A damning new report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has revealed a potential IT nightmare which could leave farmers entering Defra’s public money for public goods scheme out of pocket.
In the report, the digital service to support Defra’s new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) was compared to the much-criticised Universal Credit roll-out, which has been plagued with problems and delayed on several occasions.
Work on the Universal Credit system started in 2010 and is not due to be completed until 2023, but on Defra’s current schedule, a rudimentary payments system for ELMS will need to be in place by late 2020.
As a result of this tight timescale, the department is already working on the design of ELMS IT, despite the fact that the payment methodology and rates, which will have a strong bearing on what kind of digital system is needed, will not be decided until June 2020.
The NAO report said: “Lessons from other Government programmes indicate Defra has not allowed enough time to fully develop the payments system.
“Other major Government digital programmes have taken much longer than this to complete.
“CAP-D, Defra’s previous rural payments system, took four years to develop, and even now is not fully operational.
“The ELMS payments system may, at least initially, just be spreadsheet-based, but a more robust payments system will be needed as participation in the pilot grows.”
NFU deputy president Guy Smith said the NAO’s concerns about IT were ‘particularly well made’.
“As farmers we know only too well and to our cost that the Government’s record in this area is worryingly bad,” he added.
“It is essential that the IT systems which will be needed to deliver something as complex as ELMS are fit for purpose, properly designed, farmer-friendly and are thoroughly tested before they are launched.
“This has not been the case in the past.”
The NAO also pointed out farmers were not being given enough time to prepare for the new scheme because the Government had still not decided which environmental outcomes it would pay for.
“Farming businesses operate on multi-year planning cycles, so farmers have an understandable desire for predictability,” the report said.
“Given a challenge of this scale, it is particularly important Defra approaches the implementation of its new policy in a careful way, and based on a realistic assessment of its capacity and resilience in light of how absorbed it has been in planning for a no-deal exit from the EU.
“This assessment should be based on an understanding of past programmes, both within Defra and elsewhere.
“These suggest even the ten-year [transition] timeline proposed may be insufficient.”
Farming Minister Robert Goodwill said: “After years of inefficient, unfair and outdated policy under the CAP, our ambitious plans for a new land management system will unlock the potential for farmers and land managers to deliver environmental benefits that go hand in hand with a profitable, productive business.
“We do not underestimate the scale of the task in implementing the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, which is why we are involving such a wide range of stakeholders in its development.
“We will be running a National Pilot over three years to test the policy and make sure we get it right, implementing the lessons learnt into the final scheme. We will also set out more specific detail on what the ELM scheme will pay for well in advance of the pilot being rolled out.”