The number of farmers going online to complete their Single Payment Scheme applications is set to increase this year following the success of the 2010 roll-out. Robert Harris finds out more
More than 16,000 farmers and agents completed their Single Payment Scheme applications electronically in 2010, and more are expected to use the option this spring.
The online route is being pushed hard by the Rural Payments Agency, the body responsible for sending out single farm payments to some 105,000 claimants each year.
“We piloted SPS Online in 2009 with 566 farmers. Last year 16,224 applicants applied online, including 130 agents applying for 3800 individual businesses,” says Simon Lunniss, RPA customer service adviser.
“Of those, 13,400 applied using SPS Online, and the rest used farm software programs. It is proving to be a good product – of those surveyed, 98% said they would use it again, and 96% said they would recommend it to others. We believe there are at least as many farmers again who would benefit from using an online service in 2011.”
Applying using SPS online is quicker, easier, and less prone to mistakes, which can delay payments or, in more serious cases, result in them being docked. It also helps improve efficiencies at the RPA and is key in driving customer improvements, he adds.
SPS Online automatically checks for common errors as information is entered. “For example, it won’t let you leave off a land use code, or apply to activate more area than exists,” says Mr Lunniss.
Part-completed applications can be saved, and submitted applications can be re-opened, corrected and automatically re-sent, provided this is done within the application window. “When you submit your application, you receive an instant on-screen acknowledgement, followed by email confirmation of receipt.
“We know there are barriers – some farmers are reluctant to use the service because it can be daunting to go online for the first time; others may have poor internet access,” says Mr Lunniss. “However, we are working hard to overcome these obstacles and most farmers can apply online with confidence.”
Using SPS Online
To use SPS Online, claimants need to register using their single business identifier (SBI) number and PIN. Those who applied electronically last year can use the same PIN, while new PINs have been posted to all farmers who have not yet activated them.
They can then access the online service at www.businesslink.gov.uk/sps-claim and click on ‘Go to RPA online to register’.
Farmers who have used the RPA online service previously do not need to re-register. They can return to the service using the user ID they were allocated and the password they created.
To encourage online use and save admin costs, farmers and agents who applied online in 2010 will not receive paper application forms, although they will still receive a handbook and a letter explaining the 2011 application process.
All users will be asked to confirm/update contact details when they first log in, to ensure the RPA’s records are up to date.
Making a claim electronically should hold no surprises, says Mr Lunniss. “The electronic form is pre-populated with the same information as the paper forms. For example, all the field data from the Rural Land register will be there, so the farmer won’t have to manually enter everything.”
In the key Field Data section, each County/Parish/Holding (CPH) number has its own page, including field name, reference, total field size, maximum eligible area and number of parcels. All information can be edited with a few clicks of the mouse, parcels can be added or deleted and all field data on the claim can be viewed. Changes are saved automatically.
Clicking on the ‘next section’ button takes the claimant through to the common land section, then onto the cross-compliance section. Again, this is pre-populated with data from the previous year’s claim; where answers are required simple drop-down menus are mainly used.
The next section is the claim summary, containing all inputted information including total field size, maximum eligible area, total part numbers submitted and overall area activated. “Basically you have an automatic sense check of the entire claim, which you won’t get with the paper version,” says Mr Lunniss.
Farmers and agents can also submit SPS applications using a farm software package supplied by Farmplan or Paul Holliday Software. Claimants still need to register on Government Gateway and enroll on the RPA site, and will need a PIN for this. They can then download claim data using the software package.
The main advantage is that this data can then be accessed, edited and completed without an internet connection, and submitted at a later date.
“This approach could be useful for farmers living in remote locations without good internet access,” says Mr Lunniss. “Although SPS Online is compatible with a dial-up connection, it does slow the process down. Farmers could borrow a friend’s internet access and then take the information home to work on, or agents could download the data for them.”
One further point when making a claim electronically is to allow enough time for supporting documents, when required, to be posted. “The RPA will not regard applications as received without them,” Mr Lunniss warns.
SPS Online has two further functions – track claims and view statements. Track claims allows claimants to see the status of SPS applications submitted from the 2009 scheme year onwards. Progress of both electronic (SPS Online or a farm software package) and the paper SP5 form can be tracked. Farmers can also find out if the RPA needs more information to progress a claim, and can reply electronically.
View Statements allows farmers and agents to look at Claim and Entitlements Statements issued from the 2009 scheme year onwards.
Help and guidance for SPS Online is available on the web page, through the ‘How to use’ section, FAQs and a glossary, and on the RPA website at rpa.defra.gov.uk/spsonline. Alternatively, claimants can call the RPA Customer Service Centre on 0845 603 7777 or e-mail email@example.com.
Paper claim checklist
Farmers who prefer the paper route should remember a few key points to help their application run smoothly:
• Those needing to change contact details (part A) should not make changes on the paper form, but call 0845 603 7777 or change them electronically by logging on to SPS Online
• In the field data sheets section (part C), land parcels must be linked to the correct CPH. If continuation sheets are needed, use a separate sheet for each CPH and each payment region
• To help fill in field data sheets, pre-printed land parcel reference numbers (column C2) should be checked against the latest Rural Land Register maps
• Make sure all permanent SPS ineligible features are taken into account. “Be careful not to deduct the same feature twice where we’ve already deducted them to give the value in column C4,” says Mr Lunniss
• Claimants should also ensure there is a land use code pre-printed or entered in column C8
• If claiming SPS on the land parcel, check the correct area is pre-printed or entered in column C9. “You should deduct the area of any temporary ineligible features, such as scrub, in this column,” he notes. “And check that the area in column C9 is not bigger than the area in column C4.”
• Finally, sign the application. “It’s surprising how many we still receive without a signature,” says Mr Lunniss.
Why apply online?
• Quicker, easier and more reassuring than paper
• All records stored electronically – easy to access
• Many common errors prevented
• Receipt supplied instantly
• 21 March Drop-in centres open
• 3 April Last date for current year entitlement transfers for 2011 scheme year
• 5 April Contact RPA if no paper form or application pack received
• 16 May Application deadline (midnight) – moved from the usual 15 May deadline, as that date is a Sunday this year.
• 31 May Last date for amendment without penalty
• 10 June Final deadline with late application penalties
Fewer Drop-in Centres
The rise in online submissions means fewer claimants are expected to use drop-in centres this year. Drop-in centres will no longer operate at Bristol, Newcastle, Truro, Workington and Wye.
Those remaining are: Carlisle, Crewe, Exeter, Northallerton, Nottingham, Newmarket, Reading, Worcester
These will be open from 21 March between 8.30am and 5pm Monday to Friday until 10 June, except on public holidays.
They will also be open on Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 May between 9am and 3pm.
To help farmers complete both electronic and paper forms as quickly and easily as possible, a team from the RPA will be standing by to answer your questions on our forums from 21 March on the Farmers Weekly
If you have a question about SPS application , visit fwi.co.uk/sps2011. The RPA team will check the thread every day and will aim to answer questions by the end of the following day.