We’ve talked before about the difficulty in mapping the policy process in certain Government departments. The MOD is often seen as the hegemon of complexity but the sheer confusion at work in other departments makes British government a true multi-polar world. A world in which Defra must be considered a genuine superpower.
Yesterday, this became all too apparent. The National Audit Office (NAO) found that a “masterclass in misadministration” by both Defra and one of its executive agencies has cost the taxpayer £622 million. The Times went as far as to call it one of the NAO’s ‘most damning’ audits.
The EU’s Single Payment Scheme (SPS) is paid to farmers to maintain their land, and in the UK it is administered by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA). Unfortuantely, the infuriatingly complex ‘dynamic hybrid’ system - which Defra and the RPA elected to use - has caused an administrative nightmare. Inadequate IT systems (the perennial thorn in the Government’s side) and wholly inefficient processes have brought around “unforeseen additional costs”. In fact, the cost of administering each individual claim has risen by 22 percent in 3 years: institutional clutter tends to cost a lot of money.
The RPA and its sponsor department have mismanaged the SPS to such an extent that the NAO say they have shown ‘scant regard to protecting public money’. But the bungle was typically defended on yesterday’s Today programme by the Farming minister Jim Fitzpatrick MP, who claimed that the NAO’s figures were wrong. The defence was by no means robust, though. Did he think anyone believed that the system operated well?
Indeed. This is the third time that the Department and the RPA have been warned about the administration of the scheme. Half-hearted – and frankly ludicrous – rebuttals by Defra’s ministers should not stop this system from being systematically rationalised so that the burden to the taxpayer is eased considerably.
Perhaps all of this was inevitable. The EU gave member states some discretion in deciding how to administer the SPS, with England choosing the ‘dynamic hybrid’ system. The NAO say that this was the most complex model available; Scotland opted for a simpler system. The amount it costs to administer a farmer’s claim for cash? £1,743 in England and £285 in Scotland. Enough said.