The Rural Payments Agency has once again been branded incompetent and unfit for purpose by MPs.
The government’s Public Accounts Select Committee said the agency did not comprehend that it was continuing to fail farmers and its leadership was dysfunctional.
The Committee met in Westminster on Thursday (28 January) to hear evidence on DEFRA‘s response to a Parliamentary Ombudsman report.
The report investigated complaints from 24 farmers over the RPA‘s handling of their 2004 payments.
The Ombudsman, Anne Abraham, had suggested two farmers in particular should receive £3500 and £5000, respectively, for the stress and anxiety caused by payment delays.
DEFRA permanent secretary Dame Helen Ghosh said the department “absolutely accepted” the Ombudsman’s findings that there had been maladministration in getting the payment service right.
But she argued the agency could not be held accountable for not achieving “aspirational targets” set by DEFRA, which were different from statutory targets set by the European Union.
The RPA could not be blamed if farmers had made business decisions based on when the agency suggested they might receive the money, rather than the June payment deadline set by the EU, she added.
But committee chairman Tony Wright said there was a “chasm of principle” between the Ombudsman’s report and the RPA.
Committee member Ian Liddell-Grainger said Dame Helen’s arguments were “ridiculous” and that the agency’s performance showed “endemic failure” throughout the whole system.
“I just don’t think you’re up to it,” he added.
Mrs Abraham said unless systemic issues were addressed within DEFRA and the RPA, she expected the agency would be hauled before MPs again.
“There is something about their service, complaint systems and the defensive, legalistic responses we have had that shows unless the RPA and DEFRA get their heads around what farmers’ complaints are about we are going to be here again.
“DEFRA doesn’t get it in terms of customer service and complaint handling.
“It’s bewildering that the department is dragging its heels on something over a point of principle that is so disproportionate.”