Defra talks offer no comfort for growers caught up in RPA payment suspension

Hopes of a stress-free Christmas are fading for growers who are wondering whether or not Defra's Rural Payments Agency (RPA) will point the finger of suspicion at them and stop their producer organisation (PO) grants for good.

The RPA, as reported in Grower on 20 November, has suspended all payments to UK POs while Defra decides on a new policy on the thorny issue of shared facilities.

In a closed meeting held at Defra's London headquarters last week, government representatives told attendees that they will be investigating each of the 50 or so existing POs one by one to assess whether the way in which they use their shared facilities fits the bill.

The representatives at the meeting were unable to give a timescale for their investigations - meaning that growers are still unable to plan ahead for next year because they do not know whether or not they will receive any money in future.

Stephen Francis, managing director of Fen Peas, which operates as a PO in Lincolnshire, told Grower after the meeting that the RPA will be putting each organisation into one of three categories: "There will be those who are safe and who will have their payments resumed, those who may pass as long as more information is provided and those who are in trouble."

He added that the RPA gave growers little indication as to which POs it is most concerned about.

"I find it disappointing the way this is a blanket ban on all of us, as it means we could all be construed as being a bit dodgy. Each year we [growers] get slapped with something else. It's not an easy life. We are just getting more and more hurdles in the way," said Francis.

NFU chief horticultural adviser Phil Hudson told Grower that the meeting showed that some headway had been made on the issue, but added that there was still a lot of work to be done. "The RPA is still working on the policy and then will be working on its implementation," he said.

"What we want is for them to have the suspension of payments lifted because this is causing a cash flow problem for a lot of POs.

"But they are concerned that if they make the payment to POs and those POs are found to be non-compliant, that could lead to disallowance - when they lose the money."

The RPA said in a statement: "RPA and Defra appreciate the urgency and are continuing to establish a policy that complies with the European Court of Justice judgement. At this stage we are unable to say how soon the issue will be fully resolved but we will be looking at each PO individually to establish what changes are necessary to achieve compliance."

Shared facilities - such as packing and marketing - have been a bone of contention for a couple of years now as EU authorities have sometimes disapproved of the way that they are interpreted.

The French have just lost their appeal against a multi-million euro fine for failing to comply with the shared facilities rules and the RPA's decision follows the Court of First Instance judgement handed down to the French authorities.

It is claimed, for example, that POs have been formed as means for people to get the funds to buy specific items. Yet many POs in the fresh produce industry rely heavily on the grant, with some of them receiving as much as £1m a year to buy essential items such as trees and equipment.

POs receive the cash in big chunks, such as quarterly or bi-annual instalments. But without a guarantee that they will receive this money, many growers will be left unclear about the future and unable to plan for the year ahead.

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