Environment secretary Hilary Benn has been ordered to reassess DEFRA’s decision not to compensate farmers over the single farm payments debacle, or face explaining the decision in public.
In a damning three page letter to Mr Benn, Public Accounts Select Committee chairman Tony Wright gave the minister three weeks to look again at a parliamentary ombudsman report into the Rural Payments Agency’s handling of the 2004 scheme.
Unless Mr Benn made an announcement on the report by the end of February, PASC would consider forcing him to.
The report, which investigated complaints from 24 farmers, had suggested two farmers in particular should receive £3500 and £5000 respectively for the stress and anxiety caused by payment delays.
But in a committee meeting last month (28 January) DEFRA permanent secretary Helen Ghosh said the agency could not be held accountable for failing to achieve “aspirational” payment targets and should not have to pay compensation.
In the letter, sent on Thursday (4 February), Mr Wright said the committee was “mystified” about why DEFRA was resisting the ombudsman’s findings, particularly when only modest compensation had been recommended.
He said DEFRA was at cross-purposes to the ombudsman, and said the department did not seem to have an understanding of the ombudsman’s role or the report.
“[DEFRA’s arguments] seem to be predicated on an adversarial rather than a common sense, compassionate approach to people who have undoubtedly suffered injustice as a result of the departments administrative failings,” he said.
“Where the government disagrees with the ombudsman’s approach to remedy, it should have strong, politically defensible reasons for doing so.
“We are not persuaded that such reasons exist in this case,” he added.
Mr Wright urged Mr Benn to meet the ombudsman as soon as possible to discuss her report and the department’s relations with DEFRA.
A DEFRA spokesman said: “Ministers will consider the letter’s contents seriously before responding to the committee.”