Failures delayed support payments worth millions

Blunders by senior civil servants delayed support payments worth millions of pounds to thousands of farmers, MPs have been told.

Taxpayers and farmers suffered from the installation of an expensive yet inadequate computer system at the Rural Payments Agency, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee heard on Monday (14 November).

“Don’t let us kid ourselves that farmers are happy,” said committee chairman Margaret Hodge. “The latest evidence we have is that four out of 10 farmers are dissatisfied with the RPA’s performance.”

Despite claims that the situation had improved, many farmers felt left in the dark. One in four were dissatisfied with the agency’s communication, said Mrs Hodge. That was “not a place any public service should be in”, she added.

The inquiry heard former agency chief executive Tony Cooper had more than enough time to carry out the “heart surgery” needed to improve the organisation. He received bonuses and a hefty pay-off despite failing to do so.

The agency manages more than 40 schemes, paying more than 100,000 farmers and other industry stakeholders more than £2bn each year – as well as overseeing the cattle tracing system and carrying out inspections.

The evidence session was held as the agency launched a new charter outlining the standards farmers can expect when dealing with the quango and the actions it will take if things go wrong.

Queries will be dealt with quickly, politely and professionally, pledges the charter. Farmers will be kept informed in a clear and open way, with a transparent complaints and appeals processes.

Agency chief executive Mark Grimshaw said: “We are placing customers at the heart of everything we do, and this is one of first ways we can demonstrate our commitment to improving the services we offer them.”

Individual farmers and industry representatives were involved in the production of the charter to help ensure it met the needs of farmers and food producers. They included NFU president Peter Kendall.

He said: “The relationship between farmers and the RPA has been far from good in the past. The customer charter is a move in the right direction – building a professional relationship with the farming industry is greatly welcomed.”

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