I was heartened today to learn that farmers were to be allowed to submit their applications to claim their annual subsidies from the EU on a paper form. While there is no victory in discovering that this is because there have been performance problems with the Rural Payments Agency web site, it might make the powers-that-be at last realise that being online is not the only answer.
However, although farmers can fill in the forms on paper and send them back, there is a catch: they still have to register online, and the forms are only available to download from the website. Not so handy for those who don’t have a computer or live in an area where broadband coverage is patchy. These people are not asking for paper to be curmudgeonly – it’s just that being forced into doing things one way – the online way – is putting them at a distinct disadvantage, not to mention inconvenience.
I don’t know how many of you are up in time to listen to Farming Today on BBC Radio 4, but this week it featured Chris Simpson, a farmer from near Bristol who didn’t have a computer and attended one of the RPA’s help centres which were set up for the sole purpose of filling in details from the farmers who could not use the online system themselves. Though he managed to register, he would get no further, despite making a special trip from his farm. He was anticipating another round trip so that one of the online helpers could fill in further details. At least Mr Simpson will now be able to fill in the paper form, which he says should take around 45 minutes, far less than he has spent travelling and sitting in someone else’s office.
As part of the Government’s drive to digital, this payment scheme was flaunted as a fantastic exercise. When Keep Me Posted argued for those who do not use the internet to be allowed to retain paper as one of the methods of filling in forms, we were told additional help would be available – but as Mr Simpson’s story shows, that can be really inconvenient.
I know lots of people find it quicker and easier to fill in forms online, but there should be choice, and those who can’t do this should have another option. I hope the Government ensures that remains the case.
Judith Donovan, Chair, Keep Me Posted