‘Unacceptable infighting’ between senior Government executives contributed significantly to the failure of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) in England, a committee of MPs has concluded.
In a damning report, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) concluded the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Delivery Programme had been ‘unsuccessful in many respects’ and pinned the blame largely on the inability of the three parties involved to see eye to eye.
The programme was branded a ‘Whitehall fiasco’ as MPs drew attention the long wait for payment - with more than 16,000 farmers in England still waiting today – and the risk of EU disallowance.
Since 2012, Defra has been leading the CAP Delivery Programme, with the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) and the Government Digital Service with the aim of developing a single IT solution for the new policy.
But the parties were pursuing very different objectives and ‘were unable to work together effectively’ – all three come in for heavy criticism from the MPs
The report, published on Wednesday, concluded: “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.”
Defra and the RPA’s overriding priorities were ‘to pay farmers accurately and on time and to reduce disallowance penalties’.
But the Cabinet Office, through GDS, focused on ‘trying to encourage digital innovation, reduce costs and disseminate learning’ as part of the government’s wider online strategy –with disastrous consequences for the programme, farmers and taxpayers.
The chaos behind the scenes culminated in the decision to abandon the online-only approach last spring in favour of a paper-led approach.
The report noted programme costs had escalated by £60 million to £215m, a 40 per cent increase, while the ‘repeated failures of the Programme’ meant many farmers were being paid later than in previous years.
Just 38 per cent were paid on Day One of the payment compared with over 90 per cent in previous years.
Four different Senior Responsible Officers (SRO) have led the Programme since its inception, ‘with each one bringing their own distinct priorities, vision and style’.
Programme staff reported this ‘led to disruption for the Programme and caused uncertainty and confusion’.
But in one of the most damning passages, the MPs noted the ‘dysfunctional and inappropriate behaviour at the top was very apparent to Programme staff’.
This ‘created a frustrating work environment for them, preventing a culture of trust necessary for such a large Programme’.
“In some cases, this included confrontational behaviour between senior Programme staff at the RPA and GDS,” the report said.
“We pointed out that such behaviours would not be tolerated in the private sector and the Chief Executive of the RPA (Mark Grimshaw) and the government’s Chief Technology Officer were unable to explain and defend their behaviour when given the opportunity.”
The Report stated: “Highly paid public servants need to get the job done and such behaviour is unacceptable.”
The Government’s Chief Technology Officer highlighted cultural differences between the teams involved, for example ‘people dressing differently and using different methods of reporting, and also to the teams working on different floors of the same building’.
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.”
The report made a number of recommendations:
In January 2013, the CAP Delivery Programme was reset as a ‘digital exemplar’ project under the Cabinet Office Transformation Programme.
This resulted in the Cabinet Office imposing seven key changes on to the Programme which significantly increased the level of innovation and delivery risk.
Mr Grimshaw admitted these changes created challenges by positioning the Department at the ‘bleeding edge, rather than the leading edge’ of a number of untested technologies.
The Government’s Chief Technology Officer told the committee technology leadership within Defra was ‘not as strong as other departments where digital exemplar projects had been introduced’.
The support GDS provided was ‘patchy’ and with little continuity in personnel', according to Defra and the RPA.
Defra's former Accounting Officer acknowledged in evidence to the committee that a large tension in the Programme was securing the right balance between digital innovation and establishing the right controls to satisfy European Commission requirements.
The GDS focus was largely on understanding user needs, improving front end delivery and promoting Digital by Default.
Mr Grimshaw acknowledged that this represented a significant difference in approach with his focus on ‘reducing disallowance and providing accurate payments to our customers’.
The committee said: “This tension was never resolved and impacted on the delivery of a successful rural payment service.
“The resulting setbacks to the Programme could cost the taxpayer millions of pounds in additional financial penalties.”
The committee described 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”.
Ms Hillier said: “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.”
"The PAC’s report has exposed the childish squabbling and terrible mismanagement that has created this payments fiasco, but that will be of little comfort to farmers still waiting for payments.”
“Now we are all left to count the cost of this failure.
“The Government must accept their part in a project that may well have landed us with a £180m annual fine from the EU.
“The blame for this lies firmly in the hands of Ministers and senior officials who failed to control the RPA’s delivery programme.”
Labour Shadow Farming Minister Nick Smith
"Farmers across the country will not understand how on earth this has been allowed to happen. It is an unmitigated farce and those in the RPA who are responsible for this should be held to account.
"Tens of thousands of farmers have not received payments and this was completely avoidable.
"At the heart of this is a question of whether a move to a digital system was appropriate at this time.
"Insisting on such a move when the infrastructure isn't in place is ridiculous and there must now be steps taken to ensure more taxpayers money is not wasted in future."
Lib Dem Rural Affairs spokesperson Mark Williams
“There is a pressing need for better and more regular communications with claimants that are being paid late.
"We would stress that this sits alongside the need for the RPA to ensure that all outstanding payments to farmers are made as soon as possible.
"Farmers operate on low margins and the impact of late payment on their business’ cash flow should not be underestimated."
CLA director of policy Christopher Price
“No-one knows the real impact of CAP delivery going wrong better than farmers. Cash-flow problems have been both caused and made worse by the payments delays.
"And, to top this off, the communication from the RPA to farmers has been shambolic – farmers have largely been left in the dark on when their payment is going to come through.”
NFU vice president Guy Smith