Living in the country, as I do, and being a member of the British Wool Marketing Board, which I am, I sympathise hugely with farmers who it seems are beset on all sides – supermarkets driving down the price of milk mean it costs more to produce than they receive for it, grain prices have been falling; the NFU itself is forecasting that Britain is becoming far less self-sufficient when it comes to food, as global influences dominate.
But the one thing you’d think the farmers would be able to receive is the subsidy to which they are entitled.
However, as part of the Government’s general “digital by default” strategy, the only way to apply through the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) from January has been online. And as many people in rural communities like my own know, broadband is not one of the things that reaches all parts of the country.
The RPA has recently started a campaign to address the issue, offering help via the telephone and calling on other agencies such as Citizen’s Advice to offer face-to-face help for farmers to sign up for their dues.
But the statistics show that might not be as easy as it sounds. I have figures for Cumbria, which reveal that in the first six weeks of the new system, fewer than half – 43 per cent - of likely claimants had registered.
Last year, more than 800 paper applications were made by farmers in Cumbria - this year, only seven per cent of these have registered for the new Basic Payment Scheme. I can’t imagine that more than 90 per cent of farmers in that one area have sold up, won the lottery or had some other life-changing event which means that this year they just don’t need the payments many of them have previously relied upon. I think it’s more basic than that: they can’t access the internet and finding out about alternative routes – none of which include registering by paper – can be difficult.
As our supporter the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution points out. “The ironic thing as always is the fact that the link that leads to how to get help if you can’t register online has to be accessed online!”
Two years ago, the Government lost a case in the courts after insisting that all VAT payments be made online. Will it be too long before we see a similar test case mounted by farmers who just want to be able to access what they are entitled to?
Judith Donovan, Chair, Keep Me Posted