Brian Henderson: Don't panic? Funding delays are a disgrace

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy creator Douglas Adams once said: 'I love deadlines '“ I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.'

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy creator Douglas Adams loved the sound of deadlines whooshing by

Many in the farming industry must be thinking that quote could well be attributed to Richard Lochhead, our rural affairs secretary, as yet another deadline for paying out farm support roars over our heads with all the subtly of a fighter jet with boosters set to max.

For, despite the news being slipped out as quietly as possible just before close of play on Friday, the shock waves have reverberated throughout the industry, leaving it facing up to the stark realisation that what was billed as the possibility of a short delay in funding has turned into a longer-term, crippling hole in the cash flow of many businesses.

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However, what is probably more serious than the admission that the promise to pay “the vast majority of producers by the end of January” simply wasn’t going to happen – was the fact that no real deadline for payments or plan of action was announced for getting the money out to cash-strapped farmers.

In fact the only hint of a revised timetable came when Lochhead stated: “My officials are working as hard as possible to make as many first instalment payments as we can by the end of March, and the balance of payments soon after.”

The end of March?!? Things must be really bad when a further eight-week delay is the best that can be aspired to.

For most people deadlines are a fact of life – but everyone knows that if you don’t set short-term, achievable goals then things simply never work to a deadline.

It’s not the “get it done by tonight” deadlines which are missed, it’s the woolly, “well, we’ll try to get to you by the end of the month” message which leaves your heart sinking when it’s uttered by a tradesman or a contractor.

So come on Richard – set a target for the number of payments to be processed each week – and a deadline for completion.

With 5,000 of the 18,000 first instalments made, simple arithmetic would suggest that somewhere in the region of 13,000 more will need to be made over the next eight weeks.

That’s just over 1600 a week. With 16 local offices now working round-the-clock, that’s around 100 applications a week in each – and while I don’t know the exact number of people working in each office I would imagine that it stretches to dozens at least.

However, few people actually believe that the problems lie in the area offices – in fact they’re generally as helpful as they can possibly be – but they often seem to be as much in the dark as farmers are over specific issues - and the finger of blame must be pointed further up the tree and towards the new £180 million IT system.

It’s true that we’re not yet in as big a mess as the English were when they moved to area payments – but that’s not much of a boast.

But, while it’s bad enough that only around 30 percent of farmers have received their first instalment, the reality is that these payments actually account for little more than 15 per cent of what’s due – meaning that Scottish Farming PLC is currently somewhere in the region of £350 million out of pocket.

Last week’s stats on farm incomes clearly showed just how reliant the industry is on farm support – and if ever there was a time when this was needed, it has to be after one of the worst trading years.

On farms around the country, feed bills are piling up, and fertiliser and seed needs to be bought and paid for – and anyone who hasn’t managed to scrape enough together to pay the taxman is now likely to be facing a hefty fine.

It was indicated that cases of real hardship could be accelerated through the system – but at this sort of level the entire industry is being crippled.

So, come on Mr Lochhead, set some real deadlines for sorting this mess out – or farmers will be looking at a different deadline of their own: polling day in May.