FARMERS with little or no access to computer equipment and broadband are being unfairly treated, according to officials at a rural agricultural charity.
Under the Government's Digital by Default initiative, an ever increasing number of documents related to farm payments, movement of livestock, training and health and safety must be completed online.
However, many farmers in rural County Durham do not possess a computer. Those who do are hampered by a poor internet connection.
Diane Spark, project manager of Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services (Utass), said less than a third of the charity's 476 farm business members had access to broadband.
She said under Digital by Default, every single piece of work connected to the Rural Payments Agency – part of the Government's Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – would eventually have to be completed online.
“I think it is wrong. No other industry has been forced down this road in order that people get what they are entitled to,” she said.
Mrs Spark said last year, 220 farmers sought help from Utass with their single farm payment forms.
“They need someone to sit with them and help them work through it. Get one digit wrong and you can lose your whole payment,” she said.
When Utass officials asked what farmers without online access should do, they were advised by Defra to go to a library or ask family and friends to use their facilities.
Thanks to support from the HSBC bank, Utass has been able to replace out-of-date computers with five new PCs which are being used to help farmers fill in their forms.
“We don't aim to do it for them. It's about helping people learn how to do it for themselves,” said Mrs Spark.
This is achieved through one-to-one support and structured training programmes.
Allan Wilkinson, head of agriculture at HSBC, said the bank had no hesitation continuing its support of Utass and the wider farming community.
“It's about helping farmers access the internet to do the admin they need to do for their work, whether that's claiming subsidies through the Common Agricultural Policy, health and safety or training,” he said.
“If one part of a form is wrong, the chances are it scuppers the whole lot.
“Unlike other EU member states, as a country we are not good at helping to get it right. We have a mentality of one chance and only one chance,” he said.
A Defra spokesperson said: "We are committed to ensuring farmers develop digital skills, and will support them throughout.
"We're investing £1.2bn in rural broadband to help communities everywhere get online."