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Farmers going unpaid by RPA

Those of us interested in wildlife and the rural economy will be infuriated to learn that £420million that was earmarked for stewardship and rural development schemes in England may have to be repaid to Brussels because it remains unspent. Farmers in particular will spot the irony; in England, farm payments are “skimmed” by a whopping 19 per cent to divert money into such schemes. This compares with 13.5 per cent for Scottish farm payments, 9.2 per cent in Wales, and only seven per cent in the rest of the EU.

But then, anybody who has ever had to deal with DEFRA knows that it is about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike. And one of the worst parts of Veggie Benn’s department is the notorious Rural Payments Agency (RPA). Frankly, I feel sorry for frontline RPA staff. Not many people would choose a job that entails fobbing off irate farmers chasing overdue payments. And no matter who wins the General Election, career prospects at the RPA must be about the same as those for a white rat in a python cage. Yet I have to say that I feel even sorrier for the agency’s customers — of which I am one. Like at least 4,000 others, I am still awaiting my 2009 farm payment.

Complexity and waste

The current scheme was introduced back in 2005 by Margaret Beckett, the caravan queen. While the rest of the EU (including Scotland) chose to make farm payments according to a simple system, Ms Beckett chose to adopt a fiendishly complicated “dynamic hybrid” system. According to the National Audit Office, it costs an average of £1,743 to process each case in England,compared with only £285 in Scotland. Nice one, Madge.

The RPA bought its computer system from Accenture. It was supposed to cost no more than £76milion. It actually cost £350million — and it still doesn’t work. So, to help, last year Accenture hired out 100 IT consultants to the RPA at a cost of £200,000 per consultant (yes, you did read that correctly).

Accurate maps of landholdings are the key to the calculations. An RPA offshoot named the Rural Land Registry started out on its fantastically undistinguished career by using badly outdated Ordnance Survey data and simply ignoring any other evidence, including recent air photos.

Dealing with the RPA is like trying to nail a piece of jelly to the wall. The organisation is structured along classic terrorist lines — a loose matrix of independent cells, none of which is directly connected to the other. Even when you manage to break through the automated phone system, you never seem to speak to the same person twice.

More recently, the RPA brought in the concept of “whole case workers”. I rang my whole case worker the other day and was told she was “on her lunch”, which brought to mind an image of her sitting on a pile of tofu sandwiches. When I rang back later, I was told she still wasn’t available because now she was “at a union meeting”. Even when I did eventually manage to speak to her, it rapidly emerged that she knew nothing about my case anyway.

Yet in only a few weeks I have to meet the deadline for making the next annual application — but how can I do that when I still don’t know if the data from last year’s was correct? At the time of writing, nobody has a clue when my case will be sorted out, not even the chief executive of the RPA, Tony Cooper. I know this because I have asked him, and he was good enough to respond. However, I do know that Mr Cooper gets an annual salary of £145,000, and that last year he got an additional £11,000 bonus, as well as trousering £40,000 in expenses, including first-class travel and five-star hotels. And I bet he didn’t have to keep ringing a call centre to get his money.

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