Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witness (Questions 100 - 119)

WEDNESDAY 7 FEBRUARY 2001

MR JOHNSTON MCNEILL

  100. How do you intend to run, if you like, the run down of the face to face contact and the operation of the call centre? Is it your intention just to cut off one and start with the other or gradually run down the face to face contact with service centres until such time as you feel the call centre system is up and running? How you handle that is going to be very important to the success of the call system.
  (Mr McNeill) Yes. This was an issue that came up in my discussion with the Minister and, indeed, with Brian Bender. The Minister has already undertaken that there will be no withdrawal of the face to face contact with the customers until they, and indeed he, of course, are satisfied that the replacement systems meet their needs. That may be if we have, for example, internet forms where they can call up a form and a smart system that tells them "You cannot do this, that is wrong", etc, and they have confidence in that, which could take some time to develop. It may be that at the time they think "Actually, I do not need to go to the office". After all, it is quite a burden to farmers to travel to some of these offices. They are not all next door. I was at Northallerton and they have 15,000 visitors a year, some of them are travelling hundreds of miles and it is a day gone travelling to sit down and talk for maybe ten to 15 minutes on a form. I think the Minister has given an undertaking. I think that it is of course right that we make sure that customers remain satisfied. These funds are important to the farmers in difficult times. We must make sure that they continue to ensure the forms are completed correctly. My initial investigation of this supports what you say. They go to the office to have the form looked over by someone who is content and can give them advice and say "You have missed that line" or provide some advice about what is an administrative detail in their eyes but is extremely important in the process of the application. We may have to in time, of course, distinguish, as we develop CAPPA, between that and the processing of that work, in other words that file may be on another site some distance away and if they want to come in and discuss their application of course it would be unreasonable to ask them to travel to Newcastle where that work may be processed if they formerly went to Northallerton. We might have to ask "Look, if you want to come in and discuss something in more detail, apart from just that face to face completing the form, we would ask you to give us 24 hours or 48 hours' notice because we need to get your file Securicored down here or shipped down here securely so we can discuss that with you". Those are arrangements we need to look at, but the focus and the treatment by the Minister is quite correct, the focus is on ensuring on-going service and quality.

  101. Can we look at the question of consistency and advice.
  (Mr McNeill) Yes.

  102. Which is the other area that is crucial.
  (Mr McNeill) Yes.

  103. Given CAPPA will be operating eventually as a Next Steps Agency.
  (Mr McNeill) Yes.

  104. It is important to get the policy decisions of MAFF in line with the advice that is given by the Agency.
  (Mr McNeill) Yes.

  105. What mechanisms have you thought to put in place? Have you given any thought to the importance of how that mechanism will work?
  (Mr McNeill) It is extremely important because that also results in penalties to farmers and disallowance. There will be scheme management units and internal audits. Obviously we have a raft of external audits actually making sure that the desk instructions are in place and the staff are consistent, because inconsistency results in disallowance and penalties. The business plan identifies that in each of the offices we will have horizontal scheme management units which will specialise in certain schemes and they will independently check and ensure that the others where they are operating that scheme are operating in a consistent manner. Much the same as when the field auditors OK the NAO auditors or the ACMS auditors are looking at the systems, to ensure we operate consistently region to region. It is very much for the Director of Operations at this stage to make sure that is the case. We are not running five or six CAPPAs here, we are running one. Consistency, as is always the issue with a regional structure, is extremely important. We do not have discretion in this, this is a very precise, clearly defined piece of work. We must do it in a certain way otherwise we end up in trouble. It is for the Director of Operations to make sure that his team are very much aware of that.

  106. Just to follow on that question. Will CAPPA have a role in actually using the experience it gains from its contacts with farmers in terms of the way in which the various payment systems operate in feeding in to a review of the payment system itself, in fact some of the forms? If you are getting asked the same questions and the same mistakes are being made, I would expect a well managed organisation to ask itself "Have we actually got the best structure, the best forms?"
  (Mr McNeill) Yes.

  107. And, also, "If we redesign things will that reduce the amount of calls we receive?"
  (Mr McNeill) That is part of the work that is going on now in looking at the current systems from grass roots. When I was at Northallerton I spent about an hour with a lady looking at what she was doing with the systems. I said "Do you get certain errors that are common, that happen regularly". She said "Yes". It is that type of feedback on which we need to say "Well, how can we stop that in this new smarter system?" So we have to make sure this system says "Its wrong, you cannot do that" on the computer screen or whatever. That is what we need to look at. The other thing she said to me, which is perhaps a more worrying thing, when I asked her the question "Do farmers make the same mistake year on year" she said "Yes" and I said "What do you do?". She said "I phone them and say Jack, this is Jill, you know, you have done it again, Jack, this is not right, can you sort it out?". That is a wonderful point of contact but the issue there is how do we get that message across and try to encourage farmers to move with us into the future. In terms of the call centres, as I have said earlier, we intend to make sure they are staffed by people that can answer questions consistently as well. I know you have expressed concerns about those but that is key otherwise we will have serious troubles if the call centres become a popular way of dealing with these applications. We will have to make sure they are top class and that the same type of support service is available, albeit by telephone as opposed to face by face.

Chairman

  108. All MPs have experience of farmers who say "We phoned up the centre and we were told this" and then what happens is that when the forms go in they are rejected or there is disqualification.
  (Mr McNeill) Yes.

  109. But the farmer says "Hang on, we were told this" so we go back to the regional director and the regional director says "We cannot find any trace of that call" or "The lady does not agree with what the advice was".
  (Mr McNeill) Yes.

  110. Now, one does not want to turn all the mechanisms in place formally but at the same in these situations where you appear to have contradictory pieces of advice which can entail a large penalty then you need a mechanism of knowing what people are saying to make sure that does not occur. I am not suggesting you have a solution now but I would ask you to bear in mind that it is important that when those informed communications and advice are given, that advice holds right through the process and is not subsequently rejected because that will cause a lot of ill will.
  (Mr McNeill) Yes.

Mr Jack

  111. Just before we leave this area, I have one short question. Paragraph eight of the note which Joyce Quin sent us says: "An experienced communications expert, working with the COI, is currently leading the work to implement the Restructuring Programme communications strategy in respect of both internal and external communications". Who is that person?
  (Mr McNeill) There are two strands to that. One is the COI, as we have mentioned. There is work going on in looking at communications throughout MAFF and the CAPPA falls into that. COI have talked to myself and other managers within MAFF, about CAPPA as to the future. In addition we have a consultant, Alison McGill, who has been looking at communications also within CAPPA really identifying in much more detail how we are going to communicate with staff, which mechanisms are most effective given our structure and given the turbulent environment we are going through. That is another piece of work which is under way.

  112. I am right in saying the focus of that is more on the internal communication strategy than the external one?
  (Mr McNeill) I am sorry, I did not get the point?

  113. I got the feeling from what you just said that the main thrust of the work you have just described is about the internal communication strategy rather than the external one?
  (Mr McNeill) No, sorry. Part of the exercise that Alison McGill and, indeed, COI are looking at is how we communicate to our external audiences as well, how do we manage that, and indeed, as was pointed out earlier, how do we receive feedback and make sure we are aware of their concerns, and indeed when they are content how do we know. Customer satisfaction surveys, customer focus groups, things like that are being looked at. As I was saying earlier, we propose to set up focus groups of our customers throughout the regions, apart from the central industry forum, to try to get a feel of how we are working and how CAPPA is developing.

  114. Okay. Let us move on to the electronic claim form. I would just like to try and get an accurate steer as to what you think the take-up of this will be. The business case, I understand, assumes five per cent. According to some initial information that we got in our earlier inquiry the East Anglian pilot study suggests it is 10 per cent. When I look in the electronic forms implementation pilot final report we see at paragraph 1.42 an estimated 15 per cent of IACS applicants in the Anglian region indicated their interest in participating in the pilot. Then it goes on in the next paragraph to tell us that of those who did participate 18 per cent confirmed that they would submit electronically in the future. So the first question is what conclusions have you drawn from this? The second point that comes out of this is that it says in paragraph 1.43 that 73 per cent of participants successfully completed their forms electronically, with 70 per cent commenting that they intended to submit their forms electronically in the future. Then it goes on to say—and this is the sentence that I read to you—18 per cent confirmed that they would also submit electronically in the future providing some changes were made. I wonder if you could just clarify for us what message I should draw from the seemingly conflicting numbers as to how many people are actually going to participate and if you have yet digested from what seems like a lot of people who thought it was a rather good idea what the fall-off will be if they have to do it in real life?
  (Mr McNeill) Yes. I understand your question in the light of the information we have to date. What I am aware of is that in the England-wide project, 10,000 expressions of interest were logged with MAFF for the IACS 2001 form, submission of that is due by 15 May, which was considered to be an extremely good response. I have to say I cannot answer your question in terms of what view do we take in terms of what the final outcome will be in actual processing of claims by calling up electronic claim forms and completion. We have done some analysis of the 10,000 expressions of interest that have been logged with MAFF and tried to go further. The pilot study that we have undertaken demonstrated that users valued the inbuilt intelligence with which the e-form would be enabled. The constructive feedback we were getting, whilst I cannot give you a figure for how many will actually be able to fill it in until we do some trials, was what they found attractive was that there was an automatic arithmetic calculation totaller, which is an area where we get inaccuracies on the forms and they run into penalties. They found the internal consistency attractive, the potential for that. Again, going back to your question about consistent advice and the fact that the system, of course, would consistently say you cannot do that. On line validation was encouraging, preventing them or saving them the journey to their centre for an appointment.

  115. The reason why this is centrally important, the scheme, has an awful lot to do with the specification of the IT and processing system which colleagues discussed earlier. Just to help me through. 10,000 expressions of interest, what proportion, if that was to be turned into reality, would that represent of the total population of submitters of forms?
  (Mr McNeill) I do not have that figure, I am sorry. I do not have that. The question was asked "Would you be interested in completing this form electronically?" and that was the response, that was the number that said yes, responded formally and said yes.

  116. At this stage you have not got a feel for the number?
  (Mr McNeill) No.

  117. I would be interested to know that. The pilot study was in East Anglia which obviously has a predominance of arable cropping systems. I suppose my first question is, will electronic forms, in your judgment, work for all of the CAP and other schemes which are currently being generated as part of the Rural Development Plan?
  (Mr McNeill) Yes. The project that I am referring to was England-wide and that was where we got the 10,000 expressions of interest. Again, I do not know what that means in percentage terms.

  118. Can I just make quite certain I have understood the scope and scale. The new organisation brings together under one roof paying agencies for every MAFF scheme where money goes out.
  (Mr McNeill) Yes.

  119. Right. So my question really is, you have done an experiment in East Anglia which, as I say, is predominantly on arable schemes. I presume that was where its focus was. I cannot remember whether it was restricted just to the arable area payment scheme or whether it went wider.
  (Mr McNeill) I do not know.


 
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