All future applications for agri-schemes in Northern Ireland must be submitted online, according to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA).

Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) President Barclay Bell has reacted with concern to a development which he believes will disadvantage farmers in a number of areas.

We now know that that the Basic Payment Scheme applications for 2017 will be the first to be dealt with in this manner, he said.

“There are a number of obvious issues that have the potential to make the move to completely online unworkable, not least that broadband service in many rural areas is extremely poor and in some cases non-existent."

In 2016, 62% of farmers submitted their application online, which was a modest increase from 2015, and while we recognise that there are advantages in completing applications online, we feel it is too big a jump to expect 100% of applicants to submit applications online in 2017.

Bell added that the UFU believes that there is a lot more work to be done on the ground in terms of access to broadband and computers, as well as computer literacy to help facilitate this move to online.

"The premature move also means that more farmers could turn to agents, who may or may not have robust enough knowledge about the forms and the individual farm businesses to complete these forms successfully, which could lead to errors and more headaches for farmers.

“We have raised these concerns with DAERA and continue to do. We have also urged them to reconsider this decision for 2017."

A DAERA spokesperson said that online application processes greatly increase the accuracy of claims and reduce the possibility of penalties, are quicker and more convenient to complete.

“Whilst broadband access for rural dwellers is strong with an estimated coverage of 80%, not counting mobile and satellite technologies, we recognise that some of our customers require more tailored support and we have alternative means in place to assist them to make their application.

“This includes access through our 12 DAERA Direct offices and an agreement with Libraries NI, who have 98 libraries across Northern Ireland, that enables DAERA customers to have access to free broadband.

"DAERA will be providing telephone and online support through their EFS and SAF Advisory teams. Importantly, the ‘safety net’ for those who have specific difficulties with broadband or accessing IT, will be the provision of one to one help in our local offices, available through appointment only.

“The Department will continue to develop its online services but will in exceptional circumstances accept paper applications.”