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FAILING IN OUR DUTY OF CARE

11:00 - 13 May 2005

A worker at the Rural Payments Agency - heavily criticised over the chaos surrounding new subsidy payouts to farmers - claims it is being run "appallingly" and is "a shambles".

The employee spoke out after the WMN revealed how farmers were struggling to fill in complex forms to claim the new Single Farm Payment, which replaces all previous subsidies.

Farmers are fighting against a nightmare of chaotic and confused bureaucracy as they attempt to submit their forms by next Monday's deadline. If they fail to make the deadline, they face losing part of their payments, or could even lose all entitlement to all subsidies for the next seven years.

Yet the insider at the RPA claims staff there are being told not to help farmers fill in forms correctly.

He has written a seven-page letter to the WMN detailing the barriers farmers are having to overcome in order to qualify for aid to which they are entitled as land owners and managers. He said last night: "We are failing in our duty of care. The whole agency is being run appallingly - it is a shambles."

The official, who works in the Exeter office of the RPA, in Winslade Park, Clyst St Mary, near Exeter, said in one incident, he found a letter dated October, 2004, requesting assistance with the application.

He said: "It had been acknowledged, but not answered. I mentioned this to a manager who said there were a good few letters like that and she didn't think we would ever get around to answering them."

He said he tried to raise the matter with a more senior officer but did not get a response.

He said: "To me, this is a breach in the duty of care we have towards our customers."

The SPS is the framework that will see farmers paid a new Single Farm Payment. It has been introduced in place of dozens of different subsidies which have clogged up the system for years, becoming ever more complicated.

It was supposed to simplify the subsidy system for farmers, but since its launch it has instead gained the label of "a complete pig's ear" from the National Farmers' Union.

The officer said that staff, who previously offered expert help to applicants, were now faced with forms they knew little about.

He said staff were expected to check forms with the minimum of training, and warned that where tick boxes had been filled in in an obviously incorrect way, no advice would be given to farmers.

He explained: "The RPA has advised staff that they must not under any circumstances give advice to farmers when receiving their SP5 forms."

In one question applicants are asked: "Do you wish to establish an entitlement to subsidy?"

In simple terms - asking if they want to apply for funds.

Yet if they accidently tick the box saying No, staff are required to ignore it, thus losing the farmer's right of entitlement to the fund, irrespective of whether a mistake has been made or not.

The officer said: "Sometimes farmers will work long into the night before they try to do their administration and in those cases they can make simple mistakes, but we are not allowed to ask them if they meant to say 'no' to such an important question."

And as the workload starts to escalate as the deadline approaches for the forms, the RPA is now laying staff off as part of a nationwide downsizing project, something which has hit the Exeter-based office.

The officer said: "I've worked in public administration for most of the last 30 years. The last eight at the RPA have been utterly miserable." He said a colleague, who was processing the applications, had said they would "stick in any old crap and try to sort the mess out later" as they attempted to meet the June 30 deadline for applications to be decided.

He said staff were "utterly demoralised". He said: "It is to their credit that many small positive initiatives have been made, like taking in forms at cattle markets, entirely on their own initiative and with little or no active support from higher management."