RPA resumes payments to producers but backdating decisions trigger controversy

Defra's Rural Payments Agency (RPA) has reinstated its payments to most producer organisations after six months of close scrutiny.

It suspended payments on 30 September last year while it determined a new policy on shared facilities. This followed a Court of First Instance judgement given to the French authorities, who lost their appeal against a multi-million-euro fine for failing to comply with the shared facilities rules.

It was feared that these facilities were not being shared but were instead being used by businesses that had set up producer organisations under false pretences to obtain cash for specific items.

The RPA therefore drew up a new policy on shared facilities and, as Grower went to press, 34 producer organisations had met the new criteria and had payments resumed.

The RPA also confirmed that eight producer organisations had been permanently suspended as a result of the shared facilities issue. During its investigations, several other producer organisations were permanently suspended for reasons unrelated to shared facilities.

Keven Brooks, financial controller at Fruitlink, a Wisbech-based producer organisation for top fruit growers, told Grower the whole process has been a headache.

"What really frustrated us is that we received a letter from the RPA saying it's not a paper exercise, but it was," he complained.

"The RPA just wanted to see our members' agreements. It was all effectively to do with the fact that our agreement did not specifically say that all packing facilities are available to all members. But the RPA never asked to come and see how we actually operate.

"We ended up on our sixth draft before it agreed that what we had was correct. We even got solicitors involved, who prepared the document for us."

Fen Peas managing director Stephen Francis added: "They have asked question after question. But I have been paid in full, so I'm a happy bunny."

But other producer organisations are not as happy because not all have had their pay backdated to 30 September, prompting some to launch informal appeals against the RPA's decisions.

An RPA representative said: "The payment situation depends on the structure of producer organisations as at 30 September. There are two groups. Firstly, those that, following RPA checks, we agree were compliant with the revised policy from the date of the judgment. Those producer organisations will get payments backdated to 30 September once we remove suspension."

"Secondly, producer organisations that were not compliant at the judgement date but have subsequently implemented appropriate changes to bring them in line with the revised policy.

"These producer organisations will not receive payments backdated to September. Suspension will be lifted from the date the producer organisations achieved compliance and eligibility for aid recommences from that date."

She added: "A number (of producer organisations) have (at this stage) queried our decisions in relation to compliance and these cases are being considered."

NFU chief horticultural adviser Phil Hudson said: "The NFU has sought counsel's opinion on the lawfulness of the RPA's approach to the shared facilities issue and we are considering the implications of that advice carefully.

"Longer-term though, there is a need to rebuild confidence in the scheme so that as far as is possible we can avoid similar issues affecting it in the future."

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