Not until the point when DEFRA intended to start paying farmers their single farm payment did the Rural Payments Agency realise that the computer system designed to perform the task would not work, senior civil servants have admitted.

Giving evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee on 15 May, Helen Ghosh and Brian Bender, current and previous permanent secretaries respectively, said that they had both received assurances the system would be operational on time.

However, Ms Ghosh admitted that the key parts of the system had not been tested “in anger”.

In effect, she said, the system simply “gummed up” when the RPA attempted to roll out payments to farmers.

Members of the EFRA committee were simply astonished that DEFRA, the RPA and a team of external inspectors failed to ensure that the computer system would deliver on time.

On hearing that the contract’s running costs had more than doubled from £18m to £37m with other costs taking the final sum close to the budgeted £54m, David Taylor (Lab, North West Leicestershire), a former public sector IT manager, described
DEFRA as a “dream customer” for companies such as Accenture, which provided the system.

He said the decision to outsource large-scale IT projects to the private sector meant there were often few individuals left in government to monitor progress.

But Ms Ghosh rejected such criticisms. In her retort she said costs would be even higher had DEFRA not negotiated a fixed-price contract.

“In that sense, the contract we have is saving a significant amount of money and the taxpayer is receiving a good deal,” she said.

Ms Ghosh made further attempts to distance herself and DEFRA from the blame, saying that the problems with the computer system were “not foreseeable by us”.

Instead, she suggested, the blame lay with the RPA.

But under close questioning from the committee the permanent secretary was forced to admit that DEFRA had failed to focus on some of the critical elements.

Under advice from Accenture, the external advisers and the RPA resources were focused on resolving difficulties surrounding the validation process.

Other issues such as mapping and ensuring the system was compatible with the payment process were overlooked.

NFU parliamentary adviser Barney Holbeche likened the session to a public inquest following a disaster.

“It’s a bit like a corporate manslaughter case after a disaster, plenty of victims, but nobody’s at fault,” said Mr Holbeche.

Single Farm Payment Scheme special report from FWi

andrew.watts@rbi.co.uk