(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

Nobel House

17 Smith Square

London SWIP 3JR

4 February 2010

 

Dear Hilary

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

at stake.

 

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,

which include:

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.

 

 

Yours ever

 

Tony

Dr Tony Wright MP

Chairman

cc: Cabinet Secretary

Permanent Secretary, Defra

Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

Chairman of House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee