Digital stampede may prove bruising for farmers
Promoters of the latest technology like to be ahead of the curve. Those providing more prosaic services to the population at large need to be a little bit less ambitious.
So when Defra announces that it is to dump paper applications for the vital Single Farm Payment and move to a digital-only system, it is no wonder alarm bells started ringing.
It is not that farmers are Luddites – far from it. Go into many farmhouses across the West Country today and you'll see an open laptop on the kitchen table, among the more usual detritus of farm life.
But take a look at the screen and there is a good chance, in many areas, you'll see that familiar little "egg-timer" or the infuriating spinning circle, telling you that the machine is attempting – and failing – to download some vital piece of information or send some missive off through the ether.
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Because while there is nothing wrong with farmers' enthusiasm for up-to-the-minute technology – in everything from computer-controlled cattle feeding to crop rotation – there is everything wrong with the broadband speeds in much of the West Country.
That is why MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee at the House of Commons were absolutely right this week to express fears that the Rural Payments Agency's plans to deliver essential European Union cash aid to farmers through a digital-only system might well end in fiasco.
Let's be clear, the money is in some cases, all that stands between some farms and the bankruptcy court. They need it to tide them over, keep them trading and ensure they can continue to provide the food we need. Not all of them, of course, but a significant minority.
If those are the self-same farms where, either, they have yet to get to grips with the digital age or – more likely – broadband speeds and connections are just not up to the job, we could be looking at a fiasco similar to the last one to afflict the RPA, when Single Farm Payments were caught up in a tangle of red tape that meant many farmers went for months – years even – before receiving their full entitlement.
That cannot and must not happen again. The new regime at Defra, under coalition colours, pledged that it would sort out the long-standing problems at the vital but not much loved RPA. They have done that. We cannot let a bunch of over-enthusiastic civil servants with a glint in their eye about "the digital age" ruin it all again. Farming is too important for that.