The failure of the Rural Payments Agency’s IT project to implement the Single Payments Scheme to farmers followed 21 major policy changes to the programme, MPs have been told.
The huge IT project to implement the SPS – which consolidates 11 separate EU subsidies – descended into chaos, leaving farmers out of pocket by up to £22.5m. The cost to the agriculture ministry Defra has run into hundreds of millions of pounds, while only £7.5m of £164m planned savings has materialised.
Former RPA chief executive Johnston McNeill, who lost his job following the fiasco, told the Commons public accounts committee that until the 11th hour staff had tried to hit the end of March 2006 payments deadline but had been unable to do so.
He told MPs the implementation had always been a very high-risk affair, with a more complex payments system adopted in England than those used in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales, and a departmental reorganisation taking place at the same time.
“You have heard permanent secretaries talking openly about 40% confidence levels,” McNeill said. “We reported to the department that this was extremely high risk.”
The situation was made worse by the 21 policy changes, which continued through the IT implementation. These changes had not been required under the simpler schemes in Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland, McNeill confirmed.
A fundamental problem was the “task-based” approach to processing farmers’ claims, which “caused significant problems all the way through”, he told the MPs.
The RPA did not have previous experience of using a task-based approach to farm payments processes. “It was the first time we’d operated a brand new scheme, on a brand new system, using a brand new technique,” he said.
The committee – who referred to the fiasco as a “train crash” – pressed McNeill over why he had not come out and said the implementation would not be possible by the deadline.
In response, the former RPA chief said IT contractor Accenture had said the scheme could be carried out, as had RPA staff – although they described the situation as “hellish”.
“We never came to a position where Accenture or anyone else involved... said this is no longer deliverable,” McNeill said.