In the hot seat: Mark Grimshaw

Farmers Weekly spoke to RPA chief executive Mark Grimshaw.

It is more than three months since you were confirmed as chief executive.

What are your early impressions?

This is an organisation on the brink of change. I’m struck by the conscientious ethos of everyone who works at RPA. I’m impressed by the huge range of activities we manage – not just SPS, but about 60 other schemes, paying out more than £2bn a year. Our BCMS team deals with 70,000 cattle transactions every day, the Horticultural Marketing Inspectorate team facilitates clearance for more than 200,000 fruit and vegetable imports a year, and we manage information on more than 2m land parcels. I’m confident we can see a real improvement for our customers across the full range of our activities.

How did your previous job at the Child Support Agency suit you to the RPA chief executive role? Why did you want the RPA role?

I have proven experience of turning an agency around, having had great success at the CSA. I have the skills, influence and determination to succeed and I’m here to stay. I’m obsessed with getting underneath processes – my engineering background means that I enjoy getting into the detail, easing bottlenecks and speeding up delivery. I am sitting with every team in the organisation to understand it in detail before we can work to make the processes flow more smoothly.

I can promise there won’t be any sugar-coating of tough issues, and certainly no room for poor performance. I’ll ensure that everyone at RPA is equipped to perform at their highest ability.

What are your priorities for improving the delivery for SPS, for the remainder of 2011?

I’m working with my senior leadership team to develop our three-year strategic plan, which will set out top outcomes for the agency not just for the rest of this year, but into the future. I will also be talking to farmer representatives as part of that process to ensure that the customer perspective is fully captured.

Who is the RPA’s most important customer, the farmer or the EU Auditor?

There is a common goal between the farmer and the EU – that our farmers get their EU subsidy at the earliest opportunity. When we get it right, the result is timely, accurate payments and satisfied customers all round. I am also conscious of a third customer – the taxpayer.

What are the prospects of the RPA making the majority of the value SPS payments before the end December 2011?

We made the vast majority of SPS 2010 payments before the end of December 2010, and I see no reason for that to change in 2011. There will always be some claims that take longer to process than others, for example those chosen for an inspection, but our focus on accuracy this year will produce dividends in the future.

Why does it need a call to the Farm Crisis Network before some payments are released? Why can’t the RPA just release the payments?

There’s no question that farmers have to call FCN for us to take them seriously. If they call us directly, we’ll always try to make a normal, validated, payment. We’ll assess the case to see whether we can make an exceptional payment. If farmers come to us through one of the rural organisations we will take the view that they have already been considered a genuine case. However, this route really is only open to those in genuine need. Any payments made in this way are an exemption from the EU regulations, so it needs to be tightly controlled to protect UK taxpayers from fines.

Why is the RPA paying IT consultants so much money when the software is a main part of the problem?

RPA does not currently employ any IT consultants. We do have IT suppliers which supply us with software and hardware.

We have had to invest significant sums in the past to develop software to accommodate the complexity of European regulations and the way in which SPS was adopted in England.

The software has been designed to comply with the regulations, which we all know are complex. There have been particular problems with ensuring timely and accurate entitlement correction. A lot of work has gone into that with our supplier over the past year and things have improved.

Why does it cost the RPA so much money to administer payments (compared to other UK countries)?

PricewaterhouseCoopers calculated a reduction from £1,203 in 2007-08 to £1,034 in 2009-10 with a further reduction of about 20% during the past year. But we need to do more on that front. I am determined to deal with the legacy of poor data. Correcting that data not only eats up costs but also slows payments. This is why I am determined to draw a line under this in the coming year. It’s also key to remember the scheme was adopted in different ways in different countries.

How many people do you have working on the backlog of 2010 payments?

There are fewer than 6,000 claims left of the 105,000 or so total. We have resources in place to ensure the payments will be made in line with our commitment. In total around 500 of our SPS operational team are working on the 2010 claims that remain.

What message do you have for farmers still awaiting payment?

I know from the calls and correspondence that we get, that it is a real issue for some farmers when payments go out later in the window. We are making payments to farmers as quickly as we possibly can, but with a real focus on accuracy so that long-standing issues with some claims can be addressed. This should benefit the farmers concerned in the longer term.

How long will it take to make the manual payments promised last week?

Manual payments are being made over the next two months and every farmer is being sent a letter telling them when they can expect payment.

Will the RPA be able to cope with changes that result from the next round of CAP reform?

Lessons have been learned from the past. The forthcoming reforms will be larger in scale and threaten greater complexity but the principles are the same – choose simple options, be realistic on timescales and ensure good links with the negotiating teams and with stakeholders who can help us decide the best way of implementing something on the ground. A team has already been established in RPA with that remit.

The RPA missed the March deadline for 90% of payments. What went wrong?

We made the decision not to sacrifice accuracy at the price of speed. This year, many long-standing issues with claims are being addressed, which puts us in a much better position for next year.

By the end of March we had made payments of more than £1.52bn to 98,262 English farmers. This is more than 88% of the total estimated fund value. We’re continuing to work hard on the remaining claims and we are working to validate these as quickly as possible. Some of these are complex cases involving probate, business partnership changes and domestic issues, which we can only pay once legalities are resolved.

What changes will you make to ensure payment targets are met next year?

I am looking at all the processes which underpin payments. The DEFRA Review of the Agency published in July called for a strengthened leadership team and I’m building that now with real talent that can drive us forward. I am going to deliver a three-year strategy for the agency in the summer and will be sharing that with you then.

Questions from FW forums

Why are people with small acreages receiving single farm payments? They are not making their living from farming and the cost in money and time of processing these small claims must be prohibitive, and probably accounts for some of the delay for real farmers to get their payment. Malcolm

A minimum size of 1ha was introduced for SPS 2010 following changes to EU rules. I understand these sorts of issues are covered in the Commission’s communication on future CAP reform so RPA will be following the debate very closely in order that we are best placed to implement whatever is agreed.

Why is information not made available on the website as to why the SFP money is being withheld? It’s the “not knowing” that is the killer.  owdfred

We’ve taken the personal approach of writing letters to every individual farmer, setting out the details. We think this is more valuable than putting generic information on the website, which would give a range of reasons but nothing specific for each farmer.

As an agent I submitted some 40 odd SPS applications electronically last year. This year I have received an envelope for each one containing a letter. It explains that as the SPS application was submitted electronically last year, they were not posting paper forms this year. It also encloses a booklet telling you how to fill the paper form in. This is a waste of resources. Why has the RPA not devised a system to end this waste? lizzyno

We’re examining all our processes in detail to cut costs and save waste. We have made a start by working with agents to see what can be done.

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