The company employed to build England’s single farm payment computer system has defended itself against accusations that it might be to blame for SFP delays.

Facing questions from the environment, food and rural affairs select committee on Monday (22 May), directors of Accenture said they were “proud” of what they delivered and “surprised” when it did not work.

“RITA [the computer system] is functioning as designed and has been in operation and fully stable since October 2005… and we are proud of what we have delivered,” said the company, in a written submission to the committee.

Peter Holmes, director of Atlantic and European government operations, told MPs that the system Accenture was required to develop was complex and to an onerous timescale.

But, he said, the company delivered within the timeframe agreed with the Rural Payments Agency and to the specifications of the contract.

Sean Shine, Accenture’s managing director of UK government operations, insisted that as the system passed the RPA’s tests, they could not have foreseen the problems that arose.

“We were completely taken by surprise when the announcement was made that the system would not work.”

However, the Accenture team was forced to concede that the electronic system designed by it to read SP5 application forms had failed to perform.

This meant the information supplied had to be entered into the system manually, which created extra work.

The team accepted this was an inconvenience, but said it did not believe this was a significant factor in causing the system to stall. Instead, they pointed to the RPA’s requirement for a task-based, risk-adverse system with strict validation criteria which resulted in a large number of applications being flagged for review.

These required an operator to review the application before approval.

This process was laborious and time consuming, but the responsibility of the RPA, not Accenture.

Further problems arose when RITA failed to properly integrate with the final part of the system, said the team.

Although Accenture developed five key parts of the system, it did not design the final part that dispatched payments to farmers.

This element was developed by the RPA’s in-house team of IT technicians.

Asked by Michael Jack, committee chairman, if Accenture discussed with DEFRA any potential concerns it might have with the compatibility of the two systems, Mr Shine said it had focused on delivering its contractual obligations.

“We were not asked for detailed views on other parts of the system,” he said.

Single Farm Payment Scheme special report from FWi

andrew.watts@rbi.co.uk