The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has pledged to cut delays in its payments to farmers though an improved land register within the next 12 months – in addition to dealing with the impact of Brexit.
The department said the Rural Payments Agency, which delivers £1.8bn in payments across England under the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, had put in place a plan to improve the timeliness of payments following criticism from MPs.
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In a report published in February, the Public Accounts Committee highlighted the agency was unable to pay farmers the full amount due on time, with only 38% of farmers paid under the new Basic Payment Scheme on 1 December 2015 compared to over 90% in previous years under different schemes.
The development of the new payments regime was intended to make the system easier for farmers and reduce the UK's exposure to late payment fines by the European Commission but it was beset by tensions between the RPA and the Government Digital Service. These included what PAC chair Meg Hillier called a “frankly childish spat" between senior figures during a previous inquiry.
The amount paid under the BPS rose to 76% by the end of January and 84% by the end of March, but remained significantly below the RPA’s target of paying 92%-95% of farmers by that time and meant that some 14,300 farmers (16%) had not received any payment by the end of March 2016.
In response to the report published on Tuesday, Defra acknowledged performance would need to improve and “expects that the agency will be able to deliver wider service improvements in its performance in future years”.
In particular, the department said it was committed to improving the mapping data it uses to administer CAP payments, and pledged improvements would be in place by spring 2018.
“Work is underway to ensure that none of the claimed land parcels on the agency’s land register is based on mapping data which is more than three years old. This work is being undertaken ready for the opening of the Basic Payment Scheme payment window in December 2017,” it added.
The department also pledged that leaving the EU would not hinder the improvement plans. Its European Union Exit Steering Group was considering the impact of leaving on policy areas including agriculture and land use.
“The department is conscious of the need to have policy and delivery locked together, so that it develops policy which can be delivered effectively and learns lessons from what has and has not worked well in the past,” it added. “The department will continue to draw on this delivery expertise as it further develops the future policy and transitional arrangements.”