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Lochhead faces pressure on farm payment ‘mess’

Agriculture minister Richard Lochhead, pictured on a visit to Shetland, is under further pressure over delays to payments for crofters and farmers.

ISLES politicians rounded on Scottish agriculture minister Richard Lochhead over the continuing uncertainty faced by crofters and farmers awaiting CAP payments on Tuesday afternoon.

Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland Tavish Scott, independent Highlands and Islands list MSP Jean Urquhart – a former SNP member – and Labour’s list MSP Rhoda Grant all criticised the government for its handling of the situation. 

With many crofters remaining unaware of how much money they can expect to receive, Scott said he was “very worried” to learn that less than half of Shetland crofters had received their basic payments.

“The government promised that a majority of crofters would have been paid by the end of January,” he said. “That sadly has not happened.

“The agriculture minister confirmed to me that crofters facing real financial hardship caused by the absence of any CAP payment can ask for help from the Lerwick department office.

“I would urge crofters in Shetland who need that help to get in touch as soon as possible. I would be happy to take individual crofting cases directly to the agriculture minister.”

Urquhart said her questioning had revealed that the distribution of single farm payments was well behind schedule.

Lochhead admitted that only 28 per cent of applicants in the Highlands and Islands, and less than 30 per cent of applicants nationally, had received any of the funds due to them.

Evidence from NFU Scotland shows that although almost 30 per cent of applicants have received their first installments, only 15 per cent of the total fund has been paid out.

Lochhead promised to calculate figures spelling out what proportion of the funds due to Highlands and Islands farmers had been paid out and forward them to Urquhart “as soon as possible”.

Urquhart, who convenes the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party group on crofting, said many crofters were having a “very difficult time”.

Lochhead said the simpler cases were being dealt with first, which Urquhart said “puts crofters, many of whom have had to lodge appeals due to misclassification of their land, at the back of the queue”.

“This huge delay in payments combined with winter feeding, poor weather and low prices for beasts are plunging crofters and other farmers into financial emergency,” she said.

“Some have not even had their entitlement letters yet, and some of those that have been issued have been wrong.

“Today the minister said that officials will prioritise cases where there is hardship caused by late payments. I urge crofters and any other farmers who are in that position to call the Scottish Government helpline on 0300 300 2222 or visit their local office and ask for their application to be prioritised.”

Grant, meanwhile, was angry that the government had failed to live up to its promise that the majority of farmers would receive the first installment of their basic farm payment by the end of January.

“With a new computer system costing £178m at its disposal,” she said, “it is even more unacceptable that so many farmers have to wait, without any explanation, for these payments. This situation is totally unacceptable.”

Lochhead said he appreciated the “very real pressure facing many farming and crofting businesses throughout Scotland”.

“Not only have they had the recent storms and flooding and wet weather over many months to contend with, but also the low commodity prices and other issues facing the market, not just in the UK and Europe but throughout the world as well.

“Of course, at the same time we’ve got the biggest-ever radical reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy and how that is implemented in Scotland. “

He added: “We are doing our utmost to make sure that the payments go to as many crofters and farmers as possible before the end of March.”