Skip to main content

Rural Payments Agency

Volume 507: debated on Wednesday 17 March 2010

It is a great privilege to be in Westminster Hall, talking about my concerns about the Rural Payments Agency. If I were debating with the previous Minister, this would be a case of more vets, rather than more doctors.

The Rural Payments Agency has been set up to make life simpler for farmers by distributing European Union allowances efficiently and fairly, but it does precisely the opposite. Some farmers are being paid too much; some too little; and, in many cases, some are paid absolutely nothing at all. It has driven some of them to distraction and others, I am afraid, to bankruptcy. I fear that a few may come dangerously close to ending their lives, because of the antics of a dreadful agency. My constituency relies on agriculture, which is the biggest industry that we have by some way, but it is always vulnerable to the weather, disease and, worst of all, stupid bureaucracy.

The RPA came in with an overdose of stupidity and a typically dangerous political target that the Government were trying to hit. The aim of the new payments agency was to give a 30 per cent. boost to arable farmers, increasing their incomes and putting the screws on livestock farming instead. Survival is the name of the game for many livestock farms in south-west England. The agency now operates the most complicated system to assess farm incomes that is run by the most inefficient computer and managed by a team of blundering idiots. The cost of administrating the single farm payment is six times higher in England than in Scotland, because the RPA chose the most absurd way of doing things.

A couple of weeks ago the Public Administration Committee, of which I am a member, took evidence from the two clowns who are responsible: one is the permanent secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, a lady answering to the name of Miss Ghosh, and the other is Mr. Cooper, the chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency. They would be out of place on any Somerset farm, because I doubt whether either of them has wellies or whether, if even they have, they have ever got them dirty. Their performance before the Committee was far from impressive. They were like a comedy duo: Tommy Cooper and Golly Ghosh. Golly giggled a lot and Tommy Cooper made a whole load of public money disappear—just like that. They preside over a festering dung heap of an agency, but they continue to say that everything is getting better. They are so far out of touch that it is laughable. Unfortunately, the joke—it is no joke—is on my farmers. I intend to spell out how bad it is.

Dealing with the RPA is like playing Russian roulette. The odds are dangerously weighted against you. Sooner or later the system will do your head in. Before this debate, I checked what one Somerset farming expert told me, because I did not believe him. He said, “Ian, pick up the telephone and dial 0845 6037777, then see what happens.” So I did. The recorded voice of a female android told me that I was now connected—

Order. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has strong feelings about this, but I think he should moderate some of his language.

Mr. Howarth, I stand in awe of you. Thank you for pulling me up on that. I apologise.

I am not sure if the android was going wrong. Unfortunately, all the voices there are computer-generated. I was told to press 1 for the nice-sounding robot who would tell me that I was being held in a long queue, to press 2 for a different voice repeating that five minutes later, to press 3 for a chorus of dreadful music—the sort of thing that is heard at a crematorium just before the coffin slides behind the curtains—and to press 4 to have my head examined. I gave up after 56 minutes. If I was a farmer, such a pointless waste of valuable time would make my blood boil. The only consolation—the Minister should be pleased—is that those voices did not keep interrupting the silence to tell me that my call was valuable. For that, I thank them. But at no stage did I manage to speak to a human being.

There are probably some very talented, caring people at the RPA—I am sure that there are; most organisations have them—but people cannot get through to speak to them. The whole system is a conspiracy to drive us all mad. It seems to have been devised by a vicious Dr. Strangelove with some bizarre grudge against the farming community.

Here is another real-life reminder of RPA madness from Somerset. Yesterday, a man sat down to study the “Single Payment Scheme Booklet 2010”, which is not much of a title, I am afraid, but bestsellers do not come out of Departments. He got to page 46 where it says, helpfully, “How do I apply for the uplands transitional payment?” That is fair question for Exmoor. However, the answer was, “Sorry mate, you’ve got the wrong booklet. You need the ‘Uplands Transitional Payment 2011 Explanatory Booklet’. Go to our website and download it.” So off he clicked, into cyberspace, where there are no recorded voices. He got as far as the Rural Payments Agency download page, where a message mysteriously appeared, saying, “No information on this item is available”. How on earth can people fill in forms if the RPA will not tell them where they are? The computers at the RPA always seem to say no. I have a horrid suspicion why.

The civil servants at the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food knew virtually nothing about computers. I am in the same boat. Quill pens? Yes. In that respect, they are the same as me. Combine harvesters? Probably. But computers? No. MAFF and DEFRA hired a global giant to advise and equip them for the digital age. They signed up with IBM. I have had good cause to mention IBM in the House before—in this Chamber, in fact—on numerous occasions. IBM may be huge and it may be rich, but it ought to carry a health warning. It has been involved in so many Government computer contracts that go wrong that it is embarrassing. It promises the earth and always charges the earth, but its products rarely do what it says on the tin.

IBM was hired to provide the back-up for MAFF and DEFRA. When the Rural Payments Agency came along, IBM designed the mapping technology, too. Everything depends on having good maps in this game. Maps provide the proof that officials need before they can arrange farm payments. We all know that that is so: that is the system. But the technology does not work properly. Farmers found that there were errors; the errors affected how much money they got; and things became chaotic. Guess what—they start again from scratch. They are still compiling detailed mapping. The system is wildly behind schedule.

Many other European Governments allow farmers to alter their maps online, but not here. Why not? We do not because we cannot, because IBM cannot make the system work.

I recently met representatives of my farming community, who have also expressed their frustration at the manner in which the Rural Payments Agency functions. Running parallel to that is the unbelievable quantity of totally indigestible complex legislation that drives them mad and does not achieve its objectives. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Europeanisation of the farming community and of agriculture, and the complexity and over-regulation that goes with it, is one reason why the agricultural community is in such distress?

I would never disagree with my hon. Friend. He is right. The whole thing is a shambles. It came partly from Europe, but the vast majority is home-made mess.

The reality is far removed from the original glitzy promises made when the RPA launched. I quote a cheesy statement made long before the Minister was appointed:

“An ambitious programme of business change to improve services to customers, reducing the cost base and opening new channels for rural communities.”

When reading such language from any Department, one knows that there will be a bit of pie in the sky. I am sure that IBM did that. I can visualise them drooling in financial anticipation. Every time the Government get involved, it is Christmas for IBM, because there is lots of extra work.

In 2003, the RPA hired Accenture. In 2004, Accenture won IBM’s business partner leadership award. Both companies swear by a second-rate system called SAP, which we have encountered so many times that it is almost getting exhausting. SAP is causing huge problems in Somerset, because IBM have done the same as it is doing to the Minister and the RPA. Southwest One, which we have to put up with down there, is a classic example of how not to do things, but it is on a tiny scale compared to what is happening. The public sector organisations that signed up are in a complete mess. The IBM team that installed all the bits that did not work properly at Southwest One were the self-same people who installed all the bits that did not work properly at the RPA. The names are the same. Hon. Members may be beginning to get the picture, and it is a sorry one.

Giant outfits such as IBM may easily pull the wool over the eyes of naive councils and—dare I say it?—big Departments. Let me remind the Chamber of some up-to-date news. It emerged this week that a secret national communication system called SCOPE, which was intended to keep 007 and his mates in touch, has collapsed. That is nothing to do with the RPA, but the principle is the same. Its system, which was designed by IBM, did not work and so far the Government have failed to get a brass farthing back. In fact, they are still paying.

If Smiley’s people cannot handle the likes of IBM, how on earth can the minnows who run the RPA do so? They are out of their depth when they try. As with every Department, they lacked the internal know-how. That is not a criticism; it is a fact. They only thing that they contributed was a fancy name. The RPA wanted to call its new computer RITA. I do not know whether the Minister knew that. It is a great name, but little did it know that RITA was destined to become a high-maintenance meter maid. Every time the RPA changed things to try and make the system work better, RITA demanded more money. As RITA was built and run by big computer companies, that involved huge sums.

Why do the big companies such as IBM always get the business? The official answer is that only big companies have the finance if compensation is ever involved, but it never is. When a Government computer project collapses, they never take the supplier to court because they do not want civil servants to give evidence and prove how useless the system was. There has never been a Government court case against any big supplier. They always settle quickly and quietly to avoid embarrassment, so the big firms end up keeping the money—our money.

