The RPA wants the bulk of its Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) claims to be submitted online in 2016.
But with less than a month to go until the scheme opens for applications, farm leaders and advisers say they are nervous that they have not seen a full working system.
The RPA aborted its bid to introduce a digital-only BPS claims system in 2015 in response to serious failings in the system. This was despite repeated assurances from agency chiefs that the system would be delivered on time.
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The NFU said it supported the agency’s plan to offer a paper and online option this year, but said farmers must be given the choice to do what works for them.
The RPA has told a webinar aimed at land agents there will be a paper option available this year, but the intention is to send out only 22,000 paper forms initially.
It will be assumed that anyone who applied online in 2014, the final year of the Single Payment Scheme (SPS), will be willing to try the digital system in 2016. This means it is hoping for about 60,000 online applications.
The revised online service will allow farmers to apply for BPS, transfer entitlements to someone else, view digital maps and aerial photography, print maps of land parcels and transfer land to another registered business.
Edward Hutley, a consultant in the St Albans office of Strutt & Parker, said from the presentation it did look as if the agency had ironed out some of the functionality problems applicants faced last year.
The ability to transfer land and entitlements online would also be much better.
“However, we still haven’t seen an active demonstration of the programme – it was all stills and screenshots – and until we get going on it, we won’t really know if there are issues.”
Chris Leney, partner in the Ipswich office of Robinson & Hall, said he still had some concerns whether the system would be able to cope with what was required of it once everyone started to use it.
The RPA had indicated the land transfer functionality should be ready by the end of February and applications would be possible from March. “But whether that is 1 March or 31 March will make a big difference.”
Mr Leney added that given the problems of last year, he would have doubts until he could actually try the system for himself.
“I don’t think it is going to be an easy ride, although at least this year we know the rules and are not dealing with a new scheme.”
NFU vice-president Guy Smith said: “We have less than a month to go until BPS applications open for 2016 and, scarred by last year’s IT failure, farmers will be concerned that we haven’t seen a full working system yet. This must not affect farmers’ time for hitting that 16 May deadline.”
The NFU said it was also concerned that some aspects of the application system – such as the amendments of fields – would not be fully online for this year and farmers needed to be aware of these pitfalls.