The Government is planning a new, single IT system for CAP funding, to be used by all the relevant agencies. Paper-based systems could be phased out much more quickly than expected, a threat that has drawn heated objections from MPs with rural constituents, Catherine Paice reports.
The IT system remains one of the standout challenges of this round of CAP reform. In a Commons debate on the implementation of the CAP, Anne McIntosh (Con, Thirsk and Malton and chairman of the EFRA Select Committee) got straight down to the risks associated with the development of IT systems to replace paper-based options.
The proposed IT approach would simply not be available to all farmers, she warned. In her constituency alone, 22% of the area would have no access to fast-speed broadband by 2015-16. “That 22% is where all the farming communities live,” she said. “It is no comfort to farmers to be told that they should seek a satellite connection, as they simply cannot afford the prohibitive cost.”
Not for the first time, the committee is stressing that the BT money being rolled out should go to those rural communities across England that have the slowest speed and the weakest broadband coverage. “We can’t expect the farming community to go digital by default from 1st January, yet have no access to broadband,” Ms McIntosh raged.
Margaret Ritchie (SDLP, South Down) was quick to back her up, urging guidance and form filling to continue to be available in paper form. If, as the Rural Payments Agency has told the committee, paper forms would not be available, intensive tuition must be made available to those required to go digital on 1st January, Ms McIntosh added.
Helen Goodman (Lab, Bishop Auckland), pointed to the absurdity of farmers frequently travelling miles to access a computer in a library or UTASS centre, only to find the RPA system down. In her constituency, 40% of farmers still had no access to broadband. Moreover, one of her local farmers calculated that because DEFRA’s systems were so complex, he was supposed to remember 27 different personal identification numbers.
For farmers living five miles from Nottingham, it is almost quicker to drive to Nottingham to collect a form than it is to try to download it from the internet, said Mark Spencer (Con, Sherwood). All this, Ms Goodman suggested, was absurd, grotesque and even Kafkaesque – was it really the right time to be introducing a new IT system?
The DEFRA watchdog’s involvement in this came hot on the heels of its report on food security, which suggested the UK’s ability to feed itself is threatened by “complacency” about the impact of extreme weather patterns all over the world and increasing competition for food as the world’s population grows. These issues need DEFRA leadership and – an increasingly familiar clarion call – clearer lines of UK governmental responsibility. At least three departments are currently responsible for food security: DEFRA, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and the Department of Energy & Climate Change.
Very joined up.