SCOTLAND’S rural economy minister Fergus Ewing has apologised for the debacle that has seen crofters and farmers left without Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments for months.
Speaking in the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday, Ewing – who replaced Richard Lochhead in the role following the recent election – committed to ensure the payments are made by a 30 June deadline: “We are sorry. We are fixing it.”
His statement follows a damning report from Audit Scotland two weeks ago outlining severe failures in the government’s delivery system and the potential for fines of between £40m-£125m if Scotland fails to meet Europe’s payment deadline.
“From day one in the job and for the foreseeable future the resolution of the CAP payments issues are my top priority,” Ewing said. “I want to assure all those in rural communities that I will devote all necessary time and attention to that task.
“Progress is being made. By the end of April, all eligible farmers should have received a substantial payment from the government unless they chose to opt out of the nationally-funded loan scheme. That payment will have been worth around 80 per cent of their estimated entitlement.”
NFU Scotland said that, while it supports Ewing’s prioritisating of “filling the huge and damaging hole in Scotland’s rural economy” before the end of June, a “wholesale review of the programme’s failings is absolutely necessary”.
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott welcomed the apology from Ewing, who also admitted that only £200 million of a £500 million budget for croft and farm payments had been spent to date.
Scott pointed out that almost the same amount – £178 million – had been spent on a failed IT system.
Speaking at Holyrood following Ewing’s statement, the MSP said: “I know that more than a fifth of Shetland’s crofters still have to apply for next year’s croft payment scheme. No wonder.
“The shambles of this year’s croft payments have blown a hole in the confidence of local crofters in their government.
“Fergus Ewing was right to apologise and to say that his principal responsibility is to fix the mess. He needs to decide whether the busted £178 million computer can ever work.
“Crofters will not tolerate a repeat of the 2016 shambles. So I will be asking the minister to explain what steps he is now taking to ensure 2017 works smoothly and farm payments can be made at the right time, which is by Christmas, this year.”
NFU Scotland’s chief executive Scott Walker said the Royal Highland Show, taking place at Ingliston from 23-26 June, would provide the perfect opportunity for Ewing to update the industry on progress in sorting the situation out.
“For now getting the outstanding payments to farmers and crofters must be the priority but lessons do need to be learned, changes need to be made and people need to be held to account,” Walker said.
He added: “While there was also a clear commitment from the cabinet secretary of the need to learn from mistakes, it is also important that a clear timetable for future support payment delivery is set and adhered to and that would be an important part of any future statement to [the] Scottish Parliament by Mr Ewing.”