MPs blame IT for late payments to farmers

Another government IT crisis?
Written by Dan Ilett, Contributor

Another government IT crisis?

MPs are blaming an overloaded computer system for the late payment of government subsidies to farmers.

The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) is currently facing "substantial" problems in making payments to farmers on time after the government switched to a new handout scheme.

Keith Simpson, Conservative MP for mid-Norfolk, told silicon.com: "My suspicion is that ministers went for the most complicated system possible. That has been a major problem. People on the end of phones have probably had to explain to angry farmers that this is a computer problem."

In 2003 EU politicians decided to reform the way Common Agricultural Policy subsidies are handed out. The UK's interpretation of this was a Single Payments Scheme in place of 10 subsidy processes so farmers would have more freedom to cater to the demands of the market. The system relies on the government's mapping of farmers' land to a database.

Since the reform the number of applications for subsidies has risen substantially, the RPA said, because it was asked to process 360,000 new parcels of land that had not previously been receiving support.

The RPA has denied that computers are at the root of the problem.

A spokesman for the organisation said: "It's not a failure in government IT. It's the complexity and size of the scheme. Mapping land parcels has been an enormous challenge. It's the size of the job and the complexity in the changes in the way legislation is applied. Costs have increased as a result."

In parliament on Monday, Liberal Democrat Christopher Huhne asked the Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett, why the cost of a new IT system for the RPA had increased from £18.1m to £37.4m.

He said: "So ministers accept the scheme's implementation has been botched from the start, and that the evidence for that is not only in the delays that farmers are now suffering in the payments that they were promised but in the spiralling cost — from £18.1m to £37.4m of the IT system procured for the single farm payments?"

But Beckett said rising IT costs were not evidence of problems. She said: "The RPA was already set to undergo a programme to provide it with new IT. That was the £18m scheme initially intended to be put in place. "However, that was agreed before the reform proposals, which obviously resulted in the need not only for a new IT system but for one that would perform a different task. That is why there is a difference, and the two sums involved are not comparable."

During the debate, Simpson asked the government why it had not listened to select committee warnings on the RPA IT system years ago.

He said: "[I]f she looks at the report of the debate in committee on the statutory instrument that set up the Rural Payments Agency she will find that I, along with many others including some of her honourable friends, questioned whether the agency's computer system would be able to handle what was being proposed then, let alone now."

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