Ministerial Accountability and the Rural Payments Agency

Little noticed over the past two-three years has been a serious failure in public administration.  To hear about it, you had to be awake at 5.45am and listening to Radio Four’s Farming Today programme.  Over a long period, this programme has treated listeners to regular updates on the failure of the Rural Payments Agency to implement the Single Payment Scheme for farmers in England.  The background was a desire to simplify and change the nature of the farm subsidies paid to UK farmers.  However, only English farmers were to be treated to so rapid a change to a new and fundamentally different system.

The details can be read in the report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.  Suffice it to say that ambitious plans, new and ill-thought through procedures and indaequate IT systems all play their part.  But the culture of saying ‘yes, minister’ is also a problem.  Nobody appears to have been willing to raise concerns in a forceful manner.  Where concerns were identified, these were raised in a muted manner.  At the same time, The Treasury was expecting cost savings to arise from the changes.

This is the same recipe for disaster that seems to affect schemes of this kind and scale: Choild Support; Disability Living Allowance; Passport Agency; NHS IT systems…..  The lists are long and growing.  From a public administration perspective, you can certainly see all the signs of failure emerging at an early stage.  Looking to Hogwood and Gunn’s (1984) ideal of perfect implementation, an ‘implementation deficit’ can be identified in almost all of the ten points.

But the story has appeared after 6.00am only because of the Select Committee report and specifically its criticisms of ministers.  The old problem of accountability has arisen.  Who is to blame?  Was it policy, and therefore ministers?  Or was it an administrative failing, and therefore the responsibility of the Agency’s managers?  The report is damning of all concerned – ministers, Permanent Secretary and agency Chief Executive.  And it is this that has caught the media eye.  Margaret Beckett, then Secretary of State at DEFRA, is now the Foreign Secretary.  She has been promoted despite presiding over such a failure.

The Select Committee report can be read at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmenvfru/107/107i.pdf

The National Audit Office has also reported on the failures: http://www.nao.org.uk/publications/nao_reports/05-06/05061631.pdf

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