While accepting that the Scottish Parliament would have the final say on the matter, rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing yesterday claimed that there would be little benefit to be gained from a further major inquiry into computer fiasco which earlier this year blew a financial hole in Scotland’s rural economy.
With investigations still ongoing and steps being taken to minimise the runaway cost of the computer system commissioned to handle farm support payments – now likely to cost in the region of £180 million by the time it is completed – Ewing said that the “forensic investigations” conducted by Scotland’s Auditor General represented the “Rolls Royce of inquiries”.
Giving evidence at yesterday’s meeting of the parliament’s rural economy committee he said that the audit investigation had been “painstaking and thorough” and, taken together with the scrutiny of various parliamentary committees, would be sufficient to hold his department to account.
Stating that a further major inquiry into the issue would simply be duplication, Ewing that such a move would not be welcomed by farmers.
“When I took office my priority was to resolve the remaining difficulties within the system – anything else would be a distraction,” said Ewing. “While lessons need to be learned, if the Scottish Parliament decides a further inquiry is required then it is unlikely to commence for some time.”
READ MORE: Fergus Ewing ‘sorry’ for farm payments chaos
At a sometimes fraught meeting, committee members also grilled top civil servants on how the IT company hired to provide the system was being held to account and what penalties they faced.
And while Jonathan Pryce, the Scottish Government’s rural and environment director, said that moves had now been taken to introduce an incentive and penalty regime, he indicated that they had not been in a position to apply these to the original contract.
Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said that this sounded very like “the stable door being closed after the horse had bolted” and asked for further details of the contract and any penalties likely to be applied to the company to be provided to the committee.
Questioned on the additional costs which the Scottish Government had had to bear in the form of extra staffing and overtime, Ewing praised area staff and said that he “made no apologies” for the additional spend in this area – but gave no overall figure.
“Between February and April this amounted to £106,000 – a small fraction of a city financier’s bonus,” he said.
Questioned on the likelihood of the Scottish Government facing EU late payment fines – which could stand at between £40 and £120m – Ewing said that it would be impossible to give an answer until well after the extended deadline of 14 October.
On the future of farm support post Brexit, Ewing said that despite the UK’s promise of continued support payments until 2020, huge uncertainty still remained over the Scottish farm support budget – and until this had been clarified it was impossible to make clear plans.