Office cuts are given go-ahead

21 July 2000

Office cuts are given go-ahead

By Johann Tasker

THE government is set to close up to six regional MAFF offices as part of a major streamining exercise aimed at speeding up farm subsidy claims.

Chancellor Gordon Brown has finally confirmed that the Treasury will release funding to set up a new government agency to deal with subsidy payments. He made the pledge in a statement last Tues (July 18) as part of the governments Comprehensive Spending Review (See news, page 6).

The promise gives farm minister Nick Brown the go-ahead to implement wide-ranging reforms and close regional MAFF offices. Responsibility for subsidy payments from the offices and the Intervention Board will be transferred to a new Common Agricultural Policy Payments Agency (CAPPA).

An internal Whitehall memo leaked to farmers weekly says: "The minister, Nick Brown, will be making a detailed announcement on Monday July 24 about the [spending review] and what it will mean for the Department. The statement will include information on the CAPPA programme, confirming the sites where the new agency will operate."

The memo was leaked after it was sent from Jane Brown of MAFFs Regional Restructuring Programme to ministry employees. It describes a programme of "major change". The memo says: "The minister wants to consider carefully what has been said before he makes a formal announcement about the proposals."

Ms Brown wrote: "We are all very conscious of the uncertainty that everyone working in the Regions and other parts of MAFF and Intervention Board involved in CAP administration has faced over the past few months. We recognise that this has been a very difficult period."

Senior civil servants believe farmers and traders will benefit from a reduction in red-tape and more efficient and rapid processing of payments. They expect 95% of farmers to be able to apply for subsidies over the internet by March 2004. The move is expected to reduce the cost of administering subsidy payments by 10%.

One ministry source, who asked not to be named, said he expected all but three of MAFFs nine existing regional offices to be shut down. A further office could be used to house the new agency, he added. The memo indicates that Mr Brown will transfer MAFFs existing regional activities to local government offices.

But the proposals have been opposed by the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents MAFF employees. Farmers without computer access could be isolated and thousands of jobs will be lost, claims the union. It believes the plan is a "reckless gamble" and could cost up to £100m to implement.

Whitehall, however, claims that creating a dedicated payments agency will provide the opportunity to restructure other aspects of regional ministry work. It believes the plan will help MAFF provide a "streamlined modern service" to farmers and has pledged to maintain close links with the farming community.

Funding has so far been approved on the basis of draft proposals. Mr Brown will now have to submit a final business plan to the Treasury. He is then expected to reveal his intentions for reorganisation to MAFF employees and to the House of Commons before formally announcing his plans to the outside world.

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