Some 20 years have passed since Jim Walker led a group of farmers in demonstrating against the importing of Irish beef, but his campaigning zeal has not waned.
This week the former president of NFU Scotland urged his colleagues to “go and chap on the First Minister’s door” over “the debacle” of delayed support payments.
There had, he claimed, been a massive misuse of taxpayers’ money in paying £180 million for a computer system which had so far failed to perform its dedicated task – ie, pay out farm support.
Walker said: “It is the biggest scandal since the overspend on the Scottish Parliament. It is more than £100m over budget and it does not work.”
He said the First Minister needed to be told the system’s failure had led to the rural economy being starved of £250m in support payments which would normally be circulating at this time of year.
Walker – who only 18 months ago sat alongside Scottish rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead in supporting the Yes vote in the independence referendum – was scathing in his view of the minister.
He told delegates at the annual meeting of the National Sheep Association (NSA) in Edinburgh that Lochhead was the main contributor to the cashflow problems being experienced, as he had not heeded warnings from the government auditor two years ago about the computer system.
Walker said he believed there was no way Lochhead could survive in his role after “managing an industry quite as badly as he has done”.
He then turned his fire on the current leadership of the union, saying they had an open goal with the present problems in the industry but seemed unable to score, saying: “I cannot believe they are sitting back and allowing this to happen.”
Possibly more worrying for the industry was his prediction of further major problems coming along, including delays in paying out the Less Favoured Area scheme (LFASS) cash.
Sybil MacPherson, chairwoman of the NSA, said she was extremely worried by such a possibility, as the LFASS money was vitally important to members farming in more remote areas of Scotland.
Another knock-on effect of the badly functioning computer system could be that if payments are not completed by the end of June, the Scottish Government would face a financial penalty from Brussels.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “EU rules require us to use an IT system to process payments, and expressly prohibit paying out on claims during the 1 December to 30 June payment window until they have been fully processed.”
She added that the IT system for the Common Agricultural Policy would distribute more than £4 billion of payments to farmers and crofters over the current CAP period. The computer system cost equated to about 4 per cent of the overall CAP budget for this period, but was expected to last for many years to come.