Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 80 - 99)



  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.

Dr Turner

  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.

Mr Drew

  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 members.

  87. Presumably, that will be one of your absolute priorities.
  (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 different things?
  (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 the Commission.

  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 playing field.

  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 MAFF?
  (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.

Mr Borrow

  96. CAPPA is proposed to operate out of five sites, and one of those sites would include the Customer Service Centre.
  (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 customers.

  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.

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