The Rural Payments Agency has been featuring more than usual in the pages of Farmers Weekly over the last few weeks thanks, once again, to its disastrous handling of the single farm payment (farm subsidies, for those outside the EU) and mapping updates.
I find writing about the RPA is the only time us FW scribes can use words like ‘debacle’, ‘beleagured’ and ‘disastrous’ in a story and not be accused of hyperbole. The whole system has been such a disaster that if it was a storyline from The Thick of It then the script-writers would be accused of going too far.
In the last three days alone I’ve had emails from six farmers who either haven’t been sent the forms they need to fill in to claim their subsidy – despite the closing-date for applications fast-approaching – or who have lost money in what seems to be a rather extreme fines system.
The problems with the RPA’s computer systems are well-documented and I can imagine how frustrating it must be for staff who are expected to sort out documents and claims when the software they’re expected to work with is so rubbish. My sympathy towards the agency rapidly wanes though when you look at the way its head honchos talk about the problems it’s having.
Ok, so RPA staff have been responding to farmers’ single payment problems on the FW forums and the answers they’ve given show there are people within the agency who obviously care about and know what they’re doing.
But insisting on calling farmers ‘customers’, such as at an NFU meeting when people are describing attempts at suicide because of payment delays, just feels condescending. And I’ve heard agency chief Tony Cooper talk at enough evidence sessions to explain the RPA’s behaviour to know that at times he sounds like he’s swallowed a book of corporate officialdom (and everyone who works with me knows how I love a good acronym or management-line. Where’s that sarcmark gone?).
It’s not as though a few choice words are going to rectify all the problems out there, but I’m betting farmers wouldn’t feel half as patronised, frustrated and bereft of help if they got the sense the people in charge of the RPA understood their woes and recognised that problems with payments were affecting their lives, not just ‘customer satisfaction levels’.