MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan took part in a debate yesterday which raised concerns about delays to the Basic Payment Scheme – the main rural payment for farmers in the EU.
According to the Conservative MP for Berwick, many farmers in Northumberland - and across the country - have experienced delays in receiving their payment, causing cash-flow problems and in some cases, hardship. Concerns about late payments and a lack of clear information by Defra, the Government department responsible for administering the subsidies, were raised with Mrs Trevelyan at one of her recent meetings with local farmers.
Speaking in the debate, Mrs Trevelyan said: "I have been meeting regularly with farmers who are struggling. In large measure, Northumbrian farmers have very small farms and upland farms. Does he agree that it is unacceptable that Defra and the common agricultural policy system are the loan service? Farmers are having to carry the burden and the emotional and family pressures of having big debts, while Defra cannot manage to pay out on time and in full.”
Farming Minister, George Eustice, responded, saying although 97 per cent of applicants have now received their first payment, there have been some delays as a result of EU requirements for inspections, which create additional bureaucracy.
He went on: "Ninety-seven per cent of applicants have now had their first instalment and 60 per cent have received their second instalment a month earlier than normal. We have made progress, but there is further to go. Some people will ask why we cannot just pay and why things are so complicated…there is a good reason for that. Under regulations and law, the EU requires certain inspections and verification to be carried out. The truth is that we tried to get the [European] Commission to relax those requirements to enable us to expedite payments this year, but it refused. We cannot make those payments from the EU until those various checks and the validation of claims have been completed."
Mrs Trevelyan said: "I thank the Minister for being open and explaining that the European Commission has refused the UK’s request to lessen the burden of red tape which is harming our farming communities. I will continue to pressure the Government to do all it can to speed things along. We cannot have our farmers struggling because of these extra checks. We need better communication and better planning. The last thing our farming communities need is to be facing these administrative hurdles."
However, Labour MP Nick Smith blamed the new IT system which 'the Government wheeled out to handle the payments for 2015' - a system they were so confident in, it was hailed as a digital exemplar'. He added: "Instead, it is a failed system that has cost the taxpayer millions, threatened us with hundreds of millions in penalty payments for years to come and put the livelihoods of many hard-working families at risk."
He continued: "Farmers do not deserve an IT system, designed to give them peace of mind, that stalls in such a spectacular fashion. The latest National Audit Office report was damning about a project that spiralled £60million over budget; saw four leaders of the flagship system in just 12 months, with too many changes in direction; and saw top management embroiled in deep rifts that put stress on staff and led to childish squabbles and confrontations. The system failed so badly that pen and paper applications had to be introduced at the last minute. When I challenged the Minister at the Dispatch Box on why his department had not got a grip, he talked up its intervention after the IT failure.
"Staff have been working tirelessly since March to get applications finalised. Their Stakhanovite, round-the-clock efforts should be commended, but my question is simple: Why did key Ministers not intervene sooner still to make sure that this IT project worked, so that the whole sorry debacle was avoided?
"Farmers are paying for these mistakes, but all of us may soon be doing the same if the situation results in penalty payments to the EU. The Financial Times reported this week that Britain is facing £180million worth of fines a year over failure by the RPA. The Secretary of State told the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs this week that one of Defra’s major savings could be to reduce those penalties in future. It intends, as the Secretary of State said, to 'stop paying out money in fines that we could be putting into farms, environmental stewardship and flood defences'."