Repeat IT failure as Defra suspends online farm subsidies claim system

Plans for farmers to switch to online-only claims for EU subsidies have been suspended after “performance problems” with a new multi-million pound IT systems could not be resolved.

The new £154m system is not to be completely abandoned, but will be used only for farmers to register and download forms to print out. Farmers will then have to submit their claims for the Basic Payment Scheme on paper forms.

The Rural Payments Agency said the change would not prevent it completing the necessary work on time to make payments to farmers from December.

The RPA’s chief executive, Mark Grimshaw, briefed the media and said: “My priority is to ensure that every farmer and agent has the help they need to make their claims on time. Using tried-and-tested RPA forms will make this happen.”

The issue with the IT system is to do with its digital "mapping tool" to measure farmland boundaries. Grimshaw admitted there has been “performance problems” with the online interface which could not be resolved.

“The bit that we have had all the problems with is the ‘update my land mapping’ functionality, because it is slow, it’s difficult to explain to customers. Quite simply, it isn’t doing what we need it to do,” he explained.

“The release at the weekend was supposed to fix it. It didn’t. So I have taken the decision that enough’s enough. We have spent the rest of this week in discussions with Defra and the decision is that we will not be re-establishing the land element of the portal.”

National Farmers Union president Meurig Raymond said environment secretary Elizabeth Truss has given reassurance that enough resources will be made available so BPS payments can be made in good time later this year.

He added: “This has been made increasingly worrying and costly for our members as time is running out and the day-to-day business of farming cannot be put on hold nor can we waste any further time at this critical period in the farming year. 

"The NFU has encouraged our members to register onto the new system in good faith, but we have been let down time and time again. We know that some farmers have already spent hundreds of pounds on agents’ fees and this is an unacceptable situation and the failure of the mapping capability of the systems has been a particular bugbear to our members. We are pleased to hear today the RPA commitment that they have saved the data that has already been entered onto the system and it will be used going forward."

The difficulties with the new computer system will be horribly familiar for those who were in farming in 2005, the last time the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), of which the Basic Payment Scheme is a part, was changed. Implementation of a new IT system then went drastically wrong and farmers were not paid EU funds, and those that were received the wrong amounts.

The problems took years to sort out and the new system was dismantled. The Rural Payments Agency was told that it "must learn" from its costly mistake.

In December PSE spoke to Jo Broomfield, the man in charge of transforming the Rural Payments Agency and setting up the new IT systems for the 2015 payment scheme, ensuring there was not a repeat of 2005.

The CAP is “one of the most heavily-audited aspects of European fund distribution”, Broomfield said, so ensuring the integrity of this new system is vital. A failure and consequent ‘disallowance penalty’ could cost HM Treasury “many tens of millions of pounds”. “It’s absolutely critical,” Broomfield added.

It is not clear if the Treasury will face any disallowance penalty for the IT failure but it is another humiliating failure for Defra nonetheless.

The European Commission has extended the deadline for basic payment scheme applications until 15 June to allow farmers more time to get their applications in. The problems only apply to farmers in England – Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have their own rural payment schemes.

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