MPs slam Defra for losing control of £350m IT system

MPs have criticised the Rural Payments Agency's attempts to control runaway spending on IT for the troubled £1.6bn farmers' Single Payment Scheme as "wholly unacceptable".

MPs have criticised the Rural Payments Agency's attempts to control runaway spending on IT for the troubled £1.6bn farmers' Single Payment Scheme as "wholly unacceptable".

"Negligible attention has been paid to taxpayers' interests," said Edward Leigh, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. Leigh was speaking at the publication of the committee's third review of the scheme.

"The £350m IT systems underlying the scheme are cumbersome, overly complex, they are at risk of becoming obsolete and they continue to soak up huge sums of money," he said.

"The information held is riddled with error and efforts to recover overpayments have been woefully slow, haphazard and ineffective, causing anxiety and concern to farmers."

Leigh said the National Audit Office had worked out that each claim cost £1,700 to process - a figure confirmed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Defra had then tried to show that it cost only £700 per claim.

"Each claim costs over six times more to process in England than Scotland, and yet the [Defra] chief executive received a performance bonus in 2008-09," Leigh said.

"The committee's confidence in [Defra's] ability to cut costs in future was hardly boosted by its unconvincing explanation as to why its interpretation was more reliable than that of the National Audit Office," he said.

Leigh said Defra had consistently failed to spot continuing problems with the three-year-old scheme, which pays EU grants to farmers.

Nor had it got to grips with issues raised previously by the PAC, he said. This was compounded by poor leadership and management information in the Rural Payments Agency, he said.

Defra had either not grasped the seriousness of what had been happening or was reluctant to face up to problems, he said.

"We have now insisted, and the department has agreed, that it provide us with clear evidence of what progress has been made and explain how it is meeting the NAO's recommendations," Leigh said.

The deadline is the end of January 2010.

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