9 May 2000
Keep paper subsidy claims — NFU
By FWi staff
THE National Farmers Union has moved to quell speculation that it is whole-heartedly backing government plans to close Ministry of Agriculture offices.
Agriculture minister Nick Brown is considering the closure of nine regional MAFF offices and replacing them with a national telephone call centre.
Under the proposals, farmers would be required to apply for their annual subsidy cheques by using the Internet, rather than by post or in person.
The move has led to accusations that the NFU likes the idea because the union could bid to submit subsidy claims on behalf of farmers who lack computers.
Acting as a third party could be lucrative business for NFU Services, the unions commercial arm, which was set up last year to generate extra income.
Although the union has never denied a commercial interest, it now says farmers must retain the right to submit a subsidy claim on paper if they so wish.
In written evidence to the House of Commons Agriculture Committee, the NFU says that MAFFs regional offices provide a key interface with farmers.
Local sites must be retained at which farmers can present their subsidy claim forms for initial checking in the knowledge that they have entered the system.
NFU President Ben Gill said it was imperative that the service offered by MAFF did not suffer as a result of any changes initiated by the government.
“Successful submission of claim forms is crucial, not just because of the size of the support payments, but because flawed applications can lead to severe penalties.”
Temporary premises could be used to cover peak periods, says the evidence.
Although farmers who wish to use electronic communication should be able to do so, the quality of service must not suffer if the offices are closed.
Mr Gill said: “We do not argue against modernisation which will undoubtedly bring many benefits to farmers in terms of efficiency of administration.
But he added: “The changes proposed are a massive challenge. Any changes must be properly funded and tested before moving on-line.”
The NFUs priority in considering any changes is that the new arrangements should keep the same high level of customer satisfaction, the evidence adds.
Administration of support payments is by far the most important role to most farmers and there should be the minimum of disruption in the changeover.
If telephone contact with a regional centre is replaced by a national call centre, the current levels of information and assistance must be maintained.
The NFU has been invited to give oral evidence to the House of Commons Agriculture Select Committee on 14 June.