IBM’s friends at Accenture signed up with the RPA for a system costing no more than £76 million. Four years later, that price was £350 million. Last year, the National Audit Office produced one of its most damning reports ever and said that the RPA’s system should be ditched. It revealed that the RPA shelled out £20 million in one year for 100 specialists from Accenture to fix the failed system.

I will simplify those gobsmacking sums for the sake of hon. Members. The RPA was paying £200,000 for each specialist, which is more than the cost of hiring 100 Prime Ministers. Meanwhile, IBM was busy doing what it seems to do best—making a sow’s ear out of a silk purse at our expense. It managed to lose data discs containing every detail about every payment for 100,000 farmers. A great deal of confidential information, including all their bank account details, was on those discs, 39 of which were lost, although 37 were eventually found, having been put on the wrong shelves at an IBM data centre. That was done not by the Government, but by IBM. Two discs vanished into thin air and have never been found at the IBM data centre. Yet IBM is still in charge of the data, and Accenture is still employed. What on earth is going on?

It is about time the fresh air of transparency was allowed to blow into the secret world of public sector computing. My party already has detailed policy commitments to stop those costly deals being made in the dark. Will the Minister consider doing the same? We are paying for those deals, and we deserve to see the small print. Parliament, not just Departments, should see it. If that happened, I suspect that the Conservatives might even win the forthcoming election.

Perhaps the Tommy Cooper of the RPA should also watch his back. It is not decent for a career civil servant on a very generous salary—£145,000 a year—to globetrot to and from the Indian headquarters of those giant computer companies. Last year, he claimed £40,000 extra for travel and hotels, including business-class flights, to Bangalore and five-star hotels. He also picked up an £11,000 bonus. I do not understand the purpose of rewarding failure. I thought we had grown out of that culture.

Bonus payments of £1.8 million have been paid to the top people at the RPA over the past five years. So while my farmers were under pressure and going broke, the RPA was living it up. That is not fair. It is a sorry story, and I am afraid that it is not over. The Minister may have prepared soothing words and small apologies, and I suspect that he will want to say that things are getting better. Fine, that is what the Government do. Well things jolly well ought to be better; they cannot get much worse.

Up on Exmoor, a farming constituent is currently the subject of an RPA trial. Tommy Cooper’s team is conducting an experiment to try to put new codes into the computers, supposedly to make life easier. It has re-recorded my constituent’s farm and managed to lose all his old codes, so he risks not being paid because the computer no longer recognises him as a farmer. Welcome to the continuing chaos of the RPA, which will drop people in it, drop them in it again, and then drop them in it yet again. The situation is so bad and so chronically inefficient that the European Union fined the agency £75 million, and I am afraid that that is a bill that we pick up.

The way in which the RPA works makes the mafia look honest. It is going wrong too often. It never supplies calculations or background information. It tries to claw back money and sends out threatening letters, but it still provides no explanation to the farmers of west Somerset and Bridgwater. They were told that they would receive the paperwork after they had paid up and that, if they did not pay up, they would not receive subsidies. Those are the tactics of a mob, not a Government agency.

The RPA has been investigated by the National Audit Office, the Select Committee on Public Accounts, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the ombudsman and now the Select Committee on Public Administration. Why does no one have a good word to say about it? It has made, and is still making, the lives of some of my farmers almost impossible. That must stop. I do not want to hear another rendition of “Things can only get better”. We have just about had enough.

Order. I take it that the hon. Gentleman has the authority of the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) to speak.

I have indeed. I spoke to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) earlier, and I hope that the Minister will not mind if I make a brief contribution.

