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Muckspreader 21 March 2006 - Private Eye

Not since foot and mouth five years ago have the politicians and officials responsible for our farming industry perpetrated such an unmitigated shambles as that which has engulfed the Rural Payments Agency, the body set up in 2001 by Mrs Beckett (aka Rosa Klebb) to hand out Brussels subsidy payments to English farmers. In 2005 the RPA, under its chief executive Johnston McNeill, was asked to administer the new Single Farm Payment scheme, the system devised by the EU to merge its complex system of farm subsidies into one annual payment based on a farm’s land area.

Across most of Europe, including Scotland and Wales, the money from Brussels was paid to farmers, as planned, by the end of 2005. But McNeill, as reported here in January, paid £18 million to a firm of consultants, Accenture, to devise a uniquely complicated new IT system to administer the payments in England. Although the fee payable to Accenture (motto ‘high performance delivered’) soon doubled to £37 million, its software proved not to work. As their payments failed to arrive by the promised date, desperate farmers were forced to borrow huge sums from banks, at a cost of £25 million in interest charges, and to ask hundreds of agricultural suppliers to wait for their bills to be paid. In January Lord Bach, the latest underling appointed by Rosa to act as her ‘farms minister’, promised that by March all the problems would be sorted out and most of the money delivered.

When March came, it was clear that Lord Bach was talking through his hat. Fewer than 7 percent of farmers had received the money they were owed. The RPA’s ludicrously expensive IT system was in a worse shambles than ever. As farmers’ debts soared ever higher, even Rosa realised that this chaos was not looking too good. On 16 March, in an emergency statement to the Commons. It was announced that McNeill had been suspended from his £160,000 a year post.

For McNeill this represented the second massive career failure in a row. He had previously been head of the Meat Hygiene Service, the body set up by Maff in 1995 to enforce EU legislation on the meat industry. This played a key part in the drama whereby, wholly unnecessarily, Britain lost three quarters of its abattoirs, leaving vast tracts of the country without a slaughterhouse.

But McNeill’s departure has done nothing to improve matters. Almost immediately the agency’s IT system crashed yet again, losing quantities of data. The word from inside the RPA was that many farmers could not hope to be paid until midsummer at the earliest. Typical of protests which went up from all sides was that from Peter Clarke, chairman of the Cornish NFU, who pointed out that this chaos would have ‘a terrible impact on the whole of the rural economy’. ‘Mr McNeill’, he went on, ‘appears to have been completely blind to the economic and human’ consequences of the RPA’s failure. But he was not slow to identify where the real blame lay: ‘Mrs Beckett must have had knowledge of how shambolic this agency was’ As Hugo Swire MP put it rather more succinctly, ‘instead of sacking the guy running the RPA she should sack herself’. Meanwhile, despite suspending McNeill, Rosa has allowed him to remain on the payroll, still drawing his £160,000 a year.