A powerful committee of MPs has savaged the Rural Payments Agency’s disastrous implementation of the Single Payment Scheme for farmers, warning that the failed £122m IT project could yet cost up to £500m.
The damning verdict of the Commons public accounts committee follows the RPA's admission that it will not be able to stabilise the IT systems for processing Single Payment Scheme claims until 2008 – three years after the scheme’s introduction.
Committee chair Edward Leigh MP described the implementation of the Single Payment Scheme to a “near-impossible” timescale as “a master class in bad decision making, poor planning, incomplete testing of IT systems, confused lines of responsibility, scant objective management information and a failure by the management team to face up to the unfolding crisis”.
He added that the taxpayer had “taken a large hit – with a potential additional liability approaching half a billion pounds”.
The MPs’ report catalogues a series of mistakes made in implementing what was from the outset a highly risky project. It notes that implementation began before the specification for the Single Payment Scheme had been finalised, forcing the RPA to make 23 substantial changes to its computer systems to reflect policy and regulatory revisions.
The RPA made implementation “unnecessarily complex” by choosing a complicated option for calculating farmers’ entitlements, setting a one-year timescale and refusing to set a minimum level for claims, the report says.
It adds: “The agency tested each key element of the IT scheme before introduction but testing in isolation did not fully simulate the real world environment and problems emerged later.”
A contingency system was “mothballed” because it would have experienced the same data accuracy problems – even though this would have enabled the RPA to handle the Single Payment Scheme on a claim by claim basis, rather than the task-based approach that was later identified as contributing to problems with the scheme.