This is perhaps one of those rare occasions when it might almost be possible to feel sorry for the RPA. The proposed Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) system looks to be usable and if it had been available last year would have been seen as a success. Presented this year, the reduction in functionality available to many who used Siti-farmer will be disappointing.

The RPA has recognised that a dual system of both paper and electronic applications will be necessary. Approximately 22,000 paper forms will be posted to those who applied on paper in 2014 but additional paper applications will be made available on request. Paper copies will not be emailed. However, the pressure is on for most arable applications to be made online, although some supporting documentation may still have to be posted.

From the users point of view the new application system has little in common with the version launched and then dropped last year. Mapping is no longer integrated with the application system and the mapping capability is downgraded. Thus, lengths can be measured but not areas, and field boundaries and new features cannot be added. The drain on server and bandwidth will be far less than last year and the system should be faster. It is too early to know whether it will also be stable.

The RPA has also made a number of cosmetic changes so that the widely used conventions of blue underlined text for hotlinks and ‘visual buttons’ have been adopted. This will make navigation easier. They have also embedded links to the guidance at the relevant points in the application.

Having been burnt, the RPA are being cautious about committing to a timetable. This is also an indication that the system is not already at the point of final testing but in development (a view supported by stakeholders). We understand that when it is launched a sequence of upgrades and additions to functionality are expected. The system should be available for making submissions from mid-March although some online preparation should be possible before then. The deadline for application is 16 May 2016.

Once the system is up and running, it is expected that it will remain in place, allowing claim progress to be monitored and allowing the 2017 application to be started at any time.

Registration

The 2015 registration whether made directly via the RPA (www.ruralpayments.service.gov.uk) or through gov.uk verify will remain valid this year It had been expected that there would be a requirement to move to the securer, but more time-consuming, gov.uk verify system this year but it would appear that the registration difficulties have not been resolved.

Application

We have not been able to test the system but the screen images suggest a tabular format as used pre-2015. Fields should be pre-populated and presented in the same order as last year. Field names will be included but not if entered for the first time in 2015. The top level land use (arable, permanent grass, etc.) will be pre-populated. Codes for detailed land uses should be as last year although there will be fewer codes for ineligible features such as woodland. Areas for activation can be reduced.

Fields can be split between land uses or occupation by different farmers. Splits that occurred previously can be deleted.

Areas of fallow and pulse crops will automatically be recorded as contributing to the Ecological Focus Area (EFA) as well as crop diversification. Lengths of hedge and buffer strips (i.e. the cross compliance strip alongside water courses) will be shown as a length. Importantly, neither will have a footprint so there should be no need to enter areas.

Treatment of catch/cover crops included as part of the EFA remains clumsy and will need to be included as part of a second rotation. We assume this mechanism will be clear when the system goes live.

Available catch/cover crop options have been extended to include oilseed radish (as part of a mix) and some EFA features can now be separated by up to 5 m from the arable land by a feature such as a track.

Fields cannot be added to the online system and additional fields will need to be added on paper continuation sheets.

The system will automatically check compliance with crop diversification and EFA requirements for the elements of the application completed online.

Unfortunately, areas will need entering to four decimal places where fields are split. Not all corrections requested via RLE1s last year will have been made, although where there is an RLE1 pending, the request should be indicated.

Mapping

Maps should be available online this month. The boundaries will be shown overlaying maps and aerial images and may be printed out. Lengths may be measured but not areas. Changes to parcels cannot be made online.

Paper copies will be available on request.

As mentioned, boundaries may NOT have been updated from RLE1s submitted in 2015.

Entitlement transfer

Entitlement transfer may be initiated online or by RLE1. The current advice is that since the online system is imminent, it is worth waiting to complete transfers online. There will be no entitlement block identification numbers. Transfer will require the recipient’s SBI number. Entry of the SBI will display the recipient’s business name thereby helping to confirm destination for the entitlements. The request will be processed overnight but will not be implemented until the requested date of transfer is reached. The RPA recommend that a screen shot is taken of the application.

Both the transferor and transferee will receive a confirmation that the transfer has taken place.

As most are aware, the RPA no longer requires the six-week transfer period so transfer for the current scheme year may take place at any time up to the date of application. Similarly, activation of entitlements cannot be rotated, so if they are not all activated at least once every two years, entitlements will be lost.

Land transfer and changes

Land transfer may also be made online or by RLE1. At present, online transfer may only be initiated by the transferor. The process is similar to the entitlement transfer including SBI verification, overnight processing and notification of both parties.

Land boundary changes and addition of permanently ineligible features can only be made by RLE1. It is assumed that the addition of unregistered land can only be made via paper application. Where an RLE1 has already been submitted but not processed, the RPA requests that a duplicate request is not made.

If land is in agricultural use, there is a potential penalty if land is omitted from the application even if there is no intention to activate entitlements on it.

Young farmers and national reserve

Applications to the national reserve for new entitlements and for the young farmer top-up on the first 90 ha will be via paper. Even where accepted in 2015, an accountant’s declaration will also be needed in 2016 to check that the business structure has not been changed.

New EU legislation was published in January permitting member states the option of allowing young farmers to qualify for the top-up where they are applying as legal entities controlled jointly by young and old farmers.

Other

The results of inspections should be notified shortly. The regulation actually requires notification within 3 months of the inspection, although the regulation pre-amble suggests that late notification should not reduce the penalty.

Where a government body is responsible for maladministration, the government ombudsman expects the business disadvantaged by the maladministration to be returned to the position that it would have been in if the maladministration had not occurred. This should include any fees incurred for dealing with the problem.

Accountable people

An important part of any payment system is to make sure that the legally responsible person for the application has been the person authorising the application. The RPA is to tighten up on the identification of these people but have decided that this can be completed post-application.

The RPA has said that the accountable people will not need to register online although logic suggests that at least one must, even if just to authorise completion of the application.

The ruling initially appears straight forward: the accountable person should exert control of the business and benefit financially from its operation.

There is no issue for sole traders. For partnerships all partners will need to be listed (although individual partners actually have more authority over the business than minor shareholders in a company). Company shareholders will also need listing.

But from then on it gets murky. The RPA stated that a director on a profit share would be an accountable person. Indeed, a director, like a manager, has some day-to-day control and either may have a profit share as part of his/her salary. However, a manager on a profit share is not seen as an accountable person.

It is even more complicated for trusts. A trustee does not receive financial gain from the success of the trust but does have management control. If a trustee is accepted as the accountable person, there is a risk that all the businesses the trustee becomes involved with become linked.

To make the situation worse there are a number of companies/partnerships where at least one of the shareholders/partners is a trust, partnership or company. Further guidance is expected.

Short sharp reminders

The penalty in 2016 for failing to implement crop diversification is a maximum of about £22/ha (£12/acre). This will increase in 2017.

Where the EFA is found insufficient on inspection, the inspector is required to add other EFA features on the farm but not