Peer wants paper forms for farmers until internet improves

Baroness Anne McIntosh. Picture by Harry Atkinson.
Baroness Anne McIntosh. Picture by Harry Atkinson.
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poor rural broadband was a major factor in the late farm payments fiasco and today a peer is calling for the Government to let farmers continue filling out forms on paper.

Thousands of workers nationwide are still awaiting vital funds to arrive in their bank accounts from the EU after the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Delivery Programme failed to pay out on time in December 2015.

Former MP Anne McIntosh - now Baroness McIntosh of Pickering - previously chaired the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee during her time as Conservative MP. She said the decision to ask farmers to fill out forms online, and not on paper, was doomed from the start.

She said: “A paperless system doesn’t work for farmers who have poor broadband coverage. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport have said that there isn’t going to be fast broadband until 2020 or 2022.

“Farmers shouldn’t just have paper forms for another year.

“We have got to keep them until such time that we have fast broadband. How is it that Alpine countries like Switzerland and Austria have faster broadband then we do, and in Finland too, where they have much more remote farms?

“Until we catch up, the system should go nowhere near ‘digital only’.”

Yesterday, MPs on the Public Accounts Committee took the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Rural Payments Agency and the Government Digital Service to task in a damning report on the service’s mismanagement.

Asking farmers to carry out the administration needed to apply for the money solely online had been a mistake the report concluded. It also revealed payments amounting to £200m under the Environmental Stewardship Scheme did not start until mid-October, two months later than scheduled.

Baroness McIntosh, who was previously the MP for Thirsk and Malton, said: “Farmers here in North Yorkshire and County Durham tend to be the lowest paid and the fact that they have had this double whammy that it’s not just basic payments, but it’s stewardship schemes as well.

“It’s unacceptable that people in suits paid a steady salary and a good pension are not processing those claims because of a disjointed service between the Rural Payments Agency, the Government Digital Service and Defra.”

The Yorkshire Post has previously reported how farmers have been forced to use credit cards to buy animal feed and take out loans to manage until their annual payment arrives. Some are waiting for as much as £20,000.

Challenged on the payments fiasco in the House of Commons, Mr Cameron said the system is “complicated” but 81 per cent of claims had been paid, and the CAP is still worth being part of.

He said: “We need to make sure that the Rural Payments Agency does the very best that it can. To date 70,000 farmers have received their 2015 payments, which is 81 per cent of all claims paid, but there is always room for improvement. “Indeed, we should look at all the devolved areas of the United Kingdom to see how they are coping with the problem.”

He added that the CAP allows farmers to produce the “cleanest and best food anywhere in the world and export it unhindered to 500m people in the European single market”, without tax, tariffs or quotas.