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Rural Payments Agency

Volume 594: debated on Thursday 12 March 2015

Under this Government, the Rural Payments Agency has dealt with the historical issues of late payments to farmers, which were a feature under the last Government. This year it released payments to 97.4% of claimants within the first month, and 2013-14 was the agency’s most successful year to date, with more customers being paid on the first day than ever before, and with high customer satisfaction scores.

I must declare my interest in farming. Will the basic payments system be ready by 15 May? Why are farmers expected to draw ineligible features, instead of satellite mapping being used? What sort of support is there if they make any errors in the process, so that they are not being set up to fail?

On the first point, I can report that over 75% of farmers are now registered on the system. Some of them are experiencing issues with the slowness of the mapping system, and we are working to address that. On my hon. Friend’s question about why they have to map, they have always had to map ineligible features—that is a requirement of the EU regulations—but they are entered on to the final application by digitisers, who check that the area is mapped correctly.

Stephen Wyrill, national chairman of the Tenant Farmers Association, says that the Department’s online system for farmers to claim under the basic payment scheme is “heading for carnage”, and Guy Smith, vice-president of the National Farmers Union, says that its concern will turn to “justified alarm” if full mapping functionality is not operating by this weekend as promised. Many farmers depend for their survival on this payment. Can the Minister give an undertaking that all farmers will be able to make their claim online by 15 May?

We have been working closely with the farming industry on this. Under this system, this was always going to be an iterative process. We wanted to put the system in place in stages and instalments. We have 75% of farmers on already, we are addressing the issue of the speed of the system, and we are looking at ways of expediting things for certain land types, so that they can bypass parts of the land eligibility criteria. I should also point out that we have a network of 50 digital support centres to help those farmers who require help.

With 25% of farmers not yet registered and the deadline fast approaching, Farmers Weekly is reporting that only 236 farmers have gone for help to the 50 support centres, which is fewer than five per centre. Those who have registered—96% of them did so by phone, not online—are reporting that the online system has constant error messages and general slowness, that field information is not appearing, and that the mapping function does not work. Is the Minister planning a paper-based plan B, in case his online system collapses or is not fit for purpose?

Our plan is to make the system work and to ensure that those farmers who need help can go into digital support centres. We anticipate that those centres will be busier in April, but we have ensured that they have sufficient capacity to upscale and to help farmers. It is important to recognise that about half of all farmers have only permanent pasture, and the requirement for them to map their details is lesser than it is for arable farmers. We are looking at ways of expediting this process.

This Government should be hugely proud of the massive improvement in the Rural Payments Agency, compared with the chaos of a few years ago. We should also give thanks to its chief executive, Mark Grimshaw, for his work on making that happen. It is a fact that the IT systems will be critical in future. They will have to work, but we also need to enable farmers to use IT out in rural areas of the country that often have no access. The Minister will of course do everything he can to make the system work, but will he also redouble his efforts to persuade other Government Departments that rural broadband is absolutely critical to this important industry?

Yes. We recognise the importance of rural broadband, which is why Broadband Delivery UK has invested hundreds of millions of pounds to bring broadband to rural areas. I know that my hon. Friend was involved in commissioning the Cap D system—the common agricultural policy delivery system—and he will recognise that we have ensured that it can operate at quite low speeds of around 2 megabits per second. That will ensure that most farmers are able to use it, but we have established the network of digital support centres for those who are not.