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MPs call for guarantee of no rural payments IT fiasco this year

MPs have criticised the rural payments digital service and want assurances that there will be no return this year to paper forms when farmers claim their EU subsidies

Ministers have called for guarantees that the rural payments IT system will be able to cope with increased pressure and won’t fail again when farmers apply for their payments this year.

In a House of Commons debate, MPs also asked if the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) has a contingency plan in place for processing paper applications.

The rural payments digital service is run by the Government Digital Service (GDS), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the RPA, and aimed to use Gov.uk’s Verify, an online identity verification scheme, to process claims for European Union subsidy payments to farmers.

Following problems with the IT system after it went live in late 2014, the government was forced to withdraw the service in March 2015, leaving farmers having to fill out the forms in pen and ink, which led to delays in payment.

An NAO report published late last year found that programme costs had spiralled from an initial £154m to £215m, 40% over budget.

Make it rural-proof

Wells MP James Heappey said farmers needed a guarantee that the digital service will be able to cope with the pressure of farmers using it to apply for their payments.

He said it had to be “rural-proof”, and that connectivity is an issue as farmers in rural areas have “incredibly poor connectivity”.

He added: “Many farmers simply cannot soldier through incredibly poor connectivity – below 1Mbps – to go through the online application process. Until we can improve their connectivity, it is unfair to expect them to endure that.”

Farmers deserve a working IT system

Shadow farming minister Nick Smith said farmers deserved better, and asked why ministers hadn’t intervened sooner to make it worked “so that the whole sorry debacle was avoided”.

He continued: “The government wheeled out a new IT system to handle the payments for 2015 – a system they were so confident in, it was hailed as a digital exemplar.

“Instead, it is a failed system that has cost the taxpayer millions, threatened us with hundreds of millions in penalty payments for years to come, and put the livelihoods of many hard-working families at risk.”

He added that farmers “do not deserve an IT system, designed to give them peace of mind, that stalls in such a spectacular fashion”.

Cotswold MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown also criticised the government’s handling of the project. He asked for “concrete assurances that the IT system will be completed and up and running” well before farmers start making their claims.

Missing features

The NAO report last year found that none of the functionality meant to be provided by external suppliers was fully delivered.

For instance, Kainos, which is delivering the customer portal part of the programme, has not delivered its core functionality as “customers cannot yet access or manage accurate land data and cannot submit claims” due to the core rules engine, delivered by another supplier, Abaco, not being successfully integrated with the portal, according to the report.

Failing to offer any assurance or guarantees that the system will work as planned this year, Defra minister George Eustice said that Abaco’s rules engine and the payment engine both “actually worked well” but that the programme was “complex”.

“The bit that we had difficulty with at the beginning of last year was the interface at the front that was supposed to enable farmers to do their online applications,” he said.

“We realised by the time that we got to the end of February that it would not be possible to make that dovetail successfully at the correct speeds needed to do online applications last year, so we had to switch to a paper-based application and delay the deadline for a month.”

He added that everyone involved has put in a lot of hard work to make the system work.

Read more about the rural payments digital service

In December last year, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) branded the project a “Greek tragedy” and said the programme was rife with dysfunctional leadership and bickering.

GDS chief technology officer Liam Maxwell, who was brought in as senior responsible officer for the project eight weeks before it was due to go live, told the PAC that the rifts were caused by a culture clash and differences between the departments, with the programme team on one floor of the building while all the other RPA staff were elsewhere.

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