IT troubles leave UK farmers £17m out of pocket

Public Accounts Committee identifies the failure to test computer systems as one of the key reasons for delays in farm payments under the EU's Single Payment Scheme.

UK farmers are still £17m out of pocket more than a year after the deadline for the EU's Single Payment Scheme. The Public Accounts Committee has identified the failure to test computer systems as one of the key reasons for the delay.

The Rural Payments Agency was charged with paying out £1.5bn under the Single Payment Scheme set up in 2005 to consolidate 11 EU subsidies, but it missed the February 2006 deadline and continues to be plagued by delays.

In a report to parliament on the delays, the Public Accounts Committee cited a failure to test computer systems "completely and adequately" as one of 15 reasons why the Rural Payments Agency had not met its implementation deadlines.

"The Single Payment Scheme is relatively small, but its implementation last year to a near-impossible timetable was a masterclass in bad decision making, poor planning, incomplete testing of IT systems, confused lines of responsibility, scant objective management information and a failure to face up to the unfolding crisis," said Edward Leigh, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.

The report said the Rural Payments Agency had tested each element of the IT system only in isolation, but did not fully simulate the real-world environment. It said time pressure had also led to the Rural Payments Agency accepting IT components before they had been fully tested.

The Public Accounts Committee found that development work on the computer system continued and no contingency plan was invoked despite warnings that the system would be ready on time.

The report noted that in three of four Gateway reviews between May 2004 and February 2006, the programme was assessed as "red". The report recommended that government departments need to be explicit about the circumstances in which "red" assessments would lead to a termination of a project.

The report said the amount of work involved had been underestimated, and the timetable to develop the computer system was based on assumptions on the policy content of the final scheme, but 23 subsequent changes had caused delays.

Despite a simplification of the 2006 scheme application form, the Public Accounts Committee found that inherent design problems in the IT systems had still prevented the Rural Payments Agency from dealing with queries about claims.

The report said the Rural Payments Agency had since commissioned consultants to review the IT systems and was developing a recovery plan to be implemented by April 2008.

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