March 21: Taxing times for RPA as farmers hit by another IT failure

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AT THE culmination of a Budget week in which George Osborne set out plans for all self-assessment tax returns to be completed outline, the computer meltdown at the Rural Payments Agency offers a worrying foretaste of what can go wrong when the Government’s IT systems are not ‘fit for purpose’.

If EU subsidy payments to farmers cannot be paid because of unforeseen technological glitches, how can the public be expected to command confidence in the Chancellor’s plans?

In many respects, the very fact that the Rural Payments Agency has to revert to tried-and-tested postal correspondence in its dealings with Yorkshire farmers could not be more embarrassing to the Government or Leeds-educated Elizabeth Truss, the current head of Defra. Her department had worked tirelessly to overhaul the RPA after the agency descended into chaos because of the sheer volume of late – and inaccurate – payments. It became a defining, and enduring, symbol of public sector incompetence in this country.

Yet the goodwill engendered by the gradual overhaul that has taken place over recent years has now been wiped out – at a stroke – because those in charge of the RPA, and also Defra, failed to pay sufficient heed to the concerns that were raised by farmers.

The consequence? Farmers facing renewed financial uncertainty at a time when their incomes are already being squeezed, and the wider rural community questioning the wisdom of more 
public services being switched to the internet at a time when the IT system is not sufficiently robust and when one in five of all people still do not have high-speed broadband access.

Though these current difficulties are exclusive to farmers, the repercussions could impinge upon all and the Government needs to recognise this before it finds itself presiding over an even greater shambles.

A region’s revival: time to speak up for Yorkshire

NEVER has it been more important, in the aftermath of Scotland’s independence vote and the debate now underway about whether elected mayors should be created to represent the Leeds and Sheffield city-regions, for prospective candidates to be challenged about how they intend to empower Yorkshire after the election.

It is one reason why this newspaper has published A Manifesto for Yorkshire. It aims to put those issues most pertinent to this region’s future at the heart of the election campaign – national policies, though important, must not preclude from a vigorous debate about the future governance of this county.

This was a point made with typical alacrity at yesterday’s launch by Gary Verity when the county’s tourism supremo – Mr Yorkshire to many – challenged the term Northern Powerhouse that has been devised by Chancellor George Osborne to demonstrate his commitment to reduce London’s dominance.

The Welcome to Yorkshire chief executive said that he perceived the North to be Inverness, Aberdeen and Wick in the highlands of Scotland,
while Yorkshire is actually “the central belt” of Britain – to use international business parlance – because it is halfway between London and Edinburgh.

Yorkshire, he pointed out, is far bigger than Manchester, the region’s number one business rival, and has a population comparable to Scotland. It is several times bigger than Wales and Northern Ireland. Yet there is a sense that this region is still not taken seriously enough in Westminster despite the iconic white rose being one of the world’s most powerful brands. Why is this and how can it be reconciled? They are two questions that cannot be ignored in the coming weeks – the answers will be critical to helping to shape this region’s future.

Paying the price: ISA savers shortchanged by banks

BY SETTING out plans to introduce a Help to Buy ISA, one of the few surprises in the Budget, George Osborne hopes the policy will revive the spirit of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership when she paved the way for tenants to purchase council houses.

However, there is one snag. Banks and the wider financial services industry have a “shockingly poor” knowledge of these savings accounts, according to the consumer magazine Which?, and customers are paying a heavy price for this lack of insight.

Though these lapses are primarily a matter for the banks concerned, rather than the Chancellor, today’s findings are unlikely to help restore confidence in Britain’s savings culture.