Scotland politics

Nicola Sturgeon apologises to farmers over CAP 'failures'

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Image caption Nicola Sturgeon visited the Royal Highland Show

Nicola Sturgeon has apologised to farming leaders for "failures" in her government's EU subsidy payment system.

The European Commission has confirmed the government wants next week's deadline extended until 15 October.

The first minister said there was "no complacency" on the part of her government and insisted there was a "100% focus" on getting payments made.

However, farming leaders said they wanted progress made in delivering the "vital" subsidies, not more apologies.

Ms Sturgeon has faced questions over her government's handling of Common Agricultural Policy payments, with 5,000 farmers out of a total of about 18,000 said to have still not received their money with a week to go until the 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 that left many farmers facing a cash flow crisis.

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

'No complacency'

Ms Sturgeon told farming leaders that "significant progress" was being made.

She said: "We have made a clear commitment to do all we can to make the 2016 pillar one payments by the end of next week, the set payment period, although we have discussed the contingency of an extension to that with the European Commission.

"At present we've made more than £249m of these payments and of course farmers have been given access to loans pending the delivery of their actual payments.

"We are making significant progress now on payments and on resolving the remaining IT issues in the system.

"I want to assure you today...there's no complacency on the Scottish government's part about this matter.

"We have already apologised and we do so again today to farmers for the failures that have been experienced in the system and I guarantee that we will continue to give this matter our full focus and attention to ensure that farmers get the service that they deserve."

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Image caption Highland cow Eleanor, from Angus, this year's breed champion in the Highland Cattle section

Farming leaders said they wanted results, not more apologies.

Scott Walker, chief executive of the National Farmer's Union Scotland, said that after a series of delays, farmers actually felt the situation was worse now than it was three years ago.

He said: "We've had a lot of apologies and we do appreciate that everything that can be done is being done to put payments out.

"But we don't actually want any more apologies, we want the situation to be corrected. We want farmers to get the payments when they're due, because these payments are vital, not just for farmers but for the whole rural economy.

"I've got no doubt that everyone involved in the IT project is working their hardest to get payments out, but really the industry should have been told of this beforehand.

"We're just right at the deadline, and we're now being told that extensions are being asked for. That's not going to restore any confidence in terms of farmers and crofters that are due their payments."

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.

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

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

European Commission sources said on Thursday that the latest request for an extension was still being considered, with the Scottish government being urged to speed up payments ahead of the current deadline of 30 June.

The Scottish Conservatives have accused Ms Sturgeon of treating Holyrood with "utter contempt" after the news of the extension application emerged hours after it was debated at first minister's questions.

MSP Finlay Carson, who raised a point of order about the matter in the chamber, said the government had "very serious questions to answer".

He said: "We now know that earlier this week, they went cap in hand to the European Commission to plea for the payment deadline to be extended. But, when confronted in parliament over whether they had done, they ducked and dived and avoided the question.

"By failing to make their position clear when they had the chance, the first minister and the rural affairs secretary treated parliament with utter contempt and they should apologise immediately."

Ms Sturgeon replied: "I said in parliament that we had discussed contingencies with the European Commission. That's what we have done, but what I was stressing in parliament was that we are focusing on making the payments by the deadline.

"That's a week away and there will be 100% focus on making as many of these payments by the deadline as we possibly can."

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