We are expecting payments under the 2016 basic payment scheme to be considerably improved from last year’s. The Rural Payments Agency received more than 86,500 BPS applications for 2016. A record proportion of these claims—over 80%—were received online, which will enable the RPA to process them more quickly. The agency is currently focused on paying 90% of farmers by the end of December.
The Minister will be aware that this is not a new problem; it has been going on for a long time. Non-payment or even partial payment causes a great deal of hardship to farmers. Given that the situation has been going on for so long, what more can he do to make sure that there is an improvement in the forthcoming year?
As my hon. Friend knows, we had tremendous challenges in year 1. This was an incredibly complex common agricultural policy with all sorts of additional auditing and recording requirements, and which carried with it complexity and caused problems for payment agencies right across the European Union. On his question about what we are doing to improve things, now that we have gone through last year’s difficult task of getting all the data on to the computer system, and now that we have 80% of claimants applying online, we believe that we are in a good position for the coming year because all the difficult work was done last year.
When the chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency came to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee earlier this year, he made a commitment to pay the majority of claims by 1 December, not 90% by the end of December. Four weeks is a long time for a farmer. Will the RPA make the majority of those payments at the beginning of the month?
The commitment was to pay 90% by the end of December. That has gone into the business plan for the RPA and is one of the targets that it is working to. The payment window does not open until early in December, but clearly we will be trying to pay, as we always do, as many farmers as quickly as possible.
Yes, the chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency has appeared in front of us several times at the EFRA Committee and promised to make payments by certain dates. There are cross-border farmers in my constituency and they are always at the back of the queue. Some of them were paid only last month, well outside the payment window. What more can my hon. Friend do to make sure that that does not recur?
With the complexity of the new system, there are always issues relating to cross-border claims, where farms have some of their holding in one Administration and some in the other. It is important that we share information as quickly as possible. We had a particular problem on the Scottish borders because Scotland had far deeper problems with managing the scheme than we had in England, and getting the data to make those payments was particularly challenging. I am aware that there were issues in Wales as well, and we will do all that we can to ensure that we do not encounter such problems in future.
Thousands of farmers have been pushed into acute financial hardship, anxiety or stress owing to the failure of the Rural Payments Agency. In the past year, 62% of payments were very late and many have still not been paid. Now the Government are planning further delays of payment, which is unacceptable. Why will not the Minister recruit the staff needed to pay everyone all they are owed by this Christmas and, in the interim, institute bridging loans?
We are not planning to cause any further delays, as I made clear. Last year when we had a difficulty we recruited some 600 additional people to process the claims and pay them as soon as possible. As I have already said, this year we are in a better position. We have 80% of claimants applying online and we have committed to pay at least 90% of claims by the end of December. In any normal year there will always be some cases that are incredibly complex, such as those put forward by the National Trust, whose large, complex claims always take longer to process.