12 May 2000

Paper-based claims must be retained

FARMERS must retain the right to submit subsidy claims through the existing paper-based routes, after the proposed reform of the support payment mechanism, the NFU has told the government.

Farmers have expressed concern that MAFFs proposals to introduce electronic submission of application forms will "exclude" farmers who do not have access to the appropriate technology.

But, according to NFU deputy director general, Ian Gardiner, MAFF has no legal right to impose the new system on all farmers and does not intend to do so. While encouraging farmers to take advantage of the efficiency benefits of electronics, he said the union would stand up for those who do not want to change.

Ministers are considering a business case to present to the Treasury on radical reform of the way support payments are administered. The Public and Commercial Services union, which represents MAFF staff, expects to be shown the business case next week.

National call centre

Among the proposals is the closure of most of MAFFs nine regional service centres, with communications between farmers and MAFF staff being conducted through a national call centre instead.

Acknowledging the concerns of farmers, the NFU has told the government that local sites must be retained at which farmers can communicate with MAFF staff.

"There is no reason why temporary premises should not be set up in strategic places at key times," said Mr Gardiner.

He told farmers weekly that the NFU was keen to play a "third party" role to help farmers, particularly those who did not have the right technology, submit their forms if the reforms were implemented.

"We already play the third party role at the moment, helping members with paper forms, and will offer the service if farmers need help with electronic submission," he said.

He admitted that, if the provision of the service required extra NFU resources, farmers were likely to be charged for the service. But he said the NFU did not see the role as a big profit-making opportunity. The union would be one of a number of organisations competing to offer the third party service to farmers, he said. &#42