17 May 2002

Agency slammed over online subsidy claims

By Tom Allen-Stevens

Fewer than 2% of farmers applied for direct subsidy on line this year, the Rural Payments Agency has reported. The agency faced renewed criticism for the way it has introduced the electronic submissions as the deadline passed on Wed, May 15.

NFU president Ben Gill led calls for a complete overhaul of the e-IACS online subsidy submission service. He was among just 1200 farmers who have submitted their forms electronically – 400 up on its first year last year.

"There is a desperate need to make this system much more user-friendly if it is ever to be fully used and beneficial to both farmers and the RPA," he said, adding that he would be writing to the RPA with a list of suggested changes.

"When farmers time is at a premium it is small wonder that many have abandoned any hope of using what should be a far simpler and quicker means of submitting these important forms."

The union president had most difficulty trying to get through the security checks, said NFU arable support schemes IACS advisor Richard Wordsworth.

"He had a lot of problems getting through all the hoops and loops needed to get the Equifax digital signature. It seems its a lot easier to set up an e-bank account than it is to apply for direct subsidy online."

Obtaining the signature, needed to submit government forms over the internet, has prompted a flurry of complaints from a number of web-weary farmers, added Mr Wordsworth. "Farmers are spending a lot of time and energy before even getting to the starting post."

While relieved that more farmers than last year have applied on-line, a spokeswoman from the RPA admitted numbers are still low. "Were looking to have the capability to handle 95% of applications by 2004, although we appreciate there will be many farmers who will be very reluctant to apply electronically."

She admitted that obtaining the digital signature has proved a problem for many growers and said it was an area the RPA intends to address before next year. &#42