Farmers Weekly columnist Ian Pigott argues in this Opinion piece that farmers should be more understanding of DEFRA and the RPA – and that much of the criticism levelled against them is unfair.There has been a lot of mud thrown at Defra in recent weeks. Much of it thrown unfairly.
The launch of the Basic Payment System has been fraught with software problems.
But farmers, agents and farming organisations have been more than happy to slag off Defra and the RPA without appreciating the magnitude of the task of rolling out a successor to the Single Payment System.
If you are a recipient of support payments through the BPS and you have slung mud at Defra, be it in the pub or at a local farmer meeting, consider the challenge through the eyes of Mark Grimshaw, the RPA’s chief executive appointed by Defra.
Imagine the Basic Payment System was a new product that you were delivering for your business. Firstly, you need a little background.
Your business is turning over 42% less than it was six years ago (Defra’s budget was cut from £3.91bn in 2008 to £2.3bn in 2015.)
You have lost nearly half of your staff and your parent company (The Treasury) have little interest in what you do.
What’s more, your business is part of a European association – basically, a central “think tank”, based in Brussels.
From time to time, the “think tank” will instruct you to reform your delivery strategy with little consideration of the impact to your business.
“It isn’t a question of if you are going to be paid; it is when” Ian Pigott
Morevoer, your customers are demanding and lack patience. They neither value you nor appreciate your efforts.
Oh, and one final thing: you understand the complications of a software roll out (launching the £350m Single Payment System in 2005) but your experience is not valued by head office.
They now have a “digital by default” standard that you must comply with. Their Global Digital Service will be overseeing and meddling with your project.
In summary, your company has already delivered a challenging product that works.
You have been told to reinvent it, at a fraction of the cost with half the staff, half the control…and your customer is demanding a system that is easier to use than its predecessor.
Of course, delays to support payments are a worry for any farm business, but the agricultural banking sector has a role to perform. The concern should be put into perspective. It isn’t a question of if you are going to be paid; it is when.
But mud-slinging is a dangerous sport. Farm leaders do immeasurable harm when they stand in front of television cameras complaining that taxpayers’ money is not being paid into our bank accounts fast enough.
Berating the inadequacies of the RPA and the software that pays out the dosh makes us look spoilt, ungrateful and petulant.
When will the PR penny drop? If we want to bellyache about farm support to the mass media, we should back it up with a comprehensive education and PR programme that helps the consumer understand and value the role that agriculture (and the CAP) delivers to them as individuals. After all, the CAP was conceived to give both consumers and farmers market stability.
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Of course I, too, am frustrated by the complications of the roll out of the Basic Payment System, but we shouldn’t shoot the messenger. Defra has had its budgets slashed every year since 2008.
Of much greater concern to me is the value that the leaders of this or any future UK government place on agriculture.
If we continue to publicly harangue Defra we may emerge from the next election without our own department. Consider Defra gone and agriculture shoehorned in BIS (Business Innovation and Skills). Now that would be a travesty.
Ian Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. The farm is a LEAF demonstration unit. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday.