Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

Session 2006-07

29 March 2007




If accountability is to mean anything then all those responsible for the RPA failure should consider their positions, says Select Committee

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has called for the former Secretary of State Margaret Beckett and senior officials in Defra to be called to account for the fiasco over the implementation of a new Single Payment Scheme for farmers.

The Select Committee's report into The Rural Payments Agency and the implementation of the Single Payment Scheme, published today, calls the handling of the introduction of the new EU Single Payment Scheme (SPS) for farmers a "catastrophe" and a "serious and embarrassing failure for Defra and the RPA".

Committee Chairman the Rt Hon Michael Jack MP said:

"This report is as much about failed policy implementation as it is about a lack of accountability. The reason that we are calling for people to consider their positions is because of Defra's failure to carry out one of its principal core functions. Whatever one's view about the CAP, Defra has a duty to ensure that farmers receive the payments to which they are entitled. In this case Defra failed to do this on time and on budget.

"The report confirms that responsibility and accountability stretches from the top of Defra all the way to the Rural Payments Agency, but so far only one man has paid for this failure by losing his job: the former RPA Chief Executive Johnston McNeill. We believe if accountability is to mean anything then the position of others must now be seriously questioned. Those involved should examine their consciences about the role they played in this failed venture which could well cost Defra and farmers up to half a billion pounds."

In its report, the Committee questions why some of those in the Defra and RPA leaderships most closely involved, in particular the former Secretary of State Margaret Beckett, the former Permanent Secretary Sir Brian Bender and the Director General for Sustainable Farming, Food and Fisheries, Andy Lebrecht, have moved on unscathed or stayed in post.

"A culture where ministers and senior officials can preside over failure of this magnitude and not be held personally accountable creates a serious risk of further failures in public service delivery," the report concludes.

"Accountability should mean that good results are rewarded but a failure as serious as this of a Department to deliver one of its fundamental functions should result in the removal from post of those to whom the faulty policy design and implementation can be attributed".

The Committee says it should be the case that when a Department fails to deliver a key programme right at the heart of its fundamental responsibilities the holder of the office of Secretary of State should not be rewarded with promotion but its reverse. The Committee wants new guidance to make clear to ministers what they should do to take responsibility in the event of serious departmental failure, and recommends that the Cabinet Secretary reappraise the work of past and present members of Defra's senior management team to determine whether they should remain in post.

The seeds of failure were sown a long time in advance of the debacle, found the Committee. It said the "task-based" approach to dealing with claims adopted by the RPA was fundamentally unsuitable.

Defra's choice of payment method was complex and very high risk and the RPA had warned Defra repeatedly of the risk involved.

The Committee found Defra's leadership at fault for accepting the RPA's statements that the project was "do-able" in the time allowed as an adequate basis on which to pursue such a risky course.

The Committee accepted that Johnston McNeill, the former Chief Executive of the RPA who has subsequently been sacked, must bear responsibility for the failings of the RPA. But it said Mr McNeill was not personally and solely responsible for the failure to pay farmers. All the crucial decisions were made jointly with Defra.

- ENDS -

NOTES FOR EDITORS

For media inquiries, or to arrange bids for interviews with the Chairman, Rt Hon Michael Jack MP, and other members of the EFRA Committee please call Laura Kibby on 07917 488 557.

For information about the Committee's inquiry, please call Chris Stanton on 020 7219 3263. The full report will be available on the Committee's website soon after 00.01 am on 29 March 2007. The written and oral evidence taken in the inquiry will be available soon after 10.00 am on 29 March 2007. Website: www.parliament.uk/efracom

An Interim Report was published on 24 January 2006 (HC 840, Fifth Report of Session 2005-06) and can be viewed at:

www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/cmenvfru/840/84002.htm

To view the uncorrected transcripts of evidence taken in this inquiry please see the Committee's RPA inquiry page at:

www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/environment__food_and_rural_affairs/efra_rural_payments_agency_2006.cfm