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03.03.16

PAC denounces CAP delivery programme as ‘an appalling Whitehall fiasco’

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has slammed the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) delivery programme as “an appalling Whitehall fiasco” owing to the inability of different agencies to work together.

The report, into the failures of a scheme to create an IT system to make payments to farmers, says that relationships between senior officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Rural Payments Agency and the Government Digital Service were “dysfunctional and inappropriate”, featuring “unacceptable” behaviour, and that the Cabinet Office did not intervene to stop the behaviour.

The system was initially planned to be digital only and to cost £155m to implement, but Defra had to switch to a paper-assisted system in March 2015, and by September 2015 the system had cost £215m.

PAC says that as a result of the failures of the programme farmers are being paid much later, with only 38% of farmers paid by 1 December 2015, compared to over 90% in previous years, and £200m payments under the Environmental Stewardship Scheme were delayed by 2 months.

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC, said: “This Programme was set up to deliver support to UK farmers. Instead, it delivered an appalling Whitehall fiasco.

“It was frankly embarrassing to learn of senior and highly paid civil servants arguing to the detriment of hard-pressed farmers.”

The committee has called on Defra to set out clear targets on when it will pay farmers. Disallowance penalties paid to the European Commission for delays in paying farmers are also set to reach 10% (£180m) a year, far above the 2% target.

A Defra spokesperson said: "The new CAP is widely acknowledged as the most complex ever and the task of setting up a new IT system to handle this additional complexity was a significant challenge. Throughout this period the collective focus has always remained on getting payments out to farmers as quickly as possible. In March 2015 there was a problem with one part of the online interface that enabled farmers to put data directly into Rural Payments, but the core of the system has always worked. Almost all farmers in England will be paid by the end of this month and the Rural Payments system has been further improved for 2016 to make it easier for farmers to apply for CAP payments."

The National Audit Office has also criticised the lack of collaboration between the bodies responsible for the programme.

 

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