Rural Payments Agency chief executive Mark Grimshaw responds to digital criticism

The chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), Mark Grimshaw, has defended his organisation after MPs said a “childish turf war” between the RPA and the Government Digital Service had delayed crucial payments to farmers.

The Rural Payments Agency began designing a new system to implement the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in 2012. This aimed to simplify the way payments were made, meet new regulations, and reduce the risk of EU fines for late payments to farmers.

The digital system was designated as one of the Government Digital Service’s “digital exemplars”, the key projects designed to showcase simpler, online ways of delivering public services.

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However, the new system had to be shelved in early 2015 after technical problems, with the RPA instead moving to a “paper assisted digital” system.

Earlier this month, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee said a culture clash between senior leaders at the GDS and RPA had contributed to the problems, with PAC chair Meg Hillier saying it was “frankly embarrassing to learn of senior and highly paid civil servants arguing to the detriment of hard-pressed farmers” and hitting out at the use of the RPA overhaul as “a digital testing ground”.

Grimshaw gave evidence on the scheme this week to the separate Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee.

The RPA chief said he regretted being unable “to get over to the programme the requirements of the business from a delivery and functional perspective”, adding: “That is a concern that will live with me for many years.”

“As a personal failing I was not able to communicate, and not able to get senior people to recognise, that the programme was in difficulty,” he said.

But Grimshaw told the committee he was “not in a position to have my opinion prevail” during the roll-out of the programme, and said he had raised concerns with ministers about the online approach “for some time before” the system was pulled in March 2015. 

And he said “all four senior officers” given responsibility for the programme must share responsibility for its shortcomings.

While the online system allowing farmers to apply for 2016 payments – under the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) element of CAP – went live earlier this month, some are still waiting for their 2015 payments.

According to PAC, the digital troubles meant only 38% of BPS payments had been made by December 2015, compared with more than 90% in by the same point in previous years. 

However, the RPA has since made headway, and as of the end of February more than 80% have been paid.

Grimshaw told the committee that the agency was now aiming to make “almost all” of those outstanding payments by the end of March.

And the RPA chief said he wanted to return to 2014 service levels for this year’s payments.

“My ambition and one of the reasons we built the system in the way we did is to get back to that position as quickly as possible,” he said. “And I see no reason why we should not be back in the high 90s during December.”

Colin Marrs

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