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Red faces over rural payments

23/03/15

Farmers told to go back to paper forms because of 'performance problems' with all-digital system

The reputation of the Government Digital Service's digital by default exemplar programme has taken a hit with the embarrassing failure of the Rural Payments Agency's attempt to create an all digital system for rural payments.

Farming sceneOn Friday, the agency announced that the IT system for managing EU subsidies through the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) had been largely abandoned because of "performance problems".

Applicants logging on to the agency's website last week found they were unable to access their details, despite submitting partial information months before.

Meanwhile, Brussels had to announce a one month extension to the deadline for BPS applications, giving farmers until 15 June to submit claims, rather than 15 May.

When the system is relaunched today, farmers will be asked to submit their claims on paper forms instead, downloaded and printed from the RPA's website.

Ministers said the registration part of the system will continue, but the RPA itself will be forced to input farmers' data onto the system. A digital "mapping tool" to measure farmland boundaries - criticised for causing the biggest problems - has been replaced with paper maps and forms.

Support centre promise

Farmers have been promised help at 50 digital support centres across England, which will now act as drop-in centres.

Guy Smith, from the National Farmers Union, told the BBC that the mapping programme was "beyond comprehension". He said: "Our patience is worn really thin now. If we think that they've launched this again half baked, not ready to go, without proper back-up, we will be complaining in the strongest terms."

A spokesman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: "We support the practical measures that the RPA is taking to ensure that farmers and their agents can submit their BPS claim on time. Our priority has always been to ensure that everyone who is registered wants to make a claim has the help they need to do so."

Labour response

But Maria Eagle, Labour's environment, food and rural affairs spokeswoman, said: "It's good that the government has finally accepted Labour's call for a paper based contingency but why has it taken them so long?

"We've known for weeks about the problems with the IT system, while ministers were burying their heads in the sand and pretending everything was fine."

This is the second failure of a rural payments IT programme in recent years. In 2007, the National Audit Office condemned Defra's introduction of an IT based single payment system, which was overwhelmed with demand. As with the latest embarrassment, failures in digital mapping were blamed.

Image from Donnylad, Creative Commons through Wikimedia

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