I have the gravest reservations about the Rural Payments Agency because of the experience of my constituents. I need not repeat the catalogue that my hon. Friend recited, because it is on the record. He described admirably the technical difficulties and the enormous number of bodies that have looked into the agency and found it wanting. However, the buck does not stop with the agency. I believe strongly that the Government have a direct responsibility, as my hon. Friend clearly indicated; that is why the Minister is here to answer on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The root of the problem is the creation of a body to satisfy the requirements of the European Union’s legal framework for farming. That is the agency’s raison d’être. The technical difficulties and absurdities to which my hon. Friend referred have a life of their own. The root and origin of the problem is the fact that the agency is attempting to do something in the face of massive complications and over-regulation, which are causing deep anxiety to my constituents.

The problem is serious. My farmers are deeply worried about how the system operates, and they told me the other day that they could not understand why the Ministry is described as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs when “agriculture” is the most appropriate word to use in the nomenclature of a Department with responsibilities to the farmers of this country. Why can we not simply return to describing the Department as a Ministry of agriculture, so that farmers can have confidence that the Government are working for them and for the country at large?

It is a pleasure to see you presiding in the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Howarth. I hope it is in order for me to express my appreciation of your consideration yesterday, when I was not feeling quite as well as I do today.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) on securing the debate. I welcome the opportunity to respond to the issues raised, and to explain our work to build on the improvements of the past few years, as the Rural Payments Agency aims to provide a more consistent, reliable and cost-effective service.

In many ways the RPA has an unenviable task. The payments that it makes are welcomed by recipients, but there can be scepticism about the accompanying European Union rules and regulations. Those rules have laudable aims—the control of public funds, safeguarding the environment and protecting public and animal health—but their practical application can be seen as draconian or disproportionate. Against that background, and given the problems experienced with the introduction of the single payment scheme or SPS in 2005, it is no surprise that strong emotions are generated by the agency’s activities, as was articulated by the hon. Gentleman at the beginning of his contribution. However, I do not intend to dwell on the events of 2005 and 2006. That debate has been held on a number of previous occasions. The main point is that we learn the right lessons from that experience and take forward the recommendations of various reports, including those of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Public Accounts Committee.

In each scheme since 2005, the agency has met its formal targets and avoided late payment penalties. Under the 2009 scheme, 86,500 farmers received some £1.31 billion within two days of the payment window opening on 1 December. The agency met its target to make 90 per cent. of payments on 24 February, some five weeks ahead of schedule and three months earlier than had been achieved two years previously. Such an improvement to the payment timetable inevitably creates an increased focus on the position of those farmers who remain to be paid. There are around 7,500 such cases, some of which involve complex issues such as probate, business partnership changes and domestic disputes. As hon. Members representing the relevant constituencies can testify, some of the outstanding cases are also connected to specific remote sensing checks, which affect groups of farmers in particular locations.

In all cases, I can assure all concerned that the RPA is working hard to complete the necessary checks and to release payments as soon as possible. Arrangements are also in place to deal with genuine hardship cases that arise before full payments are possible. However, experience tells us that partial payments lead to further problems down the line and are generally to be avoided for that reason. Improvements in payment performance are reflected in customer survey results. Two years ago, those asked about their overall level of satisfaction with the agency rated it 6.2 out of 10 on average; that figure has now risen to 7.4.

Inevitably, challenges remain. Completion of the map upgrade is one of those. The data currently used are based on Ordnance Survey’s 2001 MasterMap information, which is out of date and does not reflect the true position on the ground.

I am sorry; if I get to the end of what I have to say, I shall be happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, but he has already taken some of the time that I had anticipated having. If he will allow me, I shall get through my remarks and see how much time is left before 4.30.

Given EU requirements to use the most recent mapping information available, no change was not an option. The exercise has been a major logistical one involving over 2 million land parcels. The work was planned carefully, with a trial, then a pilot of 1,000 farmers and a gradual roll-out of the first set of map packs. All 107,000-plus first maps have now been sent, with special arrangements in place for those subject to an inspection during 2009. In line with expectations, a little more than 50,000 people have requested amendments, and more than 70 per cent. of those have had a revised set of maps provided. I have had close involvement in the exercise and have had weekly conversations or meetings with the RPA chief executive to track progress. The exercise has not all been plain sailing, and it is by no means complete, but I hope that all those concerned would acknowledge that the process has been considerably smoother than the last mapping exercise in 2005.

