Dismay over exit deals at ‘woeful’ farm pay agency

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THE beleaguered Rural Payments Agency has again come under-fire after it emerged former chief executive Tony Cooper received an “exit package” of more than £300,000.

The agency’s accounts also revealed three interim finance directors were employed at different times during the last financial year, costing £500,000 in wages and recruitment agency fees.

Repeated delays for payments to farmers have seen the RPA face numerous demands for improvement and prompted the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee of MPs to warn any senior staff bonuses would be unacceptable given its “woeful performance”.

Mr Cooper, who joined the RPA in 2006 before leaving in July last year, received nearly £326,000 which was made up of a £15,000 bonus, £67,007 compensation in lieu of notice and early retirement benefits of £243,803 towards a pension pot that currently stands at £1.3m.

The three finance directors were David Clausen-Thue and Jonathan Dodworth who cost the agency £236,183 and £160,516 respectively, including VAT and agency fees. Robin Moulson was finance director until May 4 2010, but remained an employee of the agency until July last year costing between £95,000 and £100,000.

The news comes after the RPA announced in March that thousands of farmers would yet again face delays in getting their Single Farm Payment cheques, with organisational issues blamed.

Anne McIntosh, the MP for Thirsk and Malton and chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee, said the financial packages certainly appeared “generous” in the context of the agency’s performance. “Clearly the fact that the Audit Commission wouldn’t sign off the accounts shows that there is some concern over the whole performance of the RPA,” she said.

“As a constituency MP I am still getting a lot of complaints, including from farmers who have been waiting since 2009 for payments.

“There is a lot of unhappiness with the performance of the RPA and as a committee we do not think that it is appropriate to have performance related bonuses when the performance has been so woeful.

“And the fact that they have had three financial directors in one year does not indicate they are delivering good value.

“It seems a very generous package – I hope that we can now move on because it is the farming community who are losing out.”

The new boss of the RPA, Mark Grimshaw, has pledged to make significant improvements after years of mismanagement and to launch a “five-year plan” to turn the agency’s performance around, although he has refused to set payment targets.

A spokeswoman for the RPA said they had reduced their reliance on contractors and agency staff and have “reorganised and streamlined corporate services”.

She said: “Finance directors were employed on an interim basis to address the serious issues around financial management identified in the independent 2013 Review of the Rural Payments Agency, published last summer. This was necessary to cover the period while a permanent financial director was recruited.

“Interim directors are procured through standard recruitment procedures appropriate for senior Civil Service level staff. Agency fees, which are inflated by VAT, reflect the going commercial rates for individuals of their calibre, seniority and experience. Fees are paid to a third party.

“A permanent finance director has now been appointed.”

The spokeswoman added that the recruitment drive for senior executives was nearly complete, with the two roles – Operations Director and IT Director – left to fill. “A new chief executive, Mark Grimshaw, has been recruited, who has embarked on robust restructuring to transform the agency for the future. He has promised no sugar-coating of tough issues and no room for poor performance.”