PROBLEMS faced by farmers in a remote part of the region who are unable to access the Internet to use vital online Government services have been raised in Westminster.
Following her meeting with the Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services (UTASS), Teesdale MP Helen Goodman raised the issue during a Westminster debate.
Despite the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) requiring farmers to communicate online, many living in the rural areas of Teesdale are not able to access broadband Internet.
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Ms Goodman said: “The Government has failed in their project to roll out broadband across the country.
“In my constituency, only 46 per cent of farmers who go to UTASS have broadband.
“Obviously, therefore, a Government policy of delivering public services that is digital by default is doomed to fail and DEFRA should be the very last department to introduce digital by default in its communications systems, not the first, which it seems to be at the moment.”
In May, UTASS found that on the day when 19 farmers were booked into its headquarters to complete application forms for an online single payment scheme, the system was down.
The same situation had occurred on several days over the previous weeks.
Ms Goodman said: “This meant that farmers were driving several miles to access the IT point, but then the Government’s IT system was down and they were unable to transact the business.
“This process is time-consuming and stressful – it is the very opposite of what we expect from DEFRA.”
She expressed disappointment that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice, had failed to attend the debate and described his response to her letter about the issue as “wholly inadequate”.
His document stated: “Although I accept these intermittent problems will have been frustrating for Rural Payments Agency customers, the system has been performing well for the majority of the application period.”
He also declined to offer reassurance that penalties for lateness would not be issued.
Ms Goodman said: “What level of failure does DEFRA believe is acceptable or unacceptable?
“The problem is that if the farmers’ applications were not in on time, they could lose money.
“It was difficult – indeed for some farmers it was impossible – to get their applications in on time due to the failures on DEFRA’s own system.”
Meanwhile, she also described the issue of farmers having to use 27 different pin numbers to interface with DEFRA as “absurd”.