MPs have hammered the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) after it pulled the plug on online-only applications for farmers’ Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) claims.
Malfunctions in the government’s £154m farm subsidies system that caused a torrent of complaints from farmers forced Defra’s Rural Payments Agency (RPA) to abandon the digital application process and bring back paper forms.
Now, the House of Commons Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs Committee slammed Defra for failing to spot the problems ahead of a looming subsidy claims deadline.
Chair of the committee, Anne McIntosh MP, was critical of Defra’s move to provide the RPA with a digital-only claims system in the first place.
“We have long called for an alternative to online applications for farmers for payments under the new CAP system,” she said.
“IT systems have a key role to play but given the history of failure over implementing complex new government IT systems it was always a risk to rely entirely on an online process when implementing a complex new CAP scheme.
“Online-only applications pose difficulties too for the many farmers living in areas with inadequate broadband services.”
The committee’s CAP payments to farmers report said that Defra had been warned for years that an online-only approach to CAP payments would cause problems, as rural broadband was not as extensive as it needed to be to support such a system.
It also criticised several ministers, including Defra Secretary of State Elizabeth Truss MP, for not having a contingency plan, as they belligerently believed the RPA would “do what it takes” to ensure the system worked ahead of the May subsidy claim deadline.
While the committee praised the RPA’s rapid action to move back to a functioning process before the deadline passed, it heavily criticised Defra’s U-turn.
“It is disappointing that despite our repeated recommendations made over many years, that the Secretary of State, her ministers and officials have only listened to our concerns and those of many farmers at the last minute under the imminent threat of missing EU deadlines and incurring costly penalties,” the report said.
In response to the scathing report, Defra said its priority has always been to ensure farmers can submit their claims in time.
“That’s why we have made some adjustments to our plans and farmers and their agents can now use existing paper-based forms to finalise their claim,” said a Defra spokesperson in a statement to V3.
Defra also defended its IT system as a whole: “The registration and core parts of the system are working well and over 80 percent of farming businesses have signed up via the new service.
“Nothing has been scrapped and all data entered so far on the system will be used by the RPA to complete farmers’ claims.”
The spokesperson also told V3 that Defra is sticking with the system and once the claims have been processed, the department will work on improving the system for the RPA.
While Defra is coming under fire for its digital failure, it would appear the government is adopting a ‘learn by doing’ approach to its ‘digital by default’ strategy, whether that results in failure or success.