“Maybe they’re under the car...Nope, nothing there.”
Like the elderly nudist who is bending down to look for his missing keys under his vehicle in the AA’s TV advert, rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing might be forgiven for feeling a bit exposed and vulnerable at the moment.
For, just as he was in the process of putting the final touches to his big speech due to be delivered to the Scottish Parliament tomorrow, NFU Scotland has claimed that, like the car keys, several tens of millions of pounds are still missing from the Scottish rural economy.
When the cabinet secretary stands to address the main chamber tomorrow afternoon to update parliament on the progress of farm support payments, it will be the second time he has had to handle the sharp end of the support payment fiasco stick.
Ewing’s earlier “we are sorry, we are fixing it” address given shortly after he was appointed to the position might have helped distanced him from the commissioning and the performance of the catastrophic computer system put in place to handle the reformed Common Agricultural (CAP) payments by his predecessor, Richard Lochhead.
However, as the day of reckoning approaches it appears that the clean-up operation which Ewing entered into with some vigour still has some way to go, with the union estimating that £40 million of payments still remain outstanding.
And while the secretary has gained some kudos amongst farmers to date for rolling his sleeves up and getting on with the job, there has been a distinct change of tempo and tune in the mood music emanating from the industry as the update speech approaches.
Last week saw a blast from the union over the continued delays to LFA payments – and although most producers have received partial payments, these have technically been loans from the Scottish Government to tide the industry over until the checks which will allow funds to be drawn from the EU are completed.
This payday loan approach also represented only a partial payment – but with breeding sales under way, many need the balance now.
A similar quick quid scheme was eventually launched for those who were waiting for their main farm support payments – but in that case, the wonga was far too late in arriving and did so only after the computer fiasco had risen to the status of a national scandal.
The union’s latest estimate that around 9 per cent of 2015 payments still remained to be paid last week was based on Scottish Government’s official weekly updates on payments – and the organisation also believes that more than 1,000 businesses are yet to receive any BPS payment and hundreds of others are still waiting for the balance.
In a clear example of understatement, president Allan Bowie said that, barring a few difficult cases, the industry had a justifiable expectation that by this stage the 2015 payment debacle would finally have been concluded – with all payments delivered and plans for the 2016 payment run well in hand.
However, he made no bones about the fact that this appeared to be very far from the case. And Bowie certainly won’t be alone in thinking that there is no confidence within the industry that there won’t be a similarly monumental muck-up over the delivery of the 2016 payments – and hopes that these funds will be in bank accounts by the normal December date this year aren’t running high.
So while accepting that it is a poor second best, many might want to see Ewing giving a clear undertaking that he will at least make the government-backed pay day loan scheme available to producers from the get-go in December in order to avoid the entire rural economy grinding to a halt once more.
Certainly, if he is to avoid handing grist to the opposition’s mill, Ewing will need to pull some sort of rabbit out of the hat – and certainly not be caught bending over looking for the keys - at tomorrow’s debate.