This week Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss chairs a highly publicised emergency Cabinet committee to save large swathes of the nation from a flooding disaster. I hope she does a better job than supervising payments to England’s farmers.
Last week her department and one of its agencies were involved in one of the most callous and dishonest pieces of news management this year.
It has left tens of thousands of farmers without any money for Christmas and they will be lucky if they are paid by the end of January.
The reason is her department and the Rural Payments Agency have been involved in a monumental mess over the introduction of a new computer system to pay farmers their annual cash from the European Union.
This money is not small beer. This time last year some £1.3 BILLION was paid out to over 96,000 farmers in England and it helps keep our food at reasonable prices in the shops.
Last week the National Audit Office revealed that the computer system set up to pay the money didn’t work properly, cost 40 per cent ( at £215m to the taxpayer) more than planned and , as a result,farmers had to revert to using paper applications.
The report even for National Audit Office terms was scathing. it revealed a total mess across Whitehall with quarrelling officials from the Cabinet Office to the Government Digital Service making a pig’s ear of the whole business.
I wrote about it in Tribune. Here is one damning paragraph in the report:
” The Programme has been set back by numerous changes in leadership. There were four senior responsible owners within the space of a year, each bringing their own style and priorities. Repeated changes were disruptive to the Programme and caused uncertainty and confusion for its staff. The Department failed to prevent… deep rifts in working relationships and inappropriate behaviour at the senior leadership level. “
Now this body- the Government Digital Service – has just been given an extra £200m by George Osborne, the Chancellor, so it can digitalise driving licences and passports. If their handling of farmers money is anything to go by, you will find you won’t be able to get a driving licence or passport by the next General Election.
You might wonder why you have not heard about this mess. A copy of the damning NAO report was sent to every national newspaper but their reporters deemed it too boring to publish. The Labour House of Commons Public Accounts committee chair, Meg Hillier, condemned the state of affairs to a deaf Parliamentary lobby.
But worse than this the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs deliberately misled the public and the media about this state of affairs.
Last year when the first farmers received their cash under the old system, Elizabeth Truss couldn’t wait to boast, in a run up to the election, how successful the government had been in getting the money to farmers. You can read about it here.
This year this completely misleading statement was put out and Elizabeth Truss was nowhere to be seen. It boasted of 33,000 farmers receiving the cash. Last year it was 96,000. In other words it had fallen by 65 per cent – an appalling state of affairs.
To my mind the whole saga shows we are governed by a Metropolitan elite – with no press interest in the plight of anyone outside London and complete disdain for rural issues. That is why obviously Elizabeth Truss thought she could get away with no one knowing anything about this mess. And she has succeeded.
There is a great opportunity for Labour and the Liberal Democrats to take this issue up – it chimes with the parties’ interests in backing grass roots politics away from Westminster.
There is also a sting in the tale – do you know the European Union can fine the UK for not paying the money promptly. A similar problem a few years ago led to the department paying out over £600m in fines. So due to ministers’ incompetence some of your taxes will go to pay millions of pounds of EU fines. You couldn’t make this up.