The digital interface of the Rural Payments Agency's Common Agricultural Payments IT system – which was paused in an embarrassing U-turn last week – may not be reinstated, MPs heard yesterday.
On Friday, the RPA decided to freeze part of the "digital by default" £154m CAP system and go back to a paper-based approach. This was after a software update failed to improve the online mapping interface for farmers confirming their field allocations.
Environment secretary Elizabeth Truss said the online mapping system had been very slow and a software fix designed to correct the problem last weekend had "the opposite effect", causing it to fall over.
When asked when the mapping system will be back up, chief executive of the RPA Mark Grimshaw said: "It may not be reinstated. We will take the opportunity to review our options once all the [paper] applications are in. And that is something we will consider for 2016."
Truss agreed, adding: "We do not want to be inflexible and insist everyone does online mapping." Truss told the committee the project has also been under great time pressure, given late decisions from the EU regarding the CAP changes.
The committee was reminded of the £600m EU fines previously incurred due to mispayments, caused by its previous disastrous £350m IT system.
Truss said that in contrast to 2005, the department does have a workable system, it is "just not user friendly".
Farmers will be able to physically submit their paper maps to staff in 50 drop-in centres, with that data then manually entered by trained staff.
"[There] will be implications for Defra's budget in terms of staff and budget. We do not yet have figures for this year's outrun," said Truss.
No claims have yet been entered. Between now and June the RPA will have to ensure it can get all the data into the back end without using the digital front end, ensure it can scale and make correct calculations before going live.
Around 8,000 farmers had got as far as the system "would allow" in the claims process, said Grimshaw.
Anne McIntosh, chair of the committed, commented: "[You have] a lot of work to do before 15 June." Grimshaw agreed but added the department was resourced to do that and expects the forms to come in next Monday. ®