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Western Morning News Oct 24 2006

RPA FIASCO IS NOT MY FAULT SAYS MINISTER

MATT CHORLEY LONDON EDITOR
11:00 - 24 October 2006

The Ministers who oversaw the shambles of the farm payments agency last night tried to wash their hands of responsibility for the chaos.Lord Bach, who was ousted from the Government by Prime Minister Tony Blair in May, insisted he and his then boss Margaret Beckett were not to blame for "what went wrong" in introducing the new system of farm subsidies that left thousands of farmers facing serious cash flow problems this year.

He blamed a "conspiracy of optimism" among civil servants which had lead to "agony for farmers".

And his predecessor Lord Whitty also sought to heap blame on officials, saying information that was not "satisfactorily accurate" came out of the Rural Payments Agency, but he insisted the policy was "absolutely right".

Farming leaders in the Westcountry last night branded the ex-Ministers' comments "an attempted whitewash" of the handing of the Single Farm Payment Scheme which is worth £1,515 million to 116,000 farmers in England.

Facing the influential select committee's inquiry into the debacle at the Rural Payments Agency, Lord Bach said civil servants and staff had not been deliberately misleading about the progress of introducing the new system, but were "overly optimistic" for not realising how serious the problems were.

He also hinted that the errors made under his watch were the reason for his sacking but maintained blame should not rest with politicians.

Mrs Beckett was promoted to Foreign Secretary despite saying she took "full responsibility" for the problems.

Lord Bach said: "I actually don't think either of us were to blame for it having gone wrong."

He went on to admit: "I am sure there's more I could have done."

But he dismissed an accusation by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee that he had been complacent. "That's an accusation that has stung??? whatever else I may have been, I was not complacent."

Anthony Gibson, director of communications for the National Farmers' Union, told the WMN that such excuses were not acceptable: "It's an attempted whitewash. It's all there for anyone to see what happened.

"It's the usual politician's trick. They will try and pin the blame on anyone except themselves. A very significant share of the blame has to rest with the politicians for failing to heed the obvious signs that the system was not up to it."

Last week, the National Audit Office produced a damning report into the deteriorating state of the system which has seen the cost of implementation soar from £76m to £122m and is certain to rise further.

The Government watchdog acknowledged the late payments had caused a significant minority of farmers distress and cost them around £20m in extra interest and arrangement fees on loans.

Defra and the RPA told farmers that they aimed to start payments in February and make 96 per cent of payments by the end of March.

But the RPA ran into difficulties and by March 31 had paid £225 million to 31,000 farmers - just 15 per cent of the total £1.5 billion. The RPA had processed 95 per cent of payments by the end of June.

Some of the money - owed since December last year - is still unpaid.

Seven months ago, RPA chief executive Johnston McNeill was sacked by Mrs Beckett but the WMN reported last week he remains on "gardening leave" and is still in receipt of his full £114,000-a-year salary and has received performance bonuses totalling £40,000.

Lord Bach personally defended the ousted chief executive, choosing instead to blame the entire senior management of the agency.

"I actually don't think that Johnston McNeill is some who should be crucified. My view is that the top management of the RPA was not up to the occasion.

"I do think at the end of the day some of the advice I received from the RPA was overly optimistic."

But he insisted it was the right policy choice: "It will be proved to be so despite the agony of farmers. I believe we did the right thing and I think that will show in due course."

Mr Gibson said the catalogue of errors should not be repeated in the next round of payments and it was essential that partial payments would be made this year. "What we want to have from new Environment Secretary David Miliband is an acceptance that they are not going to be able to deliver full payment but they will make part payments rather than put it of and put if off and put it off like they did last year."

In a wide-ranging grilling led by committee chairman Michael Jack, Lord Bach referred to a U-turn by officials over five days in March 2005 when advice changed from saying the bulk of the payments would be made by the end of the month to saying there was "no chance at all of such a thing happening".

Lord Bach went on: "I don't think that that was satisfactory from senior civil servants whose job it is to tell the truth. I don't think they were deliberately trying to mislead but I think there was a conspiracy of optimism." Lord Whitty also tried to suggest he was against the timeline laid down for the new system and even accused the farming industry of demanding ministers press ahead.

He said the original premise of bringing together the previous system of numerous payments into one subsidy "shouldn't have been that difficult".

He added: "All of the advice, all of the pressure was to get into the system as soon as possible. The industry were urging us to get on with it. There was no pressure at all for postponing the introduction."

But he said he advocated moving to the area payment over a longer period with historic payments being made in the first year gradually moving to the new area payment in year five.

"I actually think that would have been a better transition period. I am absolutely convinced that if we had 100 per cent historic payments in the first year, we wouldn't have had some of the problems that landed on my desk."

He added he did not think officials at IT firm Accenture and in his department were "fully aware or giving sufficient importance to the fact that the system was not actually working for the customer".

As early as February 2005, there was a 30 per cent chance the deadline would not be met, he added.

The UK Government now faces a fine expected to top £130 million from the European Commission for its handling of the scheme.

Last Wednesday, Tony Blair apologised for the delays in payments being made, saying: "There are now 97 per cent of farmers who have received full or partial payments. The RPA are in contact with the remaining high-value cases and are working to pay the remaining claims as soon as possible."