Examination of witness (Questions 80 -
WEDNESDAY 7 FEBRUARY
80. If I can give you one piece of advice, when
you have your management team in place, you should insist that
you have the right to review this programme right from the start,
because you are going to have to live with it, and go back to
Mr Bender and say, "I am sorry. Whatever we said previously,
we now believe that this is the sound basis on which to proceed."
Do not, for goodness' sake, be forced down a track of keeping
to some schedule that is defined by someone who knew nothing about
what to do.
(Mr McNeill) That is exactly the discussion I have
had with Brian Bender, who has made it quite clear that if what
we are proposing does not stand up, I must let him know as quickly
as possible and we will make plans to make changes.
81. What involvement do you have with the ultimate
consumers or customers? What input do you have in looking at different
ways in which the whole system might work, rather than implementing
a variation of what has been done historically?
(Mr McNeill) It is my intention to establish an industry
forum made up of representatives from the farmers' unions, etc.
82. There is not one already?
(Mr McNeill) There are a number of groups, both within
Intervention Board, who deal mainly with traders as opposed to
directly with farmers, and within the RSC network. It is my intention
to bring them together into an industry forum which would meet
on a regular basis, I would hope monthly, so that we can keep
them fully informed of what is proposed and make sure that they
are satisfied. It is also my intention that we arrange a number
of focus groups with representatives from the farming community
and the traders in the regions, and again, so that we can meet
them and let them know exactly what is proposed, how things are
progressing, and let them have input as to whether or not it will
meet their needs. By those mechanisms I would hope to be able
to keep them fully informed. It is also proposed that there should
be a representative from the consumers, potentially two, on the
Ownership Board of the agency, so they will have a high-level
input if they are dissatisfied or if they feel that they want
to make representations to the others on the Ownership Board,
the Permanent Secretary, that they are dissatisfied, and also
to be fully informed of what is happening.
83. You have used the words "keeping them
fully informed" a little too often for my taste. Is it not
you who should be kept fully informed sometimes?
(Mr McNeill) It is a two-way process.
84. My concern, which I think echoes that of
Mr Todd, is that if you do not get the information in at the very
beginning, and you have not actually got the work done at the
very beginning to see where the whole structure is going, and
in the mean time you are busy setting up all the IT, the whole
thing can easily head for disaster. Do you not need to in fact
hold back and say, "Look, have we actually done enough consultation
on the basic structures and the way in which we will take the
project forward"? Despite having been handed a brief, which
is perhaps already too detailed, should you not in fact be insisting
on going back to a few first principles, and talking to farmers
and their representatives a bit more?
(Mr McNeill) I am happy to take your advice. I am
advised that we have had consultations up to this stage with various
groupings, and that we have asked them for their views. They have,
of course, supported this development in principle. They think
that we should move to e-delivery. I will take on board your comments.
Would it help, Chairman, if I were to circulate a copy of the
draft CAPPA IT strategy?
85. If you can let the office have it, we will
make sure that colleagues who want it have it.
(Mr McNeill) Perhaps that might give some comfort
in terms of how it is being developed and who is involved.
86. The relationship with the EU has already
been alluded to. To begin with, can you just outline what discussions
you have had since you have been in designated office with colleagues
in the EU? Obviously you met them regularly when you were with
the MHS. Give us a feel for what you have talked to those colleagues
in the EU about.
(Mr McNeill) I have been in the job for five weeks,
and I have not to date had discussions with representatives of
the EU. Because CAPPA is not at this moment a paying agency, the
points of contact have been through George Trevelyan, the Chief
Executive of the Intervention Board, who has met with the EU and
explained the proposals regarding CAPPA, and it has been confirmed
that they are generally content. As you know, the EU feel there
are too many paying agencies in any event, so any steps that can
be taken to reduce the number and to improve things is obviously
going to satisfy them. We are waiting for formal confirmation
of those discussions regarding the setting up of CAPPA, and of
course, MAFF itself has regular discussions with representatives
of the EU. But I personally have not been to Brussels or met Commission
87. Presumably, that will be one of your absolute
(Mr McNeill) Yes, it will be. Once I take over single
responsibility, I will obviously be involved in discussions with
EU, as will members of the early CAPPA staff.
88. Clearly, the whole essence of CAPPA is integration,
but you can only integrate if you have some agreement upon what
it is that you are going to be integrating into the payment systems.
What happens if there is a radical change in the way in which
the CAP operates, perhaps a radical reduction in the amount of
moneys coming through? How flexible and how robust is CAPPA to
be able to down-size, or maybe to increase, or maybe to do very
(Mr McNeill) In terms of the systems, there are regular
changes to the schemes. There are something like 70 schemes that
are currently managed between the Intervention Board and the Regional
Service Centres. There are changes made to the schemes on a regular
basis. Decisions are taken in Brussels, and the Commission require
changes to be made in terms of how the schemes operate and how
they are accounted for. So the IT system will have to be flexible
to enable that work to be done. Already, with the old legacy systems,
I am advised that something like half a million pounds a year
is spent tweaking systems and making changes. That will be an
ongoing requirement within the development of the new systems.
In regard to flexibility of staff, I think the Intervention Board
has a tremendous track record, and indeed the Regional Service
Centres, the Intervention Board, for example, in dealing with
the OTMS scheme, which they set up very quickly and were able
to manage very well, at very short notice, and the Regional Service
Centres also have experience of making changes for various reasons,
and they have staff who are multi-skilled, who understand a number
of schemes. So I think there is already an expertise there that
we should develop. But to maintain the flexibility, we are already
looking at training up Intervention Board staff in RSC schemes
so that they can deal with a wider range of schemes, and vice
versa. We are obviously looking at the contracts of employment
for staff within CAPPA. There is a differential in pay between
the Intervention Board staff and the MAFF staff, and we have to
take a view as to what CAPPA's remuneration and terms and conditions
will be. We also need to take a view as to the flexibility arrangements
of staff. We will be expecting staff to move from one office to
another to deal with peaks and troughs in workload. By those means,
we will deal with the ongoing changes.
89. At what stage will you undertake a research
analysis into the options of a radical change in the EU payment
system for agriculture? Is that something that is built into the
organisation of CAPPA?
(Mr McNeill) Not at this time, that I am aware of.
We are aware of the move to green schemes, the growth in the RDP's
work, and indeed, MAFF is responding to that, I would suggest,
in setting up RDS and preparing to deal with that expansion. I
think we see an expansion there, but I am not aware that there
are any proposals that a number of the existing schemes should
be removed. If they are removed, we will just have to make the
changes in terms of the staff we have.
90. So far we have heard Sweden and Ireland
mentioned. I accept that you are new to the job, but at what stage
do we look to integrate CAPPA into the rest of the EU? Is that
an intention or is it going to be a stand-alone agency in this
country, paying the way it wants to pay, and the Irish doing what
they want to do, and the Swedish doing what they want to do, and
everyone else doing what they want to do?
(Mr McNeill) The Commission and the European Court
of Auditors, and indeed, the NAO here, of course, take the view
that we should operate within the guidelines, and failure to do
so, of course, results in disallowance. One would have hoped that
would have brought the consistency you speak of. I cannot speak
for other countries, as to what level of disallowance they receive
or how they follow the schemes or not. I do not know. What I can
say is that I understand arrangements do exist for the chief executives
or heads of the various paying agencies to meet to discuss common
difficulties and common issues of interest. I would certainly
be very keen to be involved in that.
91. One of the things we learned recently about
Ireland is that they seem to be able to make payments within days,
whereas we in this country make payments, if we are lucky, within
months. To me, you can have all the systems and all the nice words
in terms of customer reaction and customer service and so on,
with an aim to getting the right response, but if you do not make
the payments, people remember that as being the major factor in
their relationship with an organisation. Can you get it down to
days? Is that an intention? I know it is not just your concern;
you have to talk to the Treasury.
(Mr McNeill) I have heard of these apparent inconsistencies
myself, even in my short time in this position. My advice is that
the payment window is clearly defined, and what maybe would happen
as a result of the improvement in the way in which we process
applications is that we may be able to ensure that people are
paid as quickly as possible within that payment window, but I
am advised that it is not possible to move and to pay sooner than
that defined time frame. We cannot just say we will pay sooner
than that, because you will get into serious difficulties with
92. But other countries do.
(Mr McNeill) Again, I do not know at this early stage
in my role as Chief Executive of CAPPA, but it is an area that,
given the concern, we should look at. I used to have this at Meat
Hygiene, where I was advised that other countries were doing all
sorts of things, but getting the evidence and actually proving
it seemed to be remarkably difficult.
93. We managed it in the end.
(Mr McNeill) After some visits, we managed to find
some things. I am not sure how it would stand in court, to be
frank. But we did find out that we felt there were differences.
It is extremely difficult to get a clear picture of what they
are doing, but I would be very pleased to try to, because obviously
we can then point out to the Commission that we are not on a level
94. If there were a change in the role of CAPPA
in terms of the EU having a radical review of what it was paying
and how it was paying it, who would lead those discussions with
the Commission? Would it be CAPPA, or would it be subsumed under
(Mr McNeill) Policy discussions on CAP schemes will
be managed by core MAFF. They take the lead on the policy discussions.
The Minister and officials in MAFF will take the lead.
95. Where are the boundaries?
(Mr McNeill) We are the implementers. We are the agency
that will implement the changes that have been agreed. If there
are proposals that we think are unworkable or are going to create
difficulties or perhaps delays in payments to farmers, we will,
of course, advise that that is the case, but we really are the
people who bring it about. Whilst we can advise policy-makers,
it is very clear that that role rests with core MAFF and ministers.
96. CAPPA is proposed to operate out of five
sites, and one of those sites would include the Customer Service
(Mr McNeill) Yes.
97. I would like to explore some of the issues
around the relationship between CAPPA and the customers and how
that interface works. When the call centre is up and running,
how will you ensure that it operates properly from day one, and
that you have the specialist staff available to give the right
answers? Certainly, as Members of Parliament, we receive significant
numbers of complaints about different government agencies where
people do not get the right advice and the system has not operated
properly. How are you going to ensure that happens with CAPPA?
(Mr McNeill) I have only managed to visit Newcastle
and Northallerton and the current Regional Service Centre in Reading.
I have to say that I was very impressed with the knowledge of
the staff dealing directly with farmers on their claims and discussing
their applications, and I asked how long it took to train someone
to that level of knowledge. I was advised that it took a year
to two years before you could trust them and leave them and rely
upon them to give the proper advice, as you say. If you add that
up over the number of staff, that will amount, even in end game
CAPPA, to a very considerable investment. It is my intention to
make sure that we keep as many of those highly trained staff as
we can, and make sure that we make the job as attractive as possible
for them. It is those people, with that breadth of experience,
that we need to retain and use for the call centre work. We have
to be extremely careful we do not "dumb down" that role.
We have all phoned these irritating call centres where you get
no answer until you have spoken to three supervisors, and even
then you do not get an answer. We are really keen not to do that.
The other thing that impressed me was that the staff had a tremendous
working relationship with farmers. A lot of them were from rural
communities as well, and they understood the importance of these
claims to farmers. That is another customer care aspect that we
must not lose. I come from a farming background myself, and I
think it is helpful to have some affinity and that you understand
how difficult things are and what is important. We must keep the
skills we have, make sure we remunerate those people, and do not
dumb down the call centre with people who do not have a clue what
a cow is, never mind anything else. We must make sure the people
have an affinity for the work and understand thoroughly the context
in which they are processing this work and providing support to
98. There is at the moment quite a tradition
amongst a lot of farmers of actually visiting the Regional Service
Centres and handing the forms in there, and having the opportunity
to at least get some advice from staff, and whilst those staff
may not necessarily be the ones answering the telephones, there
is that ambience within the service centres. If all the contact
in future will be through a call centre, have you thought how
you will ensure that that ambience is retained? You have mentioned
how important it is. Is there any intention to ensure that telephone
advice would be copied out to farmers in writing, so that, having
got something over the telephone, they will be sure that they
have it in writing as well? Certainly I know from other areas
that people say "We were told such and such a thing"
and then "No, we were not told, there is no record of it".
That is likely to be a possible area of dispute, particularly
when money is involved, if there is a dispute as to what advice
was given. I wonder how you are thinking of handling that particular
possible area of conflict? Also, I noticed in part of the documents
we have got here, I think it was in the consultation document,
that face to face contact was considered important.
(Mr McNeill) Yes.
99. That is one of the things that is going.
(Mr McNeill) Yes.