eustice.
“The actual solution is to leave the European Union and thank God this country took the decision to do just that on 23 June.”
Mr Eustice’s comments came after a keynote speech by Defra secretary Andrea Leadsom failed to shed much light on Defra’s post-Brexit plan for farming.
Agriculture received little mention in the speech, prompting the Liberal Democrats to claim that it was still no clearer what Brexit means for farmers.
Former NFU president Sir Peter Kendall, who campaigned for the UK to remain in the UK, was warned that a likely reduction in subsidies was just one challenge to be faced by farmers.
“We are entering one of the most defining moments for the future of British agriculture – as the terms of Brexit are both proposed by government and finally agreed,” he said.
“We’ve always realised that support would be reduced over time, but there is now every chance that this will happen more quickly than it once might have.
Farmers also face more competition in domestic and overseas markets, said Sir Peter, who is the chairman of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.
“The challenge for British agriculture will be to minimise the risks and to maximise the opportunities this presents us.”