Brexit could further exacerbate the woeful IT track record of farmers receiving rural payments from the UK government, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has warned.
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) provides direct financial support to farmers primarily through the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), which accounts for around 80 per cent of total payments.
But the system has a long history of troubles. At the end of 2015, senior government officials were hauled in front of MPs to defend their deeply "dysfunctional" and "childish" behaviour, which contributed to the botched £215m Common Agricultural Policy IT system, and up to £180m in EU fines.
Today the committee warned that the department's record of failure when developing systems to support subsidy payments to farmers "does not inspire confidence in its ability to cope with the challenges associated with Brexit that lie ahead".
The report calls on the department to use better data and ensure "accurate, full payments are made in a timely manner" in the current payment window, and to restore previous payment performance levels for 2017-18.
Richard Bacon MP, deputy chairman of the PAC, said today: "The recent history of the BPS is a sorry affair. Farmers have suffered badly from the collapse in service levels and government has done too little to help them cope with the fallout.
"At the same time, taxpayers continue to be hit in the pocket by financial penalties arising from the government's failure to deliver the scheme properly – penalties running to more than half a billion pounds for England in the current period.
"If farmers are to be properly supported through Brexit and beyond it is vital their interests are represented at senior level. In particular, the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) must be at the table during discussions of any future subsidy payment scheme."
The report noted that the RPA aims to make its digital mapping data no more than three years old, as required by the EU, and has a goal of ensuring maps are no more than one year old. This could also allow the RPA to reduce the number of farm inspections it is required to carry out.
"Further problems arose from the fact that the online application portal was not fully functional in time which required the RPA to process all applications manually. This introduced a significant number of errors which undermined the quality of the data held, despite farmers submitting appropriate evidence," it said.
It recommended the RPA ensure that its land register is accurate. "It should in the response to this report set out when it expects to have digital maps with data that is no older than three years and also when it will reduce this to one year."
A Defra spokesperson said the CAP is a "complex and bureaucratic scheme".
They said: "We have made major progress – this year the Rural Payments Agency has already met its target to pay 93 per cent of farmers by March 2017, and it is working hard to get outstanding payments into bank accounts.
"We are leaving the European Union. This represents one of many opportunities to design a better system which supports farmers and our agricultural economy, and cut unnecessary red tape." ®