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Rural Payments Agency: Basic Payment Scheme

Volume 760: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2015

Statement

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given to an Urgent Question in another place. The Statement is as follows.

“This is the first year of the new basic payment scheme. Because the new common agricultural policy is so complex, we needed to invest in a new computer system to administer claims. The existing SPS computer system would not have been able to cope. The core of the new rural payments system is working well, based on systems in other countries with portal to register and map. To date, over 80% of farm businesses in England have registered successfully on it so they can submit a BPS claim, and we continue to encourage all farm businesses to register online as soon as possible.

However, there have been some performance issues with the online interface that enables farmers to input the data directly. We have been working to address these issues since February. Our priority has always been to ensure that farmers can submit their claims by the deadline. That is why we have acted and made some adjustments to our plans. The RPA is now offering farmers and their agents the option of using existing paper-based forms to finalise their claims. Information from these forms will then be input by the RPA on to the system.

There are two new ways that farmers can complete their claims. Farm businesses with little change to their land will be fast-tracked by the RPA, particularly those that have permanent pasture. They will receive an email in April that summarises the land and entitlement information already held, together with simple instructions on completing their claim by email. The RPA has identified approximately 39,000 farmers in this category. Secondly, farm businesses that need to map new features can use blank existing forms to prepare their claims before they are sent a pre-populated form in early April. They can submit their claim by email or post or through an RPA drop-in centre, 50 of which have been established. Separately, all agents will have received maps of their clients’ land from the RPA by the end of next week. Those dealing with the most complex cases will be offered additional support. The RPA is also working to give agents direct access to the system so that they can make applications quickly.

This is a pragmatic response which applies to the application process in 2015. It means that we will be able to make payments to farmers from when the payment window opens in December 2015. All data entered so far on the rural payments scheme system have been saved and will be used by the RPA to complete farmers’ claims this year.

A number of EU member states have faced implementation difficulties in implementing a new CAP. In parallel, the Commission has offered an option for member states to extend the deadline for basic payment scheme—BPS—applications to 15 June. This was discussed in Council on 16 March and confirmed by the Commission on 19 March.

In conclusion, the core of the new system works and we are not abandoning anything. We will continue to use it. It will enable claims to be processed efficiently this year and will be the basis for service improvements in future years. The action we announced last week to provide paper-based assistance will ensure that applications can be submitted on time, and this has been welcomed by stakeholders. Given the imminent general election, we are keen to keep up communications across the House”.

I thank the Minister for repeating the response to the Urgent Question. How foolhardy of a Conservative-led coalition to insist on 100% online submissions in a year that sees the introduction of the new basic payment scheme. I declare my interest as a farmer in receipt of EU funds.

Many farmers will depend on this scheme, as they have on the previous systems, to be able to remain in business—how vital it is to them that the RPA can function constructively, honestly and professionally in a timely fashion. However, registering for a claim is not the same as completing that claim. Is the process now a twin-track approach of new information being submitted on paper while existing information is held online? What information will the RPA give to farmers to reassure them regarding claim reconciliations that the RPA may do, as the Statement said, without imposing penalties?

It has previously been stated that the new scheme is too complex for paper. Now that farmers are reverting to paper, is there an increased risk of errors that once again may result in penalties being levied or disallowance being imposed from Europe? Why did Ministers in the department not insist on and implement contingencies earlier to save farmers time and expense at this very busy time of year? Most importantly, can the Minister say whether the mapping functionality in the RPA can be made to work or will it need to be replaced completely?

My Lords, the complexity of the CAP is not what we would have chosen, and in the implementation we have tried to find the simplest option. I suppose that, in essence, in answer to the noble Lord’s questions, the RPA does whatever it can to help farmers meet the deadlines and fill in the forms. There are 50 RPA drop-in centres, which I mentioned; there is a helpline; and there are mobile units to help reach the most isolated and vulnerable farmers. In addition, handbooks have been sent to all farmers to try to help ensure that all farmers manage to get the claims that they need when they need them.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the statement she made. Equally, we should thank Defra for trying to deal with the most complicated system that I have experienced since 1972. I declare an interest as a farmer, and one who has dealt with the various changes over the years to the common agricultural policy system.

