‘Negligent’ Defra slammed in new Single Payment report

DEFRA has been accused of paying ‘negligible attention to taxpayers’ interests and branded ‘complacent’ in the latest damning report on the Single Payment Scheme fiasco.

Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) heaps the blame on Defra for its failure to get to grips with the ‘debacle’ in a report published today (Wednesday, December 16).

It describes the ‘oversight’ of the scheme as a ‘singular example of comprehensively poor administration on a grand scale’.

It said Defra’s ‘lack of attention’ had been compounded by poor leadership at the Rural Payments Agency (RPA).

The committee of MPs questioned why RPA chief executive Tony Copper received a performance bonus in 2008 despite the fact that it still costs six times more to process a claim in England than it does in Scotland.

Despite the improved performance so far in delivering the 2009 SPS in England, the PAC report said the scheme was still beset with problems.

It noted that last year’s performance was ‘a long way short of the standards set in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland’.

“In the meantime, there has been negligible attention to the protection of taxpayers’ interests,” the report said, an accusation claim PAC chairman Edward Leigh acknowledged was an ‘extremely serious charge’. 

“Despite all the assurances previously given to this committee, the agency has spent £350 million on a cumbersome IT system that can only be supported at huge cost and which is increasingly at risk of becoming obsolete.

“The data held in the system remains riddled with errors and efforts to recover overpayments have been slow, disorganised and haphazard.”

Yet it was Defra that bore the brunt of its criticism. “A large part of the responsibility for this public administration debacle lies with Defra,” PAC chairman Edward Leigh said.

“It has consistently failed to spot continuing problems with this scheme and to get to grips with issues previously raised by this Committee.”

Defra has compounded the problems by failing to ‘come to terms with its failure’, the committee said.

It accused the Department of seeking to ‘muddy the waters’ by questioning the National Audit Office calculation of the £1,700 average cost of administering each claim. The committee said it took a ‘dim view of such smoke screen tactics’.

“The truth is that the Department has either not grasped the seriousness of what has been happening or been reluctant to face up to problems,” Mr Leigh said.

A Defra spokesman said the RPA had ‘delivered substantial improvements’ in the SPS timetable this year.

“Equally, Defra acknowledges that further work is required to ensure that the RPA can deliver an improved, reliable and cost effective service to the farming industry in the years ahead.”

He said the report’s recommendations would ‘prove valuable’ in Defra’s current review of the RPA.

Shadow Defra Secretary, Nick Herbert said the report highlighted an ‘abject failure of leadership and oversight’.

“Yet typically Ministers who should be held accountable for this dismal state of affairs still refuse to accept their responsibility,” he said.

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