Ulster Unionist agriculture spokesperson, Harold McKee, has warned DAERA against penalising farmers who have no access to a computer or the internet.
Mr McKee, the Ulster Unionist Assembly candidate for South Down, said in recent years there has been a real shift towards farmers being asked to use online services.
While accepting there are advantages of doing some things online – such as the recording of cattle and the submitting of forms without errors – he believes there are significant issues.
Mr McKee explained: “That is all fine and well for those farmers who have a computer in the house and who are connected to the internet, the reality is a significant number either don’t have access to a computer, or if they do don’t have the relevant training needed.
“Over recent weeks and months I have been contacted by a large number of farmers who now see themselves as being penalised by Government bodies eager to make savings by moving to 100% electronic services. An important example is the decision to force all taxpayers to submit tax information online. Farmers, who are already all self-employed, will be disproportionately affected by decisions such as that.
“Regrettably however when I asked the DAERA Minister Michelle McIlveen about that decision in particular she simply stated that tax collection, including the impact of changes to tax collection methods, was a matter for HMRC. I would have hoped that as minister she would have been keen to represent farmers concerns directly to HRMC herself.
“Nevertheless, I then asked Miss McIlveen whether her department had conducted any research to determine just how many farmers do not have access to a computer or the internet. In her response she told me that the latest EU Farm Structure Survey showed that only 60% of all farms in Northern Ireland reported having internet access in 2013. The level of reported access ranged from 55% on very small farms to 83% on medium/large farms.
“Whilst I do support the department and other industry bodies encouraging farmers towards using online services, whether it be Basic Payment applications or applications to schemes such as the FBIS or EFS, I would emphasise to them that for a large proportion of farmers online access simply isn’t an option.
He added: “For some that may be down to having no local broadband, but for many others accessing training is difficult. It is essential therefore that DAERA, and whoever the next minister is after the election, realise this and therefore do not further penalise farmers in their eagerness to move to online services.”