Payments agency pledges efficiency reforms

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Managers at the troubled Rural Payments Agency (RPA) have unveiled a five-year plan to bring to an end the years of inaccurate and late payments which have cost UK taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds in fines.

The agency, which has been roundly criticised for repeated blunders in its handling of European subsidy payments to farmers, yesterday sought to mark a fresh start in its chequered history.

The scale of the task is perhaps illustrated best by the fact that cash-strapped Defra – currently wrestling with budget cuts of up to a third – has pledged more than £40m to pay for the reformation.

Defra will provide an additional £21.8m in the next financial year, with a further £19.1m provisionally earmarked for the following two financial years.

RPA chief executive Mark Grimshaw acknowledged that the reform process would be “daunting”.

Speaking to the Yorkshire Post, Mr Grimshaw admitted that the cost of handling each single farm payment claim – a recurring point of criticism for the agency – would likely increase as part of the reform programme before falling again.

However he added that an experienced and dedicated management team was now in place saying that the reformation process of the RPA would be “career defining” for them.

The RPA plans claim the agency will do away with its legacy of poor customer service and botched payments and instead create a “fast, responsive and easy to access service to farmers and food producers”.

“It will be hugely challenging,” he told the Yorkshire Post. “But to go into the next five years without a plan would have been incredibly daunting.

“We spent a considerable amount of time going through the changes with our colleagues at Defra as well as various industry stakeholders to establish exactly what the problems were.”

Controversially he added the individual cost of each claim “is likely to go up before it goes down” but pointed out that since taking over the cost per claim had fallen from £818 to £760.

The RPA claims the new systems it will introduce will have the effect of “reducing the level of errors significantly” and Mr Grimshaw agreed this was the overall objective.

The agency plans to retain parts of its much maligned computer system but said only systems that have prove to be effective will be kept in place.

“There is no silver bullet,” Mr Grimshaw conceded. “If there was it would have been used some time ago.

“It is going to be a grind but we know what we have got to do. We now have a good executive team drawn together from experienced senior servants who are focused making sure this happens. It is career defining for them.

“We have no consultants or interims, something the agency has not been able to say for many years. We have the right team in place.”

The plans for reform received a cautious welcome from farming leaders, with the Country Land and Business Association director Dorothy Fairburn calling for more stringent payment targets.

“The RPA’s past inability to make accurate and timely payments to farmers has cost the UK millions of pounds in European Commission fines and forced some businesses into financial hardship,” she said.

“Its computer system is still shockingly outdated, resulting in compounding problems year on year. This is simply not acceptable.”