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.
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 systemfarmers and rural business ownersare
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.
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.
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
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 chargeand
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.
48. At the time we took evidence, 3 December 2014,
only 41 individuals had booked an appointment at a support centre.
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.
Central Bedfordshire Council recognised that: "there may
be a need to increase national support for digital skills provision".
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.
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.
38 Wessex Rural and Farming Network (RBB 0085) para
CLA (RBB 0046) para 16 Back
Letter from the Secretary of State to Miss Anne McIntosh, MP (4
November 2014) Back
Mike Dewar (RBB 0017) para 2 Back
Central Bedfordshire Council (RBB 0089) para 8 Back
Derbyshire Economic Partnerships Rural and Farming Network (RBB 0072)
para 28 Back
Digital Neighbourhoods Research Project, Plymouth University (RBB 0042)
para 5 Back