Rural broadband and digital-only services - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

4  Digital-only services

39. From 1 January 2015 all CAP applications for funding must be made online. The RPA is responsible for operating the new online-only system and also for a change from the Single Payment Scheme (SPS) to the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS). Wessex Rural and Farming Network suggest:

Until there is 100% reliable broadband coverage then there will be those who, through lack of online access, are disadvantaged through no fault of their own.[38]

40. IT failures in previous years, particularly stemming from when the SPS system was introduced, led to farm businesses suffering, and further the UK faced European Commission substantial fines for erroneous payments to farmers (known as disallowance payments), which are still being paid out of the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) budgets.

Case study: CAP online-only applications

41. The move to an online-only system has meant that a whole new system for applying for CAP payments and software package has been designed and trialled. Those who necessarily need to use this new system—farmers and rural business owners—are often also those located in particularly remote areas with poor connectivity. Evidence from the CLA indicates that currently 10% of CAP applicants do not have a computer or do not use broadband.[39]

42. The new system has been introduced in stages, with more customers being invited to use it each month. Gradual introduction began in July 2014. Customers have been invited to register and use the new system, and to check that their personal, land and business details are correct and ready for the claim window that opens mid-February 2015. The aim of introducing users to the site in this way has been to prevent a big surge of users on a specific day. It is expected to be open to all users early in 2015, but no date has been confirmed.[40]

43. The RPA has also focused on ensuring that its software works in areas where broadband access can be unreliable. Following discussions with farming and rural interest groups, the new software has been developed to enable it to run effectively at speeds as low as 0.5 Mbps. The software also has a function which saves the details for the user as they fill in their application rather than saving only at the end of the process. This 'autosave' type feature is an extremely important function for those with limited or intermittent broadband coverage.

44. The Rural Payments Agency have taken a number of important steps to ensure that those with poor broadband speeds can access its new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) application software. It deserves credit for seeking to ensure a 'soft landing' for the new system, but, given the difficulties experience last time round, and in particular given the variable state of broadband access in rural areas, judgment must be reserved on the effectiveness of its preparations until they have been tested in action.

45. The RPA must have a contingency plan in case the new online-only CAP application system proves difficult to use for farmers with limited broadband capability. The new software has not yet been tested by the number of users who will access the site in May, and some of those doing so will be using online services for the first time. The contingency plan should be able to respond to the software not functioning at the level required or with users not being able effectively to access the software.

Case study: CAP digital support centres

46. In contemplating the move to an online-only system, we were concerned that some applicants live in areas with poor broadband coverage while others have previously submitted paper application and have no 'online presence'. We have repeatedly pressed successive Secretaries of State and the RPA to guarantee the availability of technological support suitable for new users during the introduction of the new system. In response, Defra has set out a detailed 'Assisted Digital' programme for CAP applicants.

47. Assisted digital services will be offered via a telephone number for customers to call free of charge and through digital support centres. RPA Chief Executive Mark Grimshaw confirmed that 50 of these centres will be in place, with farmers travelling no further than 30 miles to reach them. The Secretary of State also confirmed assistance would be provided free of charge[41]and that farmers would not have to travel more than 30 miles to their nearest digital support centre. Mr Grimshaw committed to the centres being available whenever needed by CAP applicants:

Should we need to we will open them 24/7 between the end of January and 15 May.[42]

48. At the time we took evidence, 3 December 2014, only 41 individuals had booked an appointment at a support centre.[43] That figure may increase significantly as the application window opens. We have also sought, and received, assurances that the provision of privacy for users is a priority for those setting up the support centres.

49. We recommend that the level of privacy in Digital Support Centres for those making CAP applications should be comparable to that in a bank.

50. The Government is not the only organisation introducing digital-by-default policies. The British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS) suppliers often required online financial transactions using BACS payments and similarly weekly poultry records have to be submitted online[44]. Central Bedfordshire Council recognised that: "there may be a need to increase national support for digital skills provision".[45]

51. As the Derbyshire Economic Partnerships Rural and Farming Network points out farmers need time to understand what their training needs may be. Similarly the farming calendar does not enable the sector to carve out time to acquire new knowledge without appropriate planning.[46]

52. Support to access online-only systems must be available not only in the first few months of the CAP application, but also in subsequent months and years, allowing sufficient time for planning training needs and bearing in mind the farming calendar.[47]

38   Wessex Rural and Farming Network (RBB 0085) para 7  Back

39   CLA (RBB 0046) para 16  Back

40   Q83  Back

41   Letter from the Secretary of State to Miss Anne McIntosh, MP (4 November 2014)  Back

42   Q111  Back

43   Q111 Back

44   Mike Dewar (RBB 0017) para 2  Back

45   Central Bedfordshire Council (RBB 0089) para 8 Back

46   Derbyshire Economic Partnerships Rural and Farming Network (RBB 0072) para 28  Back

47   Digital Neighbourhoods Research Project, Plymouth University (RBB 0042) para 5  Back

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Prepared 3 February 2015