Environment minister Hilary Benn is defying the Commons' ombudsman and refusing to pay £5,500 compensation to a north Norfolk farmer, Alister Borthwick. Over four years, Defra's Rural Payment Agency was found guilty of official maladministration and incompetence for causing significant financial loss, stress and heartache to a sample two farmers.
The ombudsman ordered that a hand-written apology and £5,500 compensation be paid to an East Anglian farmer, identified only as "Mr Y" in her 159-page report. A victim of the RPA's succession of errors, Mr Borthwick or "Mr Y," who farms about 1,200 acres at Deepdale Farm, Burnham Deepdale, told the EDP of the impact on his family business of the financial and emotional turmoil since early 2005.
The ombudsman, Ann Abraham, has published her findings into the mishandling of the single farm payment saga in an almost unprecedented report to Parliament. She also said that all 22 farmers had received "cold comfort" as Defra disputed her findings and proposed making "consolatory payments" of just £500 to each complainant. A remedy "should be forthcoming where injustice has been suffered as a consequence of maladministration by a public body," she added.
Mr Borthwick, who lost two years of environmental income worth about £35,000, was backed by North West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham, who took up the cudgels on his behalf in August 2005. Later, he made the official complaint to the ombudsman, who launched her investigation.
Mr Borthwick said that the saga started in early 2005 when the RPA were unable to issue correct maps of his farm, required by law, to make the single farm payments. "They took 17 attempts to get the maps right, it was quite extraordin-ary. We'd get one field correct, and then I would ask for a complete print-out of the farm so I could enter the (environmental) entry level stewardship scheme or ELS. Then they send the map back with the same errors in again. And it went on.
"The official maps even included some of my neighbour's fields. Because they couldn't get the mapping right, I couldn't go into ELS. Although I could have gone into a part scheme, I was advised by everybody to put the whole farm into the scheme. There were delays and delays and I missed the first two years of the ELS and got no money. Then they changed the rules after I'd missed the deadline to apply."
He said that the experience had scarred his family and as a result, his son, Jason, had decided not to join him on the farm, which also includes a campsite and back-packers' hostel. "When he sees me spending six weeks every year in the dining room with all these maps spread out, that's not farming.
"Basically Defra set the rules, and we have to stick to our side of the rules, when they don't stick to their side of the rules, there seems to be no sanction against them. I've got lever-arch files full of letters. To find maladministration on such a scale is astounding and it went on for years," he added. "I have a record of every telephone conversation I've had with RPA and all the people I've spoken to. It is a very sad reflection on where we have got to. I just find it so one-sided, it is unbelievable. We keep getting reminders from the RPA to submit our claim by May 15, or we will be fined."
He said that the RPA's individual front-line staff had been "courteous and as helpful as they possibly could" in the circumstances. "However, I had the overwhelming impression that, try as an individual might, the real failure to deliver lay far above them, at a senior level."
Mr Borthwick, who had to make a member of farm staff redundant as a result of the financial implications on his business, said that it had taken a severe toll on him. He received a partial payment of his 2005 SPs claim in May 2006 of £72,351 plus a top-up of £13,783.29 in September and interest of £191.45 for late payment.
Ms Abraham said: "These failures of the 2005 single payment scheme took a direct personal and financial toll on the two farmers whose complaints I have investigated.
"It... saddens me that a public body refuses to provide relatively modest financial remedy for substantive injustice to people whose complaints have been referred to the ombudsman by MPs, which the ombudsman has upheld following an independent investigation."
It makes you wonder what the point of the Parliamentary Ombudman is if she can be ignored like this. The sad fact is that hundreds of farmers have been affected by DEFRA's inability to administer payments to farmers through the Rural Payments Agency. I hope this is something which Nick Herbert is planning to address on Day One in office if the Conservatives win the election.