THE VAST majority of crofters and farmers in Shetland will receive the bulk of their subsidy payments this month, rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead said this week.
During a visit to the isles, Lochhead told the agriculture industry the delays had been caused by the biggest ever shake-up of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
He apologised for failures in the government’s multi-million pound computer system, which has been unable to process payments as quickly as usual.
He also pledged to learn lessons from the controversial reclassification of crofting land in Shetland and re-examine the issue next year.
The cabinet secretary arrived in Shetland on Thursday as part of SNP candidate Danus Skene’s campaign to be elected to Holyrood in May.
Visiting the Lerwick abattoir, Lochhead said that he appreciated how the delayed payments had made an already difficult year of bad weather and poor prices even worse.
“People have experienced a perfect storm and I am very sympathetic to that,” he said.
“I have already apologised to the industry that the IT system we have had to build for the most complex CAP ever is working a lot slower than we anticipated.”
He insisted Scotland had “a great track record” of paying early, but the new computer system was struggling with the changes to the new regulatory regime.
“What we have done is bring forward emergency funds to make sure that everyone will get a payment in April at the latest,” he said.
“Over two thirds of recipients have already got 80 per cent their payments, which is the first installment, and those that have not got that will get it in April.”
Scotland, he said, received the lowest agricultural subsidies in Europe but his government had made them go “as far as possible to support sustainable businesses in Shetland and elsewhere”.
He said the wide range of different farming environments in Scotland – from rough grazings in Shetland to rolling pastures in Aberdeenshire – made it very difficult to fit into the European system.
It was no longer possible to opt out of an area-based subsidy approach, which was why land was being reclassified.
However Lochhead acknowledged concerns in Shetland about improved parcels of land being classified at a lower level than they should be.
“We have been going through the biggest reform ever in the history of the CAP.
“It’s a transition year so we may make mistakes, if we do make mistakes we will have to do our best to fix them from next year,” he said, pledging to investigate the issues of concern.
Meanwhile Skene, freshly out of hospital after heart surgery, said he would be “completely better soon”.
He said 2016 represented the best opportunity to break the Liberal Democrat hold on Shetland’s seat at Holyrood, once again saying the islands would benefit from having a voice within the government.
“The Lib Dems are outsiders in the Scottish Parliament standing there jumping up and down screaming without the influence or capacity to actually deliver for Shetland,” he said.
“My determination is that Shetland should be represented within the Scottish government structure.”