“We are sorry” and “we are fixing it”. These words were the opening message given by the new cabinet secretary for rural economy, Fergus Ewing, to farmers around the country yesterday when he made a statement to the Scottish Parliament on the chaos which has surrounded the payment of the 2015 farm support measures.
Outlining the latest position, the secretary said that currently 84 per cent of Scotland’s farmers had now received payments totalling over £200 million. He said that over 5,000 loans worth over £90m had been paid under the national measures, adding that over 40 per cent of these had already been converted to actual payments.
Admitting that the government’s performance had fallen well short of what it had hoped for – and accepting that this had caused real hardship for many farming businesses and families, Ewing told the chamber that his top priority would be getting the payments made before the end of June.
“My clear and present task is to get payments out to farmers – now is the time to focus on that,” he said.
Promising to make another statement on the issue in the autumn he said that the time for recriminations and repercussions surrounding what had gone wrong would be after the support had been delivered.
Laying out his current work plan, Ewing said: “One – we will see the payments for 2015 completed. Two – we will deliver compliance and minimise penalties to producers. And three – we will place the 2016 scheme on an even keel.”
Asked for weekly updates to the parliament on the progress of the scheme Ewing said that such a frequency might be a “bit much” and could add further to the burden of those who were “busting a gut” in area offices around the country to get payments made.
Told by Highland and Islands Conservative MSP, Douglas Ross that having to wait for a statement in autumn wasn’t good enough, Ewing replied: “Of course updates will be provided before then – but what I am not willing to do – and what the farming community does not want me to do – is to allow a round of the politically partisan blame game to detract from the object of getting payments out and putting the system on an even keel.”
He said that he would come back to the chamber and set out in detail what the government was going to do to stop similar situations arising again.
Questioned on the contingency plans made for paying the possible fines – which had been estimated at between £40m and £125m in a damning report from the Auditor General – Ewing said that while he was absolutely confident that everything was being done to meet the 30 June deadline, his predecessor had been in discussions with European farm commissioner, Phil Hogan.