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Farming: Basic Payment Scheme

Volume 768: debated on Tuesday 19 January 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what percentage of the Basic Payment Scheme was paid to farmers by the end of December 2015, and what assessment they have made of the delivery mechanisms of that funding.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I refer to my interests in the register.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. The Rural Payments Agency began making full payments on the first day of the payment window and by the end of December had paid 51% of eligible claims. It remains on track to pay the vast majority by the end of this month. Rural Payments, the IT system, has been used to process claims and make payments for 2015, and is working well. It will continue to be used for 2016 and beyond.

I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for that reply. Will he explain what “the vast majority” means in numbers? How will those farmers who have not yet received a letter saying that they will not be paid know when they will be paid? Will he look particularly at any delays that have been caused for those farming common land through issues relating to mapping and registration of rights?

My Lords, I do not think that I am in a position to say what exactly “vast majority” means. However, I can tell my noble friend that as of yesterday the RPA had paid more than 57,700 claims—that is two-thirds of the total and some £779 million—and is now clearly focused on paying the remainder as soon as possible. My noble friend is absolutely right that one area where there is a likelihood of payments being somewhat later is that relating to common land, but the RPA is using all its endeavours to get the final payments out as soon as is possible.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the agri-environment element of the payments has particularly lagged, leading to a fear that there will be a widespread exit of farmers because they simply cannot afford the conservation measures to maintain biodiversity or soil care—all the things that the Government are counting on?

My Lords, it is clearly important that agri-environment schemes are well supported as well as the basic payments. I think that the percentage of the latest agri-environment schemes that have been paid has been particularly high, but clearly we need to encourage as many farmers and landowners as possible to ensure that the good custodianship of the land is very much to the fore. I am confident that almost all do.

My Lords, this matter is raised in this House year after year. However, to my recollection, we have never had an adequate explanation of why it happens year after year. The present situation is that the only country in the United Kingdom which is anywhere near closure is Northern Ireland; Welsh hill farmers are desperate for the money. Why does it happen year after year after year?

My Lords, I can understand and, with my farming interests, have some sympathy. However, in the past two years 90% of single farm payments were made in the first month. The reason there is a difficulty this year is that the CAP was reformed. It is therefore, unfortunately, extremely complicated. The Government are now negotiating simplifying the CAP. That is why we have got this situation across the United Kingdom this year. However, I note what the noble Lord said about Northern Ireland.

My Lords, I speak as one who, until very recently, has been privileged to serve as a trustee of the Farming Community Network, which supports many farmers with difficulties of this sort. Is the Minister aware, as FCN certainly is, that many of those who have been told they will not receive their payments until after the end of this month—more than two months late—are farming in upland areas, not just common grazing, and are often the poorest farmers in the most need? Is it possible for at least some payment to be made on account? Can the Government assure noble Lords that payments will be made on time, and in full, in the next cycle?

My Lords, there are regular discussions with, for instance, the banks and with HMRC about those farmers who will be in difficulties. I endorse what the right reverend Prelate has said: many charitable organisations work with the Government and we wish to support them as much as possible. I believe that next year the lessons will be learnt from what has happened this year. I very much hope that the RPA will have considerable success in 2016.

My Lords, I declare an interest, as I have a farm. Has the closure of the rural payment office in Northallerton put pressure on the system?

There certainly has been, and will continue to be, rationalisation. However, I am assured by the RPA that it has the resources for all the work it needs to do to undertake the payment of this and other schemes. There are between 800 and 1,000 people working on the basic payment scheme, and they are working a 7-day-a-week roster to ensure that as many payments are made as soon as possible.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a farmer who receives payment. Was it wise that the English RPA scrapped its software in the change from SPS to BPS, whereas the Welsh Government merely adjusted theirs and have been able to cope? I understand many offers of advice from consultees in the industry have been made but have not been responded to. If this disaster is not to be dragged into the payment process for 2016—which the Minister rather blandly mentioned—what are the Government’s plans for next year, especially regarding online applications, and when will they communicate them?

My Lords, as the noble Lord will understand, there are obviously very many more claimants in England. So far as the IT system is concerned, I understand that the single payment scheme computer would not have been suitable to deal with the considerable complexities of the new system, which is why the RPA invested in the new one. There have been improvements following the experiences of this year. I am confident that, in 2016, the computer system and farmers’ ability to apply online will be much enhanced, but we will continue with a paper application as well.