DEFRA pledges help for online SFP applications

DEFRA has vowed to offer “genuine support” to farmers who struggle to submit single farm payment applications online post-2015.

The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) will roll out a new electronics payment system by 2015, which DEFRA promises will be “simpler and easier” for farmers to use than the present system.

Ian Trenholm, DEFRA’s chief operating officer, said about 80% of farmers currently contact the RPA electronically. Last year, 54% of farmers in England submitted their SFP applications online, which rose from 40% in the previous year.

Farmers in upland or remote areas are concerned that the new payments system is being rolled out before the government brings in superfast broadband for most rural areas by 2016.

But Mr Trenholm said the RPA was working on an assisted digital strategy to help farmers who, for one reason or another, cannot access services digitally.

“We will have to make sure that our strategy takes into account where there is strong and weak broadband coverage,” he told a Commons EFRA select committee meeting on Tuesday (29 October).

“We have got to build a system which is generic enough to be run across a range of different systems, be that from satellite broadband to fibre-optic and so forth.”

Mr Trenholm said the strategy “may very well” include an option to submit applications on paper, but it was “more likely” that farmers who are struggling to complete their forms online would be encouraged to seek the help of an agent or someone else.

“We want to make sure that where farmers genuinely need support we can provide it,” he added.

Mr Trenholm described the new software system at the core of the payments system as “state-of-the-art” and explained it had been used successfully for years by Italian payment agencies and others.

“We are already prototyping the new system. We will be launching a map-based system in November. We are looking to put our first release live next summer,” he said.

“We are doing a lot more testing. We are sitting down with farmers in their offices, at their kitchen tables, rehearsing through the actual system with them right now.”

He added: “We have learned a numbers of lessons and I’m confident we won’t have the same issues we had in 2005.”

DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson said he wanted to make it “really simple and easy” for people to apply for payments.

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