Examination of witness (Questions 100
WEDNESDAY 7 FEBRUARY
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
(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
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
(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.
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
(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
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 sayand this is the sentence
that I read to you18 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
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
(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
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
(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.