National auditor says mismanagement and software problems caused delays in Common Agricultural Policy support for farmers
The mismanaged introduction of a new IT system has created serious problems for Scotland’s efforts to pass payments to farmers under the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the country’s official auditor has declared.
Audit Scotland has published the criticisms in its fourth update on the five-year Futures programme, an IT and business change scheme started in 2012 to deliver CAP reforms and financial support to farmers, crofters and rural businesses.
It says there were a number of problems with the delivery of the IT system to process claims, which went into use in December 2014: it was slow and inefficient in the way it worked; errors in the software had to be fixed after applications began; the software development has still not been completed; and manual workarounds had to be put in place.
In addition, the Scottish Government initially underestimated the IT costs at £50 million, and had to raise the figure to £80 million in a revised business case.
Subsequently, there have been lengthy delays in payments, targets have been missed, the costs of the programme have risen, and farmers have experienced financial difficulties.
The report says there have been other management problems, including tension between teams, confused governance and accountability, and a failure to deal with a conflict of interest held by one of the programme’s contractors.
Overall, the programme was originally budgeted at £102 million, but this has now increased to £178 million despite a reduction in its cope. Audit Scotland said there is a danger the funds could run out before the IT system fully meets European Commission regulations, which would lead to financial penalties of up to £125 million on the Scottish Government.
Among the report’s recommendations is that the programme team pays attention to those in its earlier report, Managing ICT contracts in central government, and develop and test a disaster recovery solution for the IT system.
Caroline Gardner, the auditor general for Scotland, said: "The CAP Futures programme has been beset with difficulties from the start. These problems, and the way they have been dealt with by the Scottish Government, are a serious concern, particularly as the programme continues to face major obstacles and is unlikely to deliver value for money.
"The scale of the challenge ahead should not be underestimated. It's vital that the Scottish Government take steps now to ensure the IT system is fit for purpose, and fully assess the potential financial impact if it's unable to meet the Commission's regulations within the programme's remaining budget."
The project to support EU farm payments in England has also been subject to sharp criticisms. The National Audit Office and Parliament's Public Accounts Committee have issued reports identifying serious delays in payments, with problems deriving from a digital system that was inappropriate for farmers, especially in areas with poor broadband coverage.
Picture by Paul McIlroy, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons