Government slams brakes on £154 million rural payments system

The Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs has told farmers to go back to pen and paper after a humiliating U-turn on a new £154 million scheme for online farm payments. The move came after farmers complained that the mapping system was unusable.

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The system, for Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments to farmersis one of the biggest of the government's 25 ‘digital exemplar' services being delivered in conjunction with the Government Digital Service (GDS).

However, ComputerworldUK understands that integration problems between the portal and the rules engine software proved too difficult to overcome before this year's application deadline.

The deadline for CAP applications was originally May 2015 but it has been pushed back to June to allow farmers time to submit claims. 

Problems with the website emerged during a public beta last year. Farmers complained they had been shut out of the new online service because they were unable to certify their identity using the government’s identity assurance service ‘GOV.UK Verify’.

However as far back as July 2013 the National Audit Office (NAO) warned the programme had “significant risks” as it used “an agile approach which involves outsourcing to multiple IT providers”.

The system was supposed to allow farmers to assess, apply and track their applications for funding under the new 2015 CAP programme. It was also meant to allow farmers, foresters and agents to manage their land via an online mapping facility.

The department’s digital strategy, published in December 2012, promised the CAP payments system will be redesigned end-to-end, ‘introducing a single IT solution with digital delivery as a core design principle’.

Today's retreat will see red faces among Defra officials who last year expressed confidence the system would “ensure there is no repeat of the 2005 payments fiasco”. The £350 million CAP payments scheme in 2005 was launched late, over budget and initially made  incorrect payments to farmers.

ComputerworldUK asked Defra to explain the technical difficulties it had encountered developing the new system but is yet to receive a response.

Anthony Miller, partner at analyst house TechMarketView said: “Problems with the new online system were highlighted last year, but at the time, the Government said there was no ‘Plan B’.”

He added: “Before we start stoning the guilty parties we need to get the facts straight but these are currently thin on the ground. But it’s not a good look for all involved.”

“The 2005 IT fiasco ended up costing DEFRA £350m. You would have hoped they’d learned from past mistakes, but evidently not,” said Michael Allen, VP of application performance management firm Dynatrace.

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