Farmers must not be forced to pay a price for RPA mismanagement
The already failing Rural Payments Agency will struggle with the extra demands of Brexit – the Efra Committee’s recent proposals need urgent implementation, warns Neil Parish
So many farmers rely on the Rural Payments Agency (RPA). Through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the RPA administers essential support payments for farmers. We have to be absolutely sure the RPA is fit for purpose. Which means the latest findings from the ‘Performance of the Rural Payments Agency’ report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Select Committee, which I chair, do not make for promising reading.
I asked colleagues across the house about their experiences dealing with the RPA. The responses I received were in keeping with the findings of the report. The RPA is slow. Its complaints process is poor. It makes repeated errors. Some colleagues told me farmers complained the RPA had told them an issue had been resolved, only to find out that year after year the same error occurred again.
The complaints process is slow and opaque. The RPA does not tell farmers approximate complaints resolution dates. And the helpline is another example of RPA inefficiency. Each time a farmer calls they have to explain the same problem time and again to a different caseworker. The process is so poor that last year (2016/17) only 1,049 complaints out of nearly 3,000 were closed within 150 working days. In excess of 1,000 complaints were still unresolved as of March 2018.
Furthermore, in June 2016, the RPA underpaid 10,000 claimants of the Basic Payment Scheme. It had to pay out top-ups amounting to £27.4m to rectify this. But at least these farmers were paid something. As of March this year, some 3,000 farmers still had not been paid. This is high-stakes for farmers where every penny matters.
Another complaint raised with me is mapping. The European Commission requires all common agricultural policy (CAP) countries to check land ownership. This should be maintained accurately. But the mapping system was described as ‘not fit for purpose’. Mapping errors occur frequently. To resolve these, farmers have to submit a paper-based complaints form, instead of making changes online. An online system would reduce the amount of time farmers spend on office tasks.
These are examples of why the report recommends there should be a single point of contact to resolve farmers’ complaints. This would offer farmers continuity. Plus the RPA would have a clearer idea of when complaints can be resolved. The RPA could help itself by publishing a clear strategy on improving communications and complaints handling.
Notwithstanding these problems, Defra would still like the RPA to administer the Countryside and Environmental Stewardship schemes around autumn 2018. This places an additional burden on an organisation which cannot keep up with its workload. The RPA will also have to reassure farmers who encounter repeated problems and will be sceptical of its ability to deliver additional schemes. Already those applying for the stewardship schemes have encountered substantial delays.
On paper, such a proposal is logical. In theory, it will simplify a complicated process. But the RPA is already under substantial pressure because it simply can’t keep up. With Brexit, changes to the way farmers are paid presents additional challenges to an underperforming agency. It is clear that the RPA does not have the resources to perform to the minimum standard expected of it. This is without the additional responsibilities of administering the Countryside and Environmental Stewardship schemes.
Previous reports, not just from the Efra Committee, but also from the Public Accounts Committee, have found the RPA has a record of failure. Our recommendations to improve communications and the complaints handling process should help things. But the RPA does need to consider its future resources as a heavier burden is placed on the poorly performing agency.
The RPA has history in failing to deliver workable support payments for farmers. I am not confident it has the capacity or expertise to deliver a seamless Brexit transition while simultaneously increasing its workload.
It is farmers who will pay the price for poor delivery. The RPA must be more ambitious. It must improve its record. It must implement all the recommendations published in the report.
Neil Parish is Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, and chair of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee