MSPs claim scrutiny of farm IT fiasco being hampered

'No matter how you try to spin it this is a highly critical report,' said North-east MSP Peter Chapman. Picture: Contributed
'No matter how you try to spin it this is a highly critical report,' said North-east MSP Peter Chapman. Picture: Contributed
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While a number of areas of concern were highlighted in a specialist independent report into whether the Scottish Government’s much-criticised IT system for the delivery of farm support payments was fit for purpose, it was claimed yesterday that there was no need to “move to plan B” and start again from scratch.

A stormy meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s rural economy committee danced around the report’s findings, claiming that proper scrutiny of the report had been hampered by the fact that the full findings were being kept under wraps due to “commercial sensitivities”.

NFU Scotland chief Scott Walker said the union had been highlighting problems for the past three years. Picture: Contributed

NFU Scotland chief Scott Walker said the union had been highlighting problems for the past three years. Picture: Contributed

• READ MORE: Scrap £180m farm payments system, urges NFUS president

And while the committee itself had received only an executive summary, cabinet secretary Fergus Ewing claimed the report had found that the “basic architecture” of the system was sound, but admitted that a number of major issues remained to be addressed.

He said that the independent technical assessment carried out by IT specialists Fujitsu had reassured him that no “plan B” was required and the best way to move forward was to deal with the remedial measures which were required to give the system full functionality.

However North-east MSP, Peter Chapman said: “No matter how you try to spin it this is a highly critical report.”

No matter how you try to spin it this is a highly critical report

Peter Chapman

And he asked if the system would ever be fit for purpose – and if so at what cost.

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The investigation found that code developed to meet functionality issues had “not met industry best practice” and the details of some of the programming changes had not been fully documented, making it more difficult to revisit these areas in the future.

The committee expressed anger that it was unable to access the full report and that its scrutiny was limited by the fact that it had been asked not to quote directly from the summary.

While it was revealed that some of the restrictions on the report were due to commercial discussions currently ongoing with the major contractor CGI, Elinor Mitchell, the Scottish Government’s director of agriculture and rural communities, added that some of the defects encountered in the technical aspects could leave the system vulnerable to cyber-attack.

• READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon vows to improve farm payments system

Questioned on the current functionality of system which was set to meet peak load of the 2017 single application forms (SAF) inputs in coming days, Ewing said that it had been markedly improved upon previous years. However it was also revealed that over the past couple of weeks the work on 2016 payments had been put on hold to allow the system to concentrate on 2017 applications coming in.

Although this had slowed down the rate at which 2016 payments were being made, Ewing said he was still confident that the “vast majority” would be paid out to farmers by the EU’s deadline at the end of June.

Questioned as to when 2017 payments would be made, Ewing said he expected continuing improvements in the system – but gave an undertaking that should a further loan scheme prove necessary at the end of the year, subject to regulations and parliamentary approval, he would ensure that it was delivered.

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Union chief’s anger

NFUS chief executive Scott Walker reacted angrily to the Scottish Government’s failure to provide any timescale for rectifying the flaws in the IT system which had been raised in the report.

“The fact that there are a number of ‘defects’ in the system won’t come as a surprise to anyone,” said Walker. “This fact is obvious.”

He said that the union had been highlighting the problems of the IT system for the past three years.

Adding that while the loan schemes which had been put in place to by-pass the struggling IT system had been welcomed by the industry, he said the only way to ensure that everyone got what they expected and required was to fix the system.

Commenting on what he had viewed as a “testy” meeting of the committee, Walker said: “What do we know now that we didn’t before? Well a report does exist that tells us what needs to be done to fix the IT system.

“A new team is in place at the top of Scottish Government to fix the IT system. They are not going to turn it off and start again. What they are going to do is fix the defects.”

He added that, while he did not doubt the commitment of the people involved in the system to putting things right, it was clear that the system still required much work to get it up to the standard that we want and expect:

“But how much longer will we have to wait?” he asked. “Scrutiny by the rural economy and connectivity committee didn’t provide an answer to that.”

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