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The IT problems hurting farmers

By Gerry Northam
File on 4

Guy Smith could hardly believe the maps of his farm sent to him by government officials.

Guy Smith
Guy Smith twice received inaccurate maps of his land

"They were woefully inaccurate, a litany of errors," he told BBC File on 4.

Mr Smith, who farms 1,000 acres of wheat, barley and rape seed in the landscape west of Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, was shocked by the efforts provided by huge digital re-mapping programme for the government's Rural Payments Scheme.

The map had omitted key landmarks and had even mixed up who owned some pieces of land.

Three months later a "corrected" map was sent to him.

"New errors were made, a 22 hectare field wasn't included at all, I need these as it affects the accuracy of the land holding."

Having accurate land records affects the level of money a farmer receives under the rural payments scheme.

As a result he fears he will not get the right payments this year.

"Their record does not inspire confidence," he said.

Tony Cooper, chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency said, "The mapping work was always going to be quite difficult."

He added that 80% of land had now been mapped.

This is one of the worst cock ups, that we have encountered in government for many years
Edward Leigh MP, chair Commons Public Accounts Committee

Yet the mapping system is the latest difficulty English farmers have encountered with the IT system put in place by the agency.

According to insiders, the RPA's IT problems trace back to the way the payments scheme was set up even before its launch.

Tenant Farmers' Association, George Dunn said ministers made the mistake of opting for the most complex scheme to deliver the payments to 100,000 plus eligible farmers.

The result has been a catastrophe. Payments cost around £1700 each to process in England, while in Scotland where they chose a much simpler system, the cost is one-sixth of that. £285 a claim.

The cost of the IT system has rocketed from £53.8m to £350m. Three times the Commons Public Accounts Committee has looked into rural payments, most recently last October, and each time it concluded that the system has failed woefully.

Savaged by watchdog

The Committee Chairman Edward Leigh, was scathing about the system.

"This is one of the worst cock ups, administrative disasters that we have encountered in government for many years - the figures are staggering and we've had to pay a fine to the European commission for our gross inefficiency of £280m we've spent, £304m on additional staff costs.

Keyboard generic
The cost of the RPA IT system has risen sevenfold

He added: "There are only 100,000 farmers, it would be frankly easier just to write a cheque for £10-20 000 for each person rather than employ hundreds of people waste £600m - it's tragic.

"Some farmers have actually committed suicide because they've been given money then abruptly been told its an overpayment and moneys been demanded back."

'Inherited problems'

He added, "It may be better to scrap the whole lot."

Mr Cooper, was brought in to try to recue the system in 2006 points to recent reductions in overall costs of about 10% each year. And he insisted the scheme is now working as planned for the large majority of farmers.

"I have arrived at something where I have to take forward a scheme which was already decided upon. I inherited that position and what I have tried to do is to take that work forward. I don't have the option of changing the scheme.

"It is a scheme which has been defined and is alive we have to work with that and do the best we can.

"The improvements we have made show that had it been implemented in a longer time scale then it could have been implemented in a very successful way."

File on 4 was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 2 March 2010, at 2000 GMT, repeated Sunday, 7 March, at 1700 GMT. You can listen via the BBC iPlayer or download the podcast.

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