(PASC Committee to Hilary Benn - RPA Compensation Feb 4 2010 - pdf file can be found here)
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Public Administration Select Committee
Committee Office' House of Commons' 7 Millbank . London SW1 P3JA
Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP
Secretary of State
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
17 Smith Square
London SWIP 3JR
4 February 2010
I am writing to ask you personally to take another look at the Parliamentary Ombudsman's
report on the administration of the 2005 Single Payment Scheme (SPS), Cold Comfort, and to
reconsider your Department's response to it.
We were deeply concerned by the evidence we heard last week from your Permanent Secretary,
which seemed to show that the Department and the Ombudsman are effectively speaking at
cross-purposes. In particular, we are not convinced that the Department's response shows a full
understanding of the Ombudsman's report, of the nature of her role or of her approach to issues
of this kind.
Our role is to consider reports from the Ombudsman, and we have experience both of the
majority of cases, in which the Government accepts the Ombudsman's recommendations in full,
and the minority in which it does not. The case we were considering last week was almost
unprecedented, in that Defra has refused to implement the Ombudsman's recommendations for
financial compensation, in a context where these recommendations are modest. Generally,
where the Government hesitates to implement the Ombudsman's recommendations, this is
because very large sums of public money are involved: for example, in the recent investigations
relating to occupational pensions and Equitable Life, where billions of pounds were potentially
We were mystified before last week's session as to why it could be to the Government's
advantage to resist the Ombudsman's findings in this case. Frankly, we are none the wiser now.
The Ombudsman is recommending modest compensation in a small number of cases. There
can be little or no risk of a snowball effect - as the Ombudsman told us, her work is subject to a
statutory time bar, and she finds it hard to imagine the circumstances in which she would now
agree to investigate any further cases relating to 2005-06.
The reasons Defra has provided explaining its position give the impression of a Department
looking for arguments to dispute the Ombudsman's findings. These arguments at times seem to
be based on a misunderstanding, and at other times seem to be predicated on taking an
adversTimes New Roman rather than a common-sense, compassionate approach to people who have
undoubtedly suffered injustice as a result of the Department's administrative failings. The
general arguments raised also do not seem to engage with the detail of the individual cases
investigated by the Ombudsman.
The reason put forward most strongly by Defra for dismissing outright financial compensation
for Mr W and Mr Y (the lead complainants), is that the Ombudsman has calculated this
compensation "on the basis of the target date for 96.14% (and later 'bulk') of payments to be
paid from March 2006". We have four comments on this argument which we think need to be
taken into account.
1. The most general point to make is that the Ombudsman has expressly denied that this is
the basis on which she has assessed compensation. See paragraph 182 of her report.
2. We have seen no evidence to show that Defra has considered whether it was the specific
series of administrative errors suffered by individual complainants that meant that they
did not receive their payments by the end of March 2006, rather than the more general
problems affecting the administration of the scheme.
3. We do not know if Defra has considered whether individual complainants were led to
believe in their personal contacts with RPA (rather than from more general statements)
that they would receive their payments by the end of March 2006.
4. There are a range of factors set out in the Ombudsman's report other than non-payment
of SPS entitlements as grounds for financial compensation. Even if the Department is
determined that there should be no compensation for SPS payments made before the
regulatory deadline, it is not evident to us that Defra has considered these other factors,
• lost opportunities for the farmers to plan their affairs with adequate information to
hand, including the financial impact on Mr W of not receiving his Single Payment
Scheme entitlement statement by the regulatory deadline of 31 December 2005, for
example in terms of access to credit, pressure from existing creditors and
willingness to take on new debt.
• the extent to which the mapping problems encountered by Mr Y reasonably led
him to delay his Entry LevelStewardship claim.
• costs to the complainants in pursuing their complaints, for example, in their own
time, in telephone calls, in photocopying and in professional fees.
The Ombudsman's job is to be an independent, expert investigator where citizens complain that
they have suffered injustice as a result of public bodies providing a poor service. The
Government's response ought to be based on a presumption that the Ombudsman has got it
right, particularly as in this case where the Ombudsman has had no shortage of opportunity to
consider the Government's views on her draft findings before she has finalised her report. It
does not seem to us that Defra has been working from this standpoint.
Where the Government disagrees with the Ombudsman's approach to remedy, it should have
strong, politically defensible reasons for doing so. Weare not persuaded that such reasons exist
in this case.
I hope that you will meet the Ombudsman as soon as possible to discuss her report and her
Office's relations with your Department, and immediately afterwards reconsider the
Department's response. If there has been no new announcement from the Department by the
end of the month, we will need to consider asking you to explain the existing position to us in public in early
March. I hope, however, that this will not he necessary.
Dr Tony Wright MP
cc: Cabinet Secretary
Permanent Secretary, Defra
Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman
Chairman of House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee