The former head of the Rural Payments Agency has told the environment, food and rural affairs select committee that DEFRA was made fully aware that its choice of single farm payment system was ‘high risk’.
Johnston McNeill, who was removed from office in March 2005, had cancelled a previous appearance before the committee because of ill health.
But he agreed to attend a private evidence session with the committee on Monday (15 January) from which an uncorrected transcript of the evidence has been published.
During the session (15 January), Mr McNeill admitted that he and his fellow officials had told DEFRA that the dynamic hybrid system was “doable.”
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“In my time in the RPA I met Margaret Beckett twice, and the second time I was dismissed.” Johnston McNeill
But he also made it clear that a warning had gone from the agency to DEFRA that it was also “extremely high risk”.
“I certainly believe there was no doubt …that anyone should have been left in any doubt that this was a high risk programme,” he said, adding that at one stage they were talking about there being just a 40% probability that things would go to plan.
Mr McNeill also revealed that the payment target of February 2005 had been set by DEFRA rather than the agency itself.
“We were keen to go for the EU requirement, which was that payments be made by the end of June, but obviously that was unacceptable because we had been setting new track records on payments for the previous scheme for some years.”
Mr McNeill said that he deeply regretted that the RPA was not able to make payments to farmers in the targeted timetable and the consequences that had flowed from that. “I apologise unreservedly for that,” he said.