Scotland politics

Minister Fergus Ewing apologises for EU farm payments 'chaos'

Fergus Ewing
Image caption Fergus Ewing opened his statement by saying "we are sorry"

Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing says the Scottish government is "sorry" about delays processing EU payments to farmers, but said "we are fixing it".

Payments had been affected by major issues with a £178m IT system set up in Scotland to administer the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments.

Mr Ewing admitted the payments were not made quickly enough.

The government had been urged not to sweep problems surrounding EU payments to farmers "under the carpet".

Ahead of Mr Ewing's Holyrood statement, Scottish Labour said the handling of the process had been "chaotic and shambolic".

The money is meant to improve agricultural productivity and to ensure farmers have a reliable income. It is due to be paid out to farmers and crofters before a 30 June deadline.

Earlier this month, finance watchdog Audit Scotland highlighted "serious cost and operational issues" with the payment system.

Under CAP rules, about £4.6bn in European and Scottish government funding will be paid out between 2015 and 2020.

Mr Ewing opened his ministerial statement, his first in his new cabinet post, by saying "we are sorry", and "we are fixing it".

He called on MSPs to focus "not on recrimination, but on implementation" of getting payments out to farmers as quickly as possible.

'Immediate priority'

While he underlined processing outstanding payments as his immediate priority, Mr Ewing said he would assess what lessons could be learned from the failures around the IT system and would report back to parliament.

Mr Ewing added: "My immediate priority is to ensure remaining payments are made as quickly as possible, to resolve the difficulties with the system and get the 2016 payments on to a proper footing.

"That is why I am absolutely focused on this issue and doing everything possible to assist farmers and drive forward the rural economy. I have already committed to update parliament quickly and I will do that."

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New Scottish Conservative MSP Peter Chapman, himself an Aberdeenshire farmer, said the situation was "completely unacceptable" and had "eroded farmers' trust in government".

He asked if the government would commit to getting basic payments out by the next deadline of 30 June; Mr Ewing said "everything possible" was being done to achieve this.

The cabinet secretary said payments had been made to 84% of applications, amounting to almost £200m.

Mr Ewing said 30 June was a "challenging" deadline, and said his predecessor Richard Lochhead had made efforts with the EU to have it extended.

Several MSPs echoed a warning from Audit Scotland that the Scottish government could face hefty fines if the deadline is not met.

Image caption MSPs from opposition parties criticised the government over the payments "chaos"

Scottish Labour's Rhoda Grant insisted that the handling of the payouts had had a devastating impact on the rural economy in Scotland.

She added: "The recent report by Audit Scotland confirmed what we have known for some time - major delays, IT problems and SNP government mismanagement has left farmers across the country out of pocket and in serious financial trouble.

"It's welcome that Fergus Ewing has answered Labour's repeated call for a statement to parliament, but he must avoid the usual SNP approach of dismissing any concerns out of hand.

"There remain too many unanswered questions for the SNP to try to sweep this under the carpet.

"With ongoing reports of farmers receiving partial payments and concerns about what lessons will be learned from this fiasco, the SNP government owes it to rural communities to provide clarity and reassurance that there is not a risk of this year's chaos happening again."

'Immense stress'

Mr Ewing's statement was welcomed by landowners' body Scottish Land and Estates.

Chief executive Douglas McAdam said the group was happy to help the government in the coming months to overcome the issue and minimise damage arising.

He said: "The farming payment crisis has placed immense stress on rural businesses throughout Scotland but the apology and update from the cabinet secretary is a welcome step in the Scottish government getting a grip on this matter.

"Mr Ewing clearly understands where the problems remain and whilst these will not be solved overnight, we believe that the new cabinet secretary is well placed to restore confidence moving forward."

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