Farmers and taxpayers failed by dysfunctional leadership

02 March 2016

The Public Accounts Committee report warns failures in a project to support subsidy payments for farmers could end up costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds.

The Committee concludes that the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme has been "unsuccessful in many respects". In particular it finds that as a result of repeated failures in the Programme, "many farmers are being paid later than in previous years".

The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) makes 105,000 payments each year to English farmers and landowners under the Common Agricultural Policy, amounting to £1.8 billion.

Since 2012, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs has been leading the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme, together with its delivery bodies, the RPA and the Government Digital Service, to develop a single IT solution for new regulations that came into force in 2014.

Cost of Programme £215 million

In January 2013, the Cabinet Office reviewed the Programme and as a result seven significant changes were made, increasing the level of innovation and risk. The Programme was originally forecast to cost £155 million, but this has increased by 40% to £215 million.

In today's Report, the Committee concludes the three key bodies involved in delivering the Programme were unable to work together effectively.

It highlights the impact of "dysfunctional and inappropriate behaviour" between senior officials, "potentially costing the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds in financial penalties".

Digital front-end "inappropriate"

The Report states: "Highly paid public servants need to get the job done and such behaviour is unacceptable."

The Programme's lack of consistent priorities and changes in leadership caused disruption and delay, says the Committee. It also describes the Government Digital Service's focus on developing a digital front-end for the Programme as "inappropriate for farmers", noting that "there is poor broadband coverage in many rural areas".

In the Report's recommendations to government, the Committee says the Department "should review its approach to tackling serious failures of management and put in place measures to stop this ever happening again." It also urges the Department to set out "clear milestones" in the coming months for when it expects to pay farmers for future years and when it will return to previous performance levels.

Chair's comment

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.

Explanations such as 'We worked on different floors' and 'We dressed differently' are a slap in the face to them and a dismal excuse for failures that could severely hit the public purse.

A fundamental part of setting up this Programme should have been to establish a clear and robust vision of the final product, focused on the needs of farmers. For it to end up as a digital testing ground was wrong-headed.

The enduring mental image is of managers, having seemingly lost sight of the purpose of the project, devoting their energies to a childish turf war instead.

If the Department is to build trust in this Programme and other projects it first needs to rebuild trust with farmers.

That starts with setting out exactly when it expects to pay them in future and we will be expecting the Department to address this as a matter of urgency."

Report summary

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs has a history of failure when developing systems to support subsidy payments for farmers under the Common Agricultural Policy.

The Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme was intended to address past failures, but was unsuccessful in many respects. Payments to farmers have been delayed at a time when their cash flow is already stretched.

The three key bodies involved in the Common Agricultural Policy Delivery Programme—the Department, the Rural Payments Agency and the Government Digital Service—were unable to work together effectively.

"Dysfunctional and inappropriate behaviours"

Dysfunctional and inappropriate behaviours amongst senior leaders were inexcusable and deeply damaging to the Programme.

An inability to agree a clear vision for the Programme meant that the frequent changes in leadership were accompanied by changes of direction, shifts in focus and further disruption.

The Government Digital Service was created to help improve IT projects, but instead hindered delivery of this Programme. In addition to delaying payments to farmers, programme costs have risen by 40% and penalties from the European Commission are likely to increase significantly.

Further information

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