Pressure is building for a government investigation into problems at the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) which delayed support payments to tens of thousands of farmers.
It comes after a committee of MPs highlighted a “childish turf war” between senior civil servants tasked with implementing a new IT system for the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS).
Problems got so bad that online applications by farmers for payments had to be replaced by a paper-based system in March 2015.
The Public Accounts Committee highlighted “dysfunctional and inappropriate behaviours” among senior leaders of the three bodies as a key challenge for the project.
“Highly paid public servants need to get the job done and such behaviour is unacceptable,” said a report published by the committee on Wednesday (2 March).
Responding to the report, the Liberal Democrats said it was ridiculous to try to digitise the RPA process at a time when most rural areas had limited access to broadband.
‘Government must investigate’
The government must fully investigate how the RPA failed to pay tens of thousands of farmers, said Lib Dem rural affairs spokesman Mark Williams MP.
Those responsible for the scandal should be held to account, said Mr Williams, who represents the constituency of Ceredigion, Wales.
“Farmers across the country will not understand how on earth this has been allowed to happen”
Mark Williams, Liberal Democrat rural affairs spokesman
“Farmers across the country will not understand how on earth this has been allowed to happen,” he said.
“It is an unmitigated farce and those in the RPA who are responsible for this should be held to account.
“Tens of thousands of farmers have not received payments and this was completely avoidable.”
The report says the failure Defra, the RPA and the Government Digital Service (GDS) to work together effectively resulted in serious detriment to the programme.
It adds: “Neither the government’s chief technology officer nor the chief executive of the RPA was able to provide us with an acceptable explanation for their behaviour.”
Defra’s efforts to resolve issues – such as weekly meetings with the main protagonists – failed, and the Cabinet Office also did not halt the disruptive behaviour, said the report.
Mr Williams said at the heart of the matter was the question of whether a move to a digital system was appropriate at this time.
“Few would oppose such a move on principle, but the reality is there is a lack of a decent broadband service across many rural areas – the very areas [that] the RPA serve,” he said.
“Insisting on such a move when the infrastructure isn’t in place is ridiculous and there must now be steps taken to ensure more taxpayers’ money is not wasted in future.”
Farm leaders have also expressed concern at the situation.
Delays caused problems
NFU vice-president Guy Smith said cashflow problems on farms had been both caused and made worse by payment delays.
“To top this off, the communication from the RPA to farmers has been shambolic – farmers have largely been left in the dark on when their payment is going to come through.”
“It is very difficult for farms to make essential plans for their business operations when they are under a cloud of uncertainty about when they will receive the payment they are waiting for”
Christopher Price, Country Land and Business Association
Country Land and Business Association policy director Christopher Price said the report confirmed concerns it had raised “for many months” over the delivery of vital payments to farmers.
“It is very difficult for farms to make essential plans for their business operations when they are under a cloud of uncertainty about when they will receive the payment they are waiting for.”
A Defra spokesman acknowledged there had been “a problem with one part of the online interface that enabled farmers to put data directly into Rural Payments”.
But the spokesman insisted that the core of the system had always worked.
“Over 87,000 farmers registered on the system and it has been used to process and pay over 70,800 farmers – over 80% of all those eligible – their 2015 Basic Payment Scheme payment.
The RPA said it had nothing to add to the Defra statement. Farmers Weekly has also contacted the GDS for comment and any response will be added once available.