The remaining maps are now being processed and checked, and will be returned to farmers over the coming weeks. Tailored advice is being provided to those who will complete the 2010 application form over the coming weeks and who have yet to be provided with revised maps. To improve customer service more generally for the 2010 scheme, the agency is taking a number of additional steps. Most significantly, this year there is a full SPS online service for the first time. All farmers will be able to apply online for an easier, quicker and reassuring service, which is free to use. Additional drop-in centres will be opened, where farmers can deposit their claims with RPA staff who will perform a basic check on the spot in order to help avoid common errors causing problems at a later stage. Those staff will also offer help in completing the application form online. For the first time, SPS specialists from the RPA will work with the Farmers Weekly Interactive website on a special SPS forum to answer questions posed online by farmers and agents.

Looking further ahead, I announced last September that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs would undertake a review of the RPA to ensure that the agency was ready to react to changes arising from future common agricultural policy reforms. The review is to consider the RPA’s financial and operational processes and to identify where the RPA might be able to make improvements and efficiencies. The information gathered will also be helpful in responding to the recommendations of the recent reports—referred to earlier by the hon. Member for Bridgwater—by the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, in particular on tackling outstanding data quality and overpayment issues, on IT improvements and on driving down processing costs.

The review is not scheduled to be completed until the end of the month, and it is too early to give any details on the findings. However, our intention is to report those findings to the House in due course. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said to the National Farmers Union annual general meeting last month, at that point we will sit down with farmers’ representatives and listen to their specific ideas about what more can be done.

However, I can confirm that we will not introduce a minimum payment amount, which is what some have called for. The idea that that would save millions of pounds conveniently ignores, first, the fact that small claims require relatively little processing effort—the larger claims push up the average processing costs—and, secondly, the fact that the claims would still need to be processed to determine whether the value exceeded the given figure. What we have done for the 2010 scheme, after consultation and with the full support of the NFU and others, is introduce a minimum claim area of 1 hectare. Those claims can then be filtered on receipt at the RPA.

I would like to register my appreciation of farmers’ continued patience as the agency continues consistently to raise its performance to the levels that we all want to see. I extend that appreciation to farmers’ representatives; I have met the heads of the NFU, the Country Land and Business Association or CLA, and the Tenant Farmers Association on a number of occasions to discuss progress, and I have always found them constructive in their criticisms. We have another meeting scheduled for next week.

On the statistics, in 2007, 75 per cent. of payments by value had been made by 22 February. In 2008, that percentage of payments had been made by 22 January, and in 2009 it was made by 17 December. In 2007, 90 per cent. of the payments by value had been made by 21 May; in 2008, that was done by 16 March, and in 2009 by 24 February. The hon. Member for Bridgwater said that no progress had been made, but those statistics clearly demonstrate year-on-year progress. I am not in denial, and I am not for a second saying that further improvements are not possible, but the agency is doing everything that it possibly can to improve the situation, and DEFRA is doing the same.

Will the Minister answer my question, if he can, or give some indication of whether the Department is thinking of changing its name from DEFRA to something more along the lines of “the Ministry of agriculture”? That concern is strongly felt by the farming community.

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, which I have heard articulated in different visits to agricultural communities. Clearly, any future Government would always consider such a point when ensuring that the title of each Department reflects its interests. A split in the references came about when the Department of Energy and Climate Change was created, taking some of DEFRA’s old responsibilities. DEFRA is clearly much more focused on agriculture, because it has a much more specific reference.

At some point in the future, whether the Labour party or the hon. Gentleman’s party is returned after a general election, whoever is the Prime Minister might well want to review the Departments and ensure that the structure is as efficient as possible for the delivery of services to communities. Such a review would always take on board the names of the organisations, although such changes always have a cost, not least because of letterheads, e-mail addresses and the rest of it. However, I understand that many in agriculture would like to see “agriculture” back in the departmental title, but we have no plans to change at the moment. We believe that we fairly reflect the issues and the matters of concern to agriculture. We are certainly doing our best to ensure that they are dealt with as efficiently as possible.

In conclusion, there is more to do, and the RPA and DEFRA will do all that they can to ensure further progress.