MPs slam Defra for making rural payments 'digital by default'

MPs have slammed the government’s decision to make rural payment claims from farmers a 'digital by default' service

MPs have slammed the government’s decision to make rural payment claims from farmers a “digital by default” service, and called for improvements to rural broadband availability before re-introducing an online-only process.

Farmers have been forced to resort to paper forms to meet an EU deadline for subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), after performance problems with the new £154m digital service caused its withdrawal last week.

Secretary of state at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Liz Truss, told a select committee inquiry into the problems this week that the system was so slow there was not enough time left before the EU deadline to register all farmers’ claims.

A report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee released today (27 March 2015) slammed Defra for failing to listen to the concerns of farmers over using the online-only system until it was almost too late.

“We have long called for an alternative to online applications for farmers for payments under the new CAP system. IT systems have a key role to play but given the history of failure over implementing complex new government IT systems it was always a risk to rely entirely on an online process when implementing a complex new CAP scheme. Online-only applications pose difficulties too for the many farmers living in areas with inadequate broadband services,” said committee chair Anne McIntosh, MP.

“Farmers have been warning for weeks that the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) computer system for making applications was not performing adequately. Yet Defra’s secretary of state, Elizabeth Truss, was adamant only two weeks before the RPA’s U-turn that there was no need for a contingency plan,” she added.

Read more about the rural payments IT system

The committee report criticised the decision to make the service “digital by default” given the known issues for some farmers with broadband access in rural areas.

“Before a digital-by-default system is reconsidered, the government must ensure a sufficient and efficient broadband service in rural areas,” said the report.

Truss told the committee that the core system is working and that staff at the Rural Payments Agency are able to enter details on behalf of farmers, even if those farmers now have to complete claims on paper. Farmers found that using a digital mapping tool that acted as a front end to the core system was too slow. Computer Weekly revealed last week that even with very few farmers using the system, back-end servers would quickly reach 100% utilisation and “fall over”.

“In recent weeks, as farmers started to enter data, there have been mounting concerns widely reported in the press over the detailed functionality of the CAPIS system, for example to cope with land mapping. Problems with the interface between farmers and the core CAPIS system led to the RPA decision to revert to paper-based applications from 20 March onwards (i.e. a suspension of the digital-by-default approach). The RPA explanation is that, although the ‘core and registration parts’ of the CAPIS system were working well, there had been ‘performance problems with the online interface that farmers and agents use’,” said the committee report.

MPs welcomed the decision to allow paper applications, but said it has come only at “the eleventh hour”.

“Concerns about introducing a new CAP IT system are not new and we have issued warnings over several years about the potential for an online-only approach to cause problems. We noted as far back as 2013 and as recently as last month the risks of moving to an online-only system at a time when effective rural broadband services are not as extensive as they need to be and when an already complex new CAP scheme offers challenges for farmers attempting to make accurate claims,” said the report.

“We concluded that the determination expressed by both Defra and the RPA to move to digital-only systems would leave farmers struggling to make their claims accurately and on time, and recommended that paper-based application systems should be retained. In the intervening 15 months we have repeatedly questioned, in writing and in oral evidence sessions, whether the digital-only CAP delivery system was appropriate and would work.”

The MPs called on Defra to set out the full costs of reverting to paper forms and for the work required to bring the IT system up to the expected functionality and performance.

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