It is understood that the RPA embarked on a 10-week digital map update exercise in mid-August to comply with a sanctions-backed EU regulation which required that land data held on the RPA system must be no more than three years old by 31 October 2017.
Concerns about the exercise were raised in September by Martyn Dobinson, a senior manager and a member of Saffery Champness’ Landed Estates Group, who noted that, “The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) had previously used satellite/aerial imagery to update its mapping, which had in many cases been done incorrectly. In some instances, there had been no changes to land and entitlements in the last 10 years, but changes were being shown on the RPA system and a number of farmers have had to re-add features that the RPA system had removed. Many land parcels and boundaries had also been mixed up between neighbouring farms.”1
Martyn Dobson warned that, “Any changes to land parcels and mapping will be notified on the RPA online service, but there will be no separate communication with individual farmers or landowners to advise them of any changes made to their data. We are therefore advising our farming clients to log into their RPA account regularly, to check carefully for any changes, and that where there are changes these have been correctly identified by the RPA.”
National Farmers Union Vice President Guy Smith also raised a warning flag in September in speaking to ‘Farming UK’2. “Due to a clear lack of resource, many farmers who have been trying to contact [the RPA] over 2015 and 2016 claim issues going back as far as last spring, are only met with a wall of silence. The RPA seem to have undertaken a stealth policy which minimises outbound contact as much as possible. This seems self-defeating as it will only lead to more frustration and further inbound correspondence from farmers which could be avoided.”
More recently, Derbyshire farmer and National Farmers Union county adviser Andrew Critchlow noted that 48 out of 54 land parcels on his farm had been subject to change as a result of the re-mapping exercise but that only two of these changes had been correct. “The rest of them are nonsense,” he told ‘Farmers Guardian’.3 He added that the changes he had notified to the RPA over the years on RLE1 forms had been deleted at a stroke. “It is going to send the message to farmers there is no point in updating things as all the RPA is going to do is come along and ride roughshod over it all.”
According to a survey conducted by one farm services business, its clients had an average of 10 field changes to update following the exercise, but some had up to 50, raising concerns as to how the RPA will handle the large number of queries as they log on to the Agency’s system to begin their 2018 applications. And with more than 71,000 farmers receiving BPS payments worth £1.3 billion in 2017, the backlog for the coming year could be substantial.
Speaking to ‘Farmers Guardian’, an RPA spokesperson said that ‘Over the years, the RPA has made a number of updates to mapping information to protect the taxpayer from disallowance fines. The RPA has contacted relevant farmers, land managers and agents following changes to digital land maps to provide updates via the online Rural Payments service. Anyone who does not agree with a mapping change can tell RPA using an RLE1 form.”
This latest blunder follows a debacle in 2015 when a £154 million IT system to process claims for EU farm subsidy payments hit problems, forcing applicants to resort to paper forms. As a result, they were either paid the wrong amounts or did not receive the funds to which they were entitled. The new digital service was designed to replace a £350 million single payment scheme, started in 2005 and which eventually cost more than four times the original estimate of £75 million, with extra costs of £680 million to administer the system.
The RPA was called to account in early 2017 by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) which warned that the department's record of failure when developing systems to support subsidy payments to farmers "does not inspire confidence in its ability to cope with the challenges associated with Brexit that lie ahead".
The PAC report4 called on the department to use better data and ensure "accurate, full payments are made in a timely manner" in the current payment window, and to restore previous payment performance levels for 2017-18.
Richard Bacon MP, deputy chairman of the PAC, said: "The recent history of the BPS is a sorry affair. Farmers have suffered badly from the collapse in service levels and government has done too little to help them cope with the fallout.”
3.Farmers Guardian, 22 December 2017
4. 40th Report. Progress on the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme. Feb 2017
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