MPs doubt Rural Payments Agency can manage a successful Brexit

Substantial improvements are needed by the Rural Payments Agency to address continuing underperformance, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has said.

The RPA’s multiple failures in delivering a workable payment system are causing significant harm to farmers across the country raising doubt it can manage a seamless Brexit.

More than 3,000 farmers had not been paid by March 2018, communications with farmers and the complaints handling service remain poor and there are also widespread concerns over errors from recent mapping updates and inaccurate payments.

Publishing their report into Defra’s administration of the EU subsidy system, the Committee said: “Though we welcome the fact that the RPA met its payment targets for December 2017, achieving these targets should be a bare minimum. The RPA’s multiple failures are causing significant harm to farmers across the country. This is simply not good enough.”

Defra recently announced that the RPA will be taking on responsibility for delivering the Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship schemes. The RPA expects to begin administering these around autumn 2018.

The committee said that this places an additional burden on an organisation which does not appear to have mastered its existing workload. Changes to the way farmers will be paid once the UK leaves the EU present still further challenges.

The Committee’s key recommendations and conclusions are:

  • The RPA should set more stretching targets to encourage improved performance for the 2018 Basic Payment Scheme (BPS). The Agency should aim to make 98 percent of payments by the end of March each year. The RPA must also thoroughly investigate any complaints of payment inaccuracies and rectify these as quickly as possible.
  • Farmers are becoming increasingly frustrated at having to spend time and effort correcting mapping errors which are not their fault. All mapping queries must be resolved as quickly as possible to ensure these do not affect the 2018 BPS payments. The RPA should also develop a system enabling farmers to make direct changes to the online mapping register.
  • The RPA must set out a clear strategy detailing how it will improve communications and complaints handling. This should involve changes to the helpline system so that a single point of contact is available. This would provide farmers with some much-needed continuity in the process.
  • The RPA should publish an ambitious set of key performance indicators for delivering the Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship schemes. These should include targets for increased uptake, processing times, and customer satisfaction ratings. Defra must ensure that the RPA has sufficient resources and expertise to carry out these operations as effectively as possible.