Scotland politics

Scottish government seeks CAP farm payment deadline extension

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Media captionRuth Davidson asked Nicola Sturgeon whether the Scottish government will ask for an extension to the farm payments deadline

The Scottish government has again asked for an extension to the deadline for making EU farming payments, BBC Scotland understands.

European subsidies to farmers through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) should be processed by 30 June.

But European Commission sources said the government had asked for that date to be extended until 15 October.

Nicola Sturgeon had earlier refused to confirm whether an extension was being sought.

The subsequent confirmation from the commission led the Scottish Conservatives to accuse Ms Sturgeon of attempting to duck the issue, and claimed it was further evidence of a "culture of secrecy and denial in the SNP government".

It is understood that the commission is still considering the request for an extension, with the Scottish government being encouraged to accelerate payments to farmers before next week's deadline.

The deadline was also extended to October last year after problems with the Scottish government's new £178m IT system caused delays to payments which left many Scottish farmers facing a cash flow crisis, according to industry leaders.

NFU Scotland President Andrew McCornick, speaking from the Highland Show, said: "We've asked for Scottish Government to have a clear and open dialogue with the industry on payments. Farmers and crofters should have been the first to know that once again there is to be a delay in payments.

"This does nothing to restore trust or build confidence."

'Exceptional measure'

The Scottish government had been facing fines of between £40m and £125m for failing to meet last year's deadline before the extension was agreed.

At the time, the EU's commissioner for agriculture, Phil Hogan, stressed that the extension was an "exceptional measure" which reflected the difficulties some member states and devolved regions had experienced with the first year of payments under the new CAP.

Ms Sturgeon, who is due to address farming leaders at the Royal Highland Show on Friday, was pressed on this year's payments by Ms Davidson at first minister's questions.

The first minister said: "The government is extremely focused, led by (Rural Economy Secretary) Fergus Ewing, on making sure that payments are made, and that in the meantime there is a loan scheme available for farmers to ensure that we are taking care of their cash flow issues.

"We will endeavour to make payments on time, and we will continue to discuss with the European Commission any contingency arrangements we consider are required.

"Good progress has been made on making payments, both in terms of the 2015 round and also now in terms of the 2016 round."

What are the CAP payments?

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Reforms to the CAP system saw the Single Farm Payment Scheme replaced by the new Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) in 2015.

The BPS is the main EU subsidy available to farmers in Scotland, with the money being allocated by the Scottish government.

The payments are designed to act as a safety net for farmers and crofters by supplementing their main business income.

19,674 different Scottish rural businesses received a total of about £650m in CAP payments last year.

Ms Sturgeon said the government had been dealing with a "small number of known defects" that had been holding up some claims, but said there were now being progressed.

The first minister added: "We are working to meet that deadline and we will continue to do so each and every day until that deadline."

But Ms Davidson said Ms Sturgeon had refused to answer her question about whether the government was going to need an extension to the deadline this year, so it could therefore be "assumed that the answer is yes".

Ms Davidson said 6,000 applications were still to be processed - about a third of the total for Scotland.

She said: "At the start of the year Nicola Sturgeon spoke directly to farmers at the National Farmers Union conference, and she said 'we understand the difficulties that late payments caused to you last year, we apologise for those difficulties and we are determined not to repeat them'.

"Another promise broken, why should rural Scotland ever trust you again?"

'Failed to deliver'

Ms Sturgeon responded: "We continue to deliver this scheme, and we continue to seek to deliver it by the deadlines.

"What we have done - which was a commitment I have directly to farmers - is put in place loan schemes so that farmers did get the cash that they depend on.

"So we will continue to deliver this scheme, we will continue to work hard to rectify any problems in the IT system and we will also continue to argue for the protection of CAP payments in the longer term."

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After it emerged that the Scottish government had indeed sought an extension, Ms Davidson attacked the first minister and Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing, saying they had "promised they would fix their broken farm payments system after last year's debacle".

She said: "Instead, we now learn that the SNP has once again failed to deliver on time for Scotland's rural economy - risking another huge fine and further delays for hard-pressed farmers and crofters.

"Instead of confronting this issue when I raised it with her today, the first minister tried to duck it.

"This week, the SNP government has been lambasted for its lack of transparency. This sorry episode only confirms that the culture of secrecy and denial in the SNP government goes right to the top."

A Scottish government spokesman replied that they had repeatedly made clear their "determination" to make the "vast majority" of CAP payments by the June deadline, and that "we are doing all we can to meet that goal".

He said: "Officials have written to the European Commission to seek their agreement to extend the payment deadline - if necessary - from 30 June to 15 October for pillar one payments, on the grounds of the acutely challenging delivery and implementation issues we face in Scotland. This is simple prudence given the timescales involved."

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