Farmers in Devon and Cornwall warned of grants 'fiasco'
MPs have voiced fears over a repeat of the fiasco in delivering vital subsidies to farmers amid the Government ditching paper-based applications and installing a new computer system.
Westcountry farmers had hoped they had seen the end of late payment of grants, which pushed many into hardship, after the Government finally got to grips with the hapless Rural Payments Agency (RPA).
But the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) select committee has raised concern about farmers struggling to get their Brussels hand-out from 2015, given that many have slow or limited internet connections in the country-side.
In a Commons hearing, MPs also questioned assurances over whether the new computer system would work after the last technology "crashed on day one".
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The Government is targeting 95% of the country getting high-speed broadband by 2016 – a year after the new Common Agricultural Policy regime kicks in. But even then, critics say, farmers in rural areas will be saddled with the slowest speeds.
But a top Defra official told the committee he was "confident" of avoiding the problems when the single payment was launched in 2005 – and that farmers could simply buy a £15-a-month broadband satellite package.
Neil Parish, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, who serves on the committee, said he was "sceptical".
He said: "They need to get this right because there are livelihoods at stake. Payments need to be made smoothly from one year to the next. We have now finally got back on track so we do not want to go back to delays again."
The RPA distributes EU funding through SPS to more than 101,000 English farmers, including hundreds in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset.
The single payment was launched in 2005 with the promise that bundling a number of subsidies into one would see hard-pressed farmers get their money quicker. But ill-equipped computer systems were blamed for payments being made late, while over and under-payments were a recurring problem.
Anne McIntosh, chairman of the Efra committee and an MP in rural Yorkshire, questioned assurances as "this is precisely what the previous committee was told. In 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006".
She added: "We were going to have this very easy-to-use, this very simple system to administer, that was all-singing, all-dancing, and it absolutely crashed on day one.
"We are going to take a lot of persuading that that's not going to happen this time."
Ian Trenholm, Defra's chief operating officer, said the new system was already being tested with farmers and that – this time – the Whitehall department had bought a tried-and-tested system off-the-shelf rather than building a new one from scratch.
He told MPs: "We're sitting down with farmers in their offices, at their kitchen table. Rehearsing with them the actual system now. We're starting much more early than ever was the case before."
He added: "What happened in 2005 was we tried to build a system from scratch. And this is an incredibly complex policy.
"So building a computer system around a complex policy that was changing at the last minute is probably the worst way of going about things. We're going about this in a very different way."
He added: "I'm confident we won't have the same issues we had in 2005."
Miss McIntosh questioned whether farmers would face problems without super-fast broadband when they are "going to have 'digital by default' in 2015 and a new computer system at the same time".
Mr Trenholm insisted Defra was developing an "assisted digital system" and suggested farmers are more technology savvy than often credited.