A pensioner from Co Tyrone is tackling the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs head on over its insistence that Single Farm Payment forms be completed on line.
The 80 year old farmer contacted Farming Life this week outlining his frustration at the attempts to move from the old paper-based applications to a modern digital version.
And he has gone as far as raising his concerns with the Human Rights Commission.
With the window now open for the Single Application Form (SAF), DAERA has been making concerted efforts to encourage applicants to complete the forms digitally and has highlighted a wide range of areas where help can be obtained.
However, for some people this is a daunting task and one which is proving too much.
“I’m a small scale farmer and simply not computer literate,” the farmer explained.
“A neighbour of mine very helpfully assisted me to register for the Gateway Account which would enable me to submit my application. But I also needed a customer number which I couldn’t locate. I then needed an email address which I wouldn’t be able to access to check for future correspondence.
“However, I decided that the department cannot force me to do this. I looked carefully at the letter I received from the department detailing all the new measures that were being put in place. The letter states they won’t automatically issue a paper form - but it doesn’t say whether one can be obtained and completed.”
He added: “After all that I just thought my human rights are being infringed here.”
The next step for the farmer was to contact the Human Rights Commission to seek its advice and also get in touch with Orchard House in Londonderry and DAERA staff at Greenmount Agricultural College.
“I didn’t really know where to go and called Greenmount to see if they could shed any light on the matter,” he continued.
“At the end of the conversation the individual conceded that the department could not refuse an application that was completed in the paper format.
“With that I decided to seek a paper application form and got in touch with Orchard House where I was told the paper forms were yet to be printed out but if I called back in mid-March they’d probably be available.
“It seems to me the department would like to have all these forms filled out on computer but will accept a paper form, only if they have too.”
He added: “I contacted the Human Rights Commission and told them the problem I was having and that I was sure others would be in the same boat. They didn’t give me an answer straight away but did call me to back to say they would consider the matter. Interestingly, they also recommended that the matter be brought to the attention of the Commissioner For Older People, as it may be a matter they’d be interested in.”
A DAERA spokesman explained that paper forms could be obtained but only in exceptional circumstances, adding that no pre-printed information would be provided on any paper applications given out.
In a statement, the spokesman said that the European Commission requires DAERA to have 100% of applications for the Basic Payment Schemes (BPS) online by 2018 and while Northern Ireland farmers have been switching to digital forms, they are still short of that target.
The spokesman said: “The percentage of applications received online has been increasing steadily in recent years as farmers have seen the clear advantages of using this option. However, we still have some way to go to meet the 100% target, and so to encourage uptake of the online service, there will be no automatic issue of paper Single Application Forms (SAFs) in 2017. To support this step, the department have put in place a comprehensive range of help options and have written to farmers to explain these.
“We are committed to assisting farmers make the move to online and are aware that this will be a significant change for many. A dedicated SAF Advisory Service has been established to provide the support and help farmers may require to complete their SAF online this year. Farmers can call the Service on 0300 200 7848 as their first point of contact. A SAF Adviser will talk to the farmer about their options and help them through the process.
“We are aware that some farmers will have particular difficulties and to help them, the SAF Adviser can arrange a one-to-one appointment if necessary in their local DAERA Direct office. At the appointment, a DAERA Direct Adviser will guide them through their application and submission. It is important that farmers contact the SAF Advisory Service as early as possible if they think that they will need help.
“As the department is providing the option of one-to-one help in a local DAERA Direct Office as well as a range of other help options, only in exceptional circumstances will a paper SAF be issued.”
He added: “Paper SAFs can only be requested via the SAF Advisory Service (0300 200 7848) but there will be no pre-printed information provided on any paper applications given out.”
This individual farmer is not alone in this matter with others raising concerns, including the Ulster Farmers’ Union.
Following DAERA’s recent announcement that the 2017 Single Applications process was set to open, the Union made clear it still had ‘major concerns’ about the online applications.
In a statement, UFU president Barclay Bell explained that, despite benefits including preliminary checks of applications and facilitating advance payments, the union believed the switch to online forms was ‘premature’ and would cause ‘significant difficulties’.
Mr Bell said: “We have met with DAERA to discuss the online system and the additional supports which they intend to put in place for farmers and agents for completing forms on line. We have stressed that DAERA must ensure that there is adequate resource to meet the demands of the 9,800 farm businesses in Northern Ireland who will be submitting an application online for the first time in 2017, as well as those who have already used the online system.
“Undoubtedly, this is the single most important form farmers fill in all year. I would particularly urge them strongly to start the process of completing their SAF application early and also make full use of the wide support measures DAERA intend to provide,” said UFU president Barclay Bell.
The Union has advised farmers, who haven’t already done so, to set up a Government Gateway Account which they will need, along with a DAERA access key and a valid e-mail address to complete the SAF online.