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Poor collaboration sank Defra’s rural payments reform – NAO

Inappropriate behaviour, “deep rifts” in working relationships and ineffective collaboration between the bodies responsible for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Delivery Programme undermined their ability to roll out a successful rural payments service, the National Audit Office (NAO) has found.

The auditor identified several setbacks in the programme, a combined effort between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Rural Payments Agency, and the Government Digital Service (GDS).

At the top of these was a patchy leadership, with four senior responsible owners appointed within the space of a year, each “bringing their own style and priorities” to the table. NAO claimed these changes disrupted the programme and caused “uncertainty and confusion” amongst staff.

But the original vision and design of the 40% more expensive £215m programme – established in 2012 to address previous failings and adapt to the growing complexity of the new CAP – were already narrow, NAO said.

It focused too much on procuring IT systems without setting out the wider organisational transformation required. This was further hindered by spending controls applied in 2013 which introduced innovation but ultimately increased the risk of failure.

The auditor’s report, published today (1 December), also found that Defra failed to prevent counterproductive behaviours, staining the programme’s three-year history with inappropriate behaviour at senior leadership level.

It also accused GDS of failing to provide the necessary support Defra needed to adapt to the changes. While it committed to reducing overall costs, improving the delivery confidence and building Defra’s digital capability, GDS still offered patchy support and limited staff continuity on the ground.

Head of the NAO, Amyas Morse, said: “There are serious lessons in this episode for all three [bodies involved]. This means that costs have increased and systems functionality has not improved at the rate expected, either in the back office or the user-facing front end. This does not represent value for money at this stage.

“One consequence of this is that the department faces difficulties paying farmers accurately and at the earlier opportunity. While the department is now making progress towards its target of paying BPS [Basic Payment Scheme] claims for the majority of farmers in December, significant challenges remain for the programme.”

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, agreed that the programme will now cost far more, “but deliver far less”, than originally intended, including “millions of pounds worth of avoidable penalties”.

“This is not a good deal for the taxpayer or for farmers,” she said. “Defra and the GDS have repeatedly failed to get the basics right. There is no clear vision, numerous changes in direction and governance, poor leadership, and ineffective risk management.”


Defra had expected applicants to be able to register using Verify, Whitehall’s identity assurance system, from October last year.

At that early stage, Verify was already insufficiently ready for widespread use by farmers. It advised the department that it would need to make alternative arrangements available to provide the service, but none were put in place initially.

The vast majority of farmers therefore registered using the RPA’s existing process, supported by drop-in centred and their telephone helpline.

In December 2014, 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 it was not a repeat of 2005. Broomfield said that a failure to ensure the system’s integrity and consequent ‘disallowance penalty’ could cost the Treasury “many tens of millions of pounds”.

But soon after, in March this year, the online application system was suspended after serious failings and performance problems. It was replaced by “paper-assisted digital applications” for 2015, which the auditor found was an effective change to the programme.

At that point, the system was still priced at £154m – less than the cost estimated in the September business case – and was not to be completely abandoned. Instead, farmers would use it to register and download forms to print out, after which they would have to submit their claims for the BPS on paper forms.

However, the NAO found that resolving the immediate issues with the programme actually diverted attention away from the long-term goals of improving the service, minimising future penalties and achieving expected benefits – such as addressing the land data issues that cause current penalties.


C Hill   04/12/2015 at 18:52

once again a gross loss of public money , meaning less for farmers no doubt and farmers left short of money. Who will get sacked for this incompetence? what happened to MAFF? well that a mess up too so a good old name change was initiated to hope nobody remembered that farce, I am not a farmer but without farmers we have no food. without food we are dead. time someone with a brain took charge

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