A HEAVILY criticised Government agency whose bungling of farm payments cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds has paid out nearly £2m in bonuses to staff, the Yorkshire Post can reveal.
The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) has paid its staff 1.85m in bonuses since 2005, more than 500,000 being awarded in 2008-09 alone.
The bonuses came despite massive problems within the RPA which resulted in hundreds of farmers facing lengthy delays in receiving their vital Single Farm Payment cheques. Many more were overpaid or underpaid to the tune of thousands of pounds.
An RPA spokeswoman said the bonuses were handed out to people "based on achievement" but several leading figures have questioned whether or not staff should have been financially rewarded at all.
The Liberal Democrats environment spokesman, Tim Farron, demanded answers from top echelons of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), of which it is part.
The figures, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, showed bonuses worth a total of 558,943 were handed to staff last year and even during 2006 and 2007, when the RPA's problems were at their worst, bonuses worth more than 300,000 were paid.
Tory Shadow Agriculture Minister Jim Paice told the Yorkshire Post: "It is hard to believe that while farmers were left waiting for their Single Farm Payment the RPA was shelling out millions in bonuses.
"It says it all about the Government's priorities that while farmers are denied compensation for the financial losses they have suffered officials at the agency involved are rewarded with handsome bonuses."
The findings are published just a few weeks after the RPA, which employs some 3,500 people, was heavily criticised by the National Audit Office (NAO) which called its handling of the Single Farm Payment cheques a "masterclass of maladministration" as it was revealed the average cost of handling claims, some of which amounted to just a few pounds, was 1,743.
The NAO report also said the agency had showed "scant regard for the protection of public money" and its negligence had left a black hole of 628m, a bill footed by the taxpayer.
The RPA also hit the headlines for the wrong reasons last year after it was revealed it had lost the personal details of thousands of farmers while transporting them between offices.
Mr Farron said: "With the average hill farmer earning just 5,000 a year, it's hard to justify the extravagant amounts being paid to these civil servants.
"But what makes these figures all the more unbelievable is some of the high-profile errors made by Defra within the last year, particularly the loss of 100,000 farmers' bank details by the Rural Payments Agency.
"Questions must be asked as to whether Defra's top brass really represent value for money for Britain's farmers. Surely the amount it costs to pay their wages could be put to better use by investing in a hill farm apprenticeship scheme to provide the next generation of upland farmers."
Defra confirmed during the autumn that it was to review the agency's status.
Last month it hit its first target of the year after paying 75 per cent of full payments by value, six weeks ahead of its formal target date. In the past few days it has announced that this figure has risen to 78 per cent.
In total, it has paid out 1.4bn, just under 76 per cent of the estimated total fund of 1.86bn.
A spokeswoman said: "The RPA made bonus payments to a range of individuals, from processing staff to managers based on achievement and following the end of year performance reviews. A Special Recognition Scheme running since 2007 exists to recognise additional or outstanding contributions from individuals."