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Last Updated: Monday, 9 July 2007, 20:45 GMT 21:45 UK
Ex-farm subsidy boss 'cost 250k'
Cows in a snow-covered field as sunset falls in Bearsted, near Maidstone
Many farmers said they were driven to despair, or bankruptcy
The ex-boss of the Rural Payments Agency has received more than 250,000, since being suspended over the failure to pay farmers' EU subsidies on time.

Johnston McNeill received the money in compensation, pay awarded during eight months' suspension before being sacked, a pension and a lump sum of 42,000.

He also said his suspension had been a "bolt from the blue" and he was considering appealing.

Some farmers say delays in pay-outs have driven them to bankruptcy.

The RPA, a government agency, was charged with allocating about 1.5bn under the EU's single farm payment scheme (SPS).

Over budget

It should have been paid out by February 2006, but that deadline was missed and by December more than 500 farmers were still owed money.

The late payments are thought to have cost farmers 21m, caused considerable stress, and caused Defra to go over budget.

If that degree of financial mismanagement had occurred in a public limited company, the board would have been out - never mind the chief executive
Michael Jack
Committee chairman

Mr McNeill told MPs on Tuesday he had been awarded more than 60,000 in compensation, on top of the 81,000 he received when suspended, half a year's salary of 56,000, a 42,000 lump sum and a 12,800-a-year pension.

But he told the Commons public accounts committee he had had no disciplinary hearing and no opportunity to appeal.

He said he had repeatedly cautioned about the "high risk" of undertaking major staff restructuring at the same time as introducing the SPS.

Held accountable

Mr McNeill said he was never approached about his performance at the RPA before he was suspended and was not aware of any criticism of his handling of the affair during subsequent inquiries - yet he had been held accountable.

He was effectively suspended on paid leave in March and his employment terminated in December 2006.

The RPA had been charged with introducing the subsidy - a major change to the way farmers received EU payments - as well as a new centralised computer system to process applications, at the same time as staff numbers were being reduced.

Better systems of reporting are in place, and there's a greater customer focus, and thank goodness for that
David Taylor
Labour MP

In a separate hearing Michael Jack, the Conservative chairman of the environment, food and rural affairs committee, said farmers had lost out by about 20m, yet only Mr McNeill had paid for it with his job.

The then Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett was promoted to Foreign Secretary.

"If that degree of financial mismanagement had occurred in a public limited company, the board would have been out - never mind the chief executive," he said.

The delays in sending out payments left the UK facing a European Commission fine.

Mr Jack added: "The wheel fell off big time. It could take until 2012 to fix the RPA and another 55m is going to have to be spent."

Labour MP David Taylor said the RPA was in "recovery mode" and had done much better in 2007 than it did in 2006.

"Better systems of reporting are in place, and there's a greater customer focus, and thank goodness for that," he said - but he said the target for processing claims should rise to at least 80% by the end of 2007.

Lib Dem MP Roger Williams said it was "beyond belief" that Mrs Beckett, then the minister responsible for the RPA, had met Mr McNeill only twice and one of those occasions was to sack him.




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