Union voices its digital concerns

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The Ulster Farmers’ Union has reacted with deep concern to the news that applications for all future DAERA schemes must be submitted on-line.

Union president Barclay Bell said that 2017 SAF applications will be the first to be dealt with in this manner.

“There are a number of obvious issues that have the potential to make the move to completely online unworkable, not least that broadband service in many rural areas is extremely poor and in some cases non-existent,” he explained.

“In 2016, 62 per cent of farmers submitted their application online, which was a modest increase from 2015, and while we recognise that there are advantages in completing applications online, we feel it is too big a jump to expect 100 per cent of applicants to submit applications online in 2017.

“We believe there is a lot more work to be done on the ground in terms of access to broadband and computers, as well as computer literacy to help facilitate this move to online.”

“The premature move also means that more farmers could turn to agents, who may or may not have robust enough knowledge about the forms and the individual farm businesses to complete these forms successfully, which could lead to errors and more headaches for farmers.

“We have raised these concerns with DAERA and continue to do. We have also urged them to reconsider this decision for 2017.”

A Department spokesperson told Farming Life that the Environmental Farming Scheme, which is due to launch at the end of February, is a complex scheme and DAERA has developed technology to make it easier to complete the application online.

The spokesperson continued: “This is because of the complexities of the scheme the paper version is up to 100 pages. The online application has inbuilt assistance throughout the completion process such as error and warning alerts, information icons, access to the applicant’s updated map, access and ability to make changes as often as you like throughout the application window, a user guide and a ‘contact us for assistance’ button.

“The online Single Application form (SAF) also has error and warning alerts, information icons, the ability to view and make changes to your map within the application which automatically update your field data tables, along with the user guide and assistance button.

“Both online applications processes greatly increase the accuracy of claims and reduce the possibility of penalties, are quicker and more convenient to complete.

“Whilst broadband access for rural dwellers is strong with an estimated coverage of 80%, not counting mobile and satellite technologies, we recognise that some of our customers require more tailored support and we have alternative means in place to assist them to make their application.

“This includes access through our 12 DAERA Direct offices and an agreement with Libraries NI, who have 98 libraries across Northern Ireland, that enables DAERA customers to have access to free broadband. DAERA will be providing telephone and online support through their EFS and SAF Advisory teams. Importantly, the ‘safety net’ for those who have specific difficulties with broadband or accessing IT, will be the provision of one to one help in our local offices, available through appointment only.”

The spokesperson concluded: “The Department will continue to develop its online services but will in exceptional circumstances accept paper applications.”