Rural areas are at risk of being unable to access online-only government services thanks to poor internet connectivity, a Parliamentary report said today.
Anne McIntosh MP, chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, said the current broadband target of reaching 95 per cent of premises with 24 Mbps by 2017 may be based on the "inaccurate assumption that universal basic broadband coverage has largely been achieved."
She said "[T]he reality is that many rural communities are still struggling with no access, or slow broadband speeds."
This is of particular concern given the push to make some government services online-only, such as the Rural Payments Agency's scheme for farmers to access Common Agricultural Policy payments digitally by May, it said.
It warned that the RPA must have a contingency plan with regards to "online-only" services, particularly as some farmers do not have any internet access, that as many as "10 per cent do not have a computer or do not use broadband", and that many lack digital skills – to the extent that "[i]n May, some will be using online services for the first time".
Around 50 digital support centres will be put in place, each supporting farmers within a radius of 30 miles (48km), said the report.
Support to access online-only systems must be available not only in the first few months of the CAP application, but also in subsequent months and years, it said.
Since its trial in November users have encountered problems when testing the CAP payments system underpinned by the identity assurance system Verify. An alternative telephone system has subsequently been put in place.
McIntosh said: "The new CAP represents a change in the system and delivery. [The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] and the RPA must draw on lessons learnt in the past to minimise the risk of further disallowance and also ensure that all farmers have adequate access to the system."
The RPA has previously come under fire for its botched £350m IT system, which led to a number of incorrect payments being processed at £1 – at an average cost of £1,700 per claim processed. ®