Parliament 17th April 2015

As Parliament dissolved, EFRA slammed DEFRA over online-only CAP claims, Catherine Paice reports

MPs were as dismayed as farmers at the last-minute move by the Rural Payments Agency to pull the plug on online-only applications for CAP claims. The failure of this new IT system will come at yet another staggering cost to the taxpayer.

“We’ve long called for an alternative to online applications for farmers for payments under the new CAP system,” said a furious EFRA (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) committee chair, Anne McIntosh. “It was always a risk to rely entirely on an online process when implementing a complex new CAP scheme.”

EFRA has urged DEFRA to make sure that the paper systems are put in place quickly and effectively, to learn the lessons of this IT failure and to provide full information on the costs.

In an Urgent Question in the House of Commons, DEFRA Shadow Secretary of State Maria Eagle (Lab, Garston and Halewood), supported by at least a dozen MPs, pushed for some answers. Under-Secretary of State George Eustice said the new computer system had been urgently commissioned to cope with the complexity of the new scheme. It included a core, to process data, similar to that used in other countries, and a portal that enabled farmers to register their details and map land passes. The core is working well, he said, and 80% of farm businesses had registered successfully with it so they could submit a Basic Payment Scheme claim, and farmers should continue to register. But there have been “performance issues” with the interface that allows farmers to input the data directly, which DEFRA has been trying to solve for the past month.

While farmers can now submit the details on paper, information on those forms will then be input by the RPA onto the system, and 50 RPA drop-in centres have had to be established to help farmers submit their claims.

Mr Eustice said the UK was not the only country to be experiencing teething problems with the new CAP scheme. The European Commission has offered an option to Member States allowing them to extend the deadline for BPS applications to 15th June.

Why has DEFRA been insisting everything was ok right up to the announcement, MPs asked? Will the increased risk of errors result in more penalties? And where is Secretary of State Liz Truss in all this?

At least Sir Jim Paice (Con, SE Cambridgeshire) found some relief in a torrid fortnight, during which he had to admit the CEO of farmer co-op First Milk, where he chairs the board, had secretly resigned in November. Stephen Barclay (Con, NE Cambs) and James Gray (Con, North Wilts) were among those paying tribute to his work for the department as he nears the end of his parliamentary career.

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