The only people who have gained this year are those who are advising farmers—an army of people—on how to fill out the forms and deal with this. Of course, we have seen this coming for some considerable time, and the way that it has been dealt with obviously proved that the computer system that exists was totally incapable of dealing with this complex system. I hope, therefore, that the response will be as sound as it can be. I am well aware that farmers are coping as well as they can, but I am equally well aware that they are spending an awful lot of time dealing with this problem at a time when they should be farming rather than filling in forms.

My noble friend Lord Plumb speaks with a great deal of experience in these matters gained over many years. It is a complex issue and Defra is fully aware that we need to get all the help that we can to farmers, particularly at this time of year. As I outlined, there are many ways in which the RPA is there to help and assist, and we hope that the transfer will happen as straightforwardly as we can possibly make it.

My Lords, I declare a serious interest as I do all the paperwork online for my wife, who farms and is trustee of a second place, so I will be trying to file for two estates. We were a quarter of the way through when the computer system went down at the weekend with no notice. It then kept saying that it would give us access as soon as possible but was offline for another week. Eventually, the latest announcement that we were going to paper was made. Trying to map the scale of complexity that we have on bits of paper that are blank is ridiculous. The whole place was mapped and inspected a few months ago, and the Rural Land Register has completely accurate maps in place. Why are those not being used? They show the deductions and the only things that need to be added are cropping and greening.

Also, the single payment system was up and running perfectly well but is about to be taken down in a few days’ time. Why not use that as the basis, because it has all the maps and has done for the last 10 years? All that has to be added to it are the crops, as opposed to just simple crop codes, and then a greening percentage. It is not that difficult. Maybe someone practical who understands IT should be involved. I have been doing this for 12 years, since IACS was going online. Maybe someone who actually understands how the system works at the sharp end could advise on how this can be sorted out. Trying to do it on paper is going to be a disaster; it will be like back in 2005 when the students tried to put it online and the mapping errors took a year or more to sort out.

I hear what the noble Earl says. The paper exercise is designed for people who are unable to access a computer. Any data that are already on the computer have been saved. The RPA has written to all those who may have broadband problems, if that is an issue. The data should not need to be re-entered if it is already on the system.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a recipient of payments under the basic payment scheme since, I think, its origin. I commend the Government and the European Commission on having responded to the great difficulties that many people have had in re-registering this year. I spent two and a half hours over the weekend trying to register myself online and was entirely thwarted because you have to start off by verifying your identity. Although I tried two channels—the Experian and the Post Office channels that were available—both resisted steadfastly the notion of my existence. I felt like saying, “Cogito ergo sum”. I think it is a good idea when public administration responds to technical difficulties like this that have been experienced by many members of the public. I hope that, going forward, the Government continue to be sympathetic in this way to the problems of farmers, who are great experts in farming but not often in IT. Will the Minister explain whether it is the intention of Her Majesty’s Government to accept the offer of the European Commission to delay the final payment until 15 June? We have been told that that was suggested by the Commission but that it is up to member states to decide whether to take it up.

I am sorry that the noble Lord has had such problems proving his identity. On the difficulty of registration, more than 80% of farm businesses have successfully managed to do it, but, of course, one needs to concentrate on those who have not. The Government are considering extension of the deadline to 15 June, and it will be a matter of seeing how we progress with the online registrations as they go.

My Lords, I am a farmer in Northern Ireland. The problem that we all have there is that, even if we fill in the forms correctly, the Government will not pay. They just put it off and put it off. Sums of money they owed to me and neighbours were more than six months overdue. We run with bank accounts that are frequently overdrawn at certain times of the year. If the Government do not pay, the banks get on our backs and where do we go? If we ring government Ministers, they do not know.

My Lords, my understanding is that this is a devolved matter. The Statement that I repeated covers only England. I apologise if that sounds like a cop-out, but it is probably better if I do not stray into Northern Ireland farming problems.

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister a very simple question. Is every single farmer IT literate? Does every single farmer have a computer? In other words, is every single farmer online?

Increasingly that is the case, but the RPA has written to all farmers, who may not all be online, and equally to all those who may have broadband problems in the areas where broadband is not completely rolled out. By way of the helpline, the mobile units and so on, the RPA is trying to make sure that those who are not online get help.

My Lords, my particular problem is that I believe that I may have registered, but I cannot now find out whether I have registered or not. It seems to be impossible to discover.

My Lords, I am very sorry about that. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord needs to phone the RPA helpline and, like the noble Lord, Lord Davies, discover whether he exists. I wish him luck. The helpline and the contacts are there to try to iron out those initial problems.