Stormont’s Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee has been brought up to speed on DEARA’s on-going work towards making on-line the primary form of communication with farmers.
DEARA officials appeared before MLAs on Thursday with further information on the equality impact assessment.
Pauline Rooney, from DAERA, outlined details of the proposals to make on-line the ‘default position’ going forward for filling out application forms which, she explained, had been promoted for several years as part of a government-wide initiative.
Mrs Rooney added: “Paper applications continue but we now wish to make on-line the primary way (for making applications).
“On-line will be the default position and will be encouraged ahead of other alternatives.”
She highlighted a number of benefits on-line applications provide including faster payments and less chance of errors being made.
Part of the information provided included details of broadband coverage across the province.
Mrs Rooney also gave details of policies that had been developed which included help to get on-line; help to use on-line and alternatives to on-line.
She concluded: “The systems will be designed to be easy to use. Alternatives, such as paper forms and face-to-face meetings, will be available.”
Committee members accepted the benefits of on-line applications but were quick to raise concerns.
Chairperson Linda Dillon and DUP MLA Maurice Bradley both aired concerns about broadband coverage.
Ms Dillon said: “Lack of coverage or poor coverage is one of the biggest complaints in my constituency.”
Mr Bradley commented that he too had difficulty believing the broadband coverage could be sufficient, adding that people in the same area are often affected by being on higher or lower ground.
He added: “We are generating a faceless society. Nobody knows anyone and it is all done on computer.”
It was agreed that MLAs would get the chance to see the system at work, with an example of a 2017 form to be arranged in the future.