UK

Online farm payment system abandoned after 'performance problems'

Tractor sowing a field

A multi-million pound government IT system to process EU subsidy payments for farmers in England has been largely abandoned after "performance problems".

The system will be re-launched next week with farmers asked to submit Basic Payment Scheme claims on paper forms.

Farmers say they have struggled with the £154m website for months.

Mark Grimshaw, chief executive of Defra's Rural Payments Agency (RPA), said the decision had been made "having listened intently" to farmers.

He made the announcement on BBC Radio 4's Farming Today programme.

Defra made the decision to "blend" new and existing forms and processes "to ensure that everyone who wants to make a claim this year can do so", the chief executive added.

Farmland boundaries

The Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) is the European Union's biggest rural payments subsidy scheme for the farming industry.

Defra has said the registration part of the system will continue. The RPA will then input the data on to the system.

However, a digital "mapping tool" to measure farmland boundaries - which has been the most problematic element of the system - has been replaced with paper maps and forms.

Farmers and their agents will be able to receive assistance at 50 digital support centres in England, which will now act as drop-in centres.


Richard Cotham, farmer, Shropshire

I usually leave it to the last minute with the paper forms because it only takes about three hours to do, but so far I have spent three days doing the online version and I am only halfway through it.

We don't have all the codes - we have to put down what you're growing in each field and a code for each crop.

It is just lack of information really, there is just no information and the people on the switchboard when you ask the helpline are as much in the dark as we are.


Also talking to Farming Today, Guy Smith, from the National Farmers Union, said he had found the mapping programme "beyond comprehension".

"Our patience is worn really thin now and if we think that they've launched this again half baked, not ready to go, without proper back-up we will be complaining in the strongest terms," he said.

Brian Glick, editor in chief of Computer Weekly, said: "The system hasn't been permanently abandoned, it's an embarrassment rather than a failure."


Analysis

Image copyright PA

By environment correspondent Claire Marshall

For anyone who's been farming for a decade or more, this kind of Defra IT system fiasco will be horribly familiar.

The head of the Tenant Farmers Association has called it "the ghost of Christmas past".

When the Common Agricultural Policy was last reformed in 2005, the £350m, implementation IT system disintegrated.

Farmers ended up not being paid the EU funds they were entitled to, or they got paid the wrong amounts.

It took years to sort out. The system was dismantled and the Rural Payments Agency was told that it "must learn" from its costly mistake.

This time another eye-watering sum has been paid to technology suppliers and consultants: £154m.

Defra officials had reassured farmers they would ensure there was "no repeat of the 2005 payments fiasco".

So it is time to ditch the keyboard and download the claim forms.

Scotland had already prepared its paper-based forms. The question will be asked: why was there no plan B in England?


The European Commission has extended the deadline for basic payment scheme applications until 15 June.

"We've put in place some processes which we know (farmers) are familiar with, so they can have the certainty of being able to submit their applications on time," Mr Grimshaw added.

Farmers have repeatedly been reassured the online system would be fixed.

Defra has said two forms will be available to download from the RPA's website from 23 March.

Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have their own rural payment schemes.

Related Topics

More on this story