"A force to be reckoned with": Rural Payments Agency chief Mark Grimshaw quits
Praise for outgoing Rural Payments Agency chief after troubled period, as Defra announces that Paul Caldwell is stepping up to serve as interim CEO
The chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency, Mark Grimshaw has announced that he is stepping down after six years in the job.
The RPA is responsible for distributing subsidies to British farms under the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy, and Grimshaw has been in post since January 2011, a period which has seen the RPA come in for intense criticism over delayed payments to farmers.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, the RPA chief said he had opted to call it quits, with Defra announcing that the agency's operations director Paul Caldwell would be stepping up to serve as interim CEO.
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"Together we created and delivered an ambitious Five Year plan, getting the Agency in the great shape it is today," Grimshaw said.
"After six years at the helm I have decided now is the time to stand down and hand over the reins to a new leader to take the organisation through the next phase of its development as part of the Defra Group."
The RPA was heavily criticised in 2015 after after farmers were left out of pocket because of issues with the agency's digital overhaul, problems that the public spending watchdog said had been made worse by a high-profile spat between the RPA and the Government Digital Service, which was brought in to assist with the programme.
A report by the National Audit Office found that Defra "failed to prevent counterproductive behaviours by senior leaders" of the RPA and GDS working on the project and flagged "deep rifts between programme leaders at many stages of the programme’s history", which it said had contributed to a 40% increase in costs and undermined longer-term reforms.
The RPA has, however, made significant progress since then, according to the latest figures, with a January update from the agency saying it had paid 93% of eligible claims under the Basic Payment Scheme a full two months ahead of its March target. MPs on the environment committee also wrote to Grimshaw in January to congratulate the RPA for meeting its December target, saying that they were "very pleased" with the agency's latest results.
In a statement on Grimshaw's departure, Defra permanent secretary Clare Moriarty said the outgoing CEO had "achieved a huge amount" at the agency and "helped deliver substantial improvements in performance for the benefit of our farmers and rural communities".
"Under Mark’s leadership, the RPA has come through a significant transformation including the challenge of introducing the Rural Payments online service and the new Basic Payment Scheme," she added.
"Paul will ensure that the focus continues to be on delivering remaining payments to all eligible claimants as soon as possible.
"The RPA has a very experienced leadership team in place who will continue to lead the Agency after Mark’s departure and provide continuity for everyone who uses the Agency’s services."
Caldwell, who will lead the Agency in the interim, has spent more than 15 years at the RPA, and took up post as operations director in 2010. He became operational delivery director at the agency last year, and said he now was "proud to have the opportunity to lead" it.
"A doughty force to be reckoned with"
The Tenant Farmers Association, the organisation representing the agricultural tenanted sector, meanwhile welcomed Caldwell's appointment, and moved to defend Grimshaw against the "considerable amount of criticism" the RPA had faced over its handling of the Basic Payment Scheme overhaul.
"It has to be said that not all of this was of the RPA’s own making," TFA chief executive George Dunn said in a statement.
"Mark led the RPA to success with the previous Single Payment Scheme in its latter years and it was a major missed opportunity that the RPA, under Mark’s leadership, was not given the sole responsibility to put in place the necessary arrangements for the implementation of the successor scheme in 2015.
"Instead, responsibility was shared between Defra, the RPA and the Government Digital Service and total carnage in 2015 was only avoided when the RPA won the argument to abandon the digital only application route. We are still living with the consequences of that poor project management."
Dunn praised the outgoing CEO as "a doughty force to be reckoned with" and said he had been "open, honest and eager to improve the RPA's performance".
The departure of the RPA chief also comes as the long-term future of the organisation remains uncertain, with the UK's impending exit from the European Union casting doubt on the rural subsidies programme that will succeed the CAP.
While the Treasury has said it will continue to provide subsidies until at least 2020, regardless of the Brexit timetable, Grimshaw recently told MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that the future role of the organisation had not yet been defined.
"My understanding is that the system will remain as it is while we are still in the EU," he said.
"While you are in the club, you have to abide by the rules, including disallowance and all of the inspection regimes etc, which the system is well structured to deal with.
"Post-Brexit, it is a conversation that has yet to be had in terms of whether or not that particular system is going to be used in that particular configuration."
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