Farmer at computer© Rex/FLPA

The government must ensure all farmers can access Defra’s online system for support payments, MPs have warned.

Plans to transform UK broadband are in danger of leaving farms and rural homes offline or languishing on slow connections, said the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

See also: Rural broadband roll-out still too slow, say campaigners

MPs on the committee have been investigating the rollout of rural broadband and the government’s “digital-only” move to make more services available online rather than on paper.

“Ensuring that all farmers are able to access the new online-only CAP applications later this year is absolutely vital.”
Anne McIntosh, Efra

Their findings were published in a Rural Broadband and Digital Services report on Tuesday (3 February).

The committee fears hard-to-reach rural communities are being overlooked in the race to upgrade basic broadband to superfast connections for 95% of the country’s premises by 2017.

From 1 January 2015, all CAP funding applications must be made online only. This is part of a wider government policy for services to become digital by default.

Committee chairman Anne McIntosh said: “Farmers are key drivers of the rural economy.

“Ensuring that all farmers are able to access the new online-only CAP applications later this year is absolutely vital.”

The new CAP represented a change in the system and delivery by the government’s Rural Payments Agency, said Ms McIntosh.

“Defra and the RPA must draw on lessons learned in the past to minimise the risk of further disallowance and also ensure that all farmers have adequate access to the system.”

The report raises fears that a focus on improving access for most of the country may leave a minority with little or no ability to use key government services delivered only or mainly online.

Government plans to transform broadband require 95% of premises to have superfast speeds of 24m by 2017, although BT told the committee that the target might slip into 2018.

Ms McIntosh said: “People living in the hard-to-reach 5% of premises need the same access as the rest to online and digital services.

“There is a risk in the current approach that improving service for those who already have it will leave the rural farms, businesses and homes who have little or none even further behind.”