‘Reprieve’ for Scottish Government over EU fines

Phil Hogan revealed the EU's deadline extension. Picture: Geoffroy Van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images
Phil Hogan revealed the EU's deadline extension. Picture: Geoffroy Van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images
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The Scottish Government, along with those in other member states, has been given an extension until 15 October to process farm support payments before multi-million pound EU fines are invoked.

The move – announced yesterday by EU farm commissioner Phil Hogan – effectively gives the Scottish authorities an extra three and a half months to sort out the computer system chaos before late payment fines are brought into effect.

The fines – which could have stood at at somewhere between £45 million and £125m – were originally to have been charged against administrations which had not completed farm payments by 30 June.

However, revealing what he stressed was “an exceptional measure”, Hogan warned that the derogation must not be used as an excuse to “take the foot off the gas” on making farm payments.

Stating that he recognised the dependence that many farmers had on their direct payments – particularly given the impact of the current market difficulties on their cash flow situation – he urged paying agencies to maximise the level of payment by 30 June.

Hogan said the measure, which “went far as the commission could go”, provided the maximum amount of flexibility during the first year of the new system which, he admitted, several member states had had difficulties implementing.

READ MORE: Fergus Ewing ‘sorry’ for farm payments chaos

Reacting to the news of some breathing space, Scottish rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing said that, while the flexibility was welcome, it would not detract from his determination to make full payments to as many Scottish farmers as possible by 30 June, stating: “This remains my absolute priority.”

Ewing added that the announcement by Hogan was a reflection of the challenges being faced by countries across Europe in implementing this CAP reform and making payments.

Calling the move “good news for Scottish taxpayers”, NFU Scotland chief executive Scott Walker echoed the farm commissioner’s warning on efforts.

“Any deadline shift must not be used as an excuse by Scottish Government in delaying the payment of outstanding 2015 monies any further or hold back progress with the 2016 scheme,” said Walker.

He said that with many millions of pounds still outstanding, the union was looking to the Scottish Government to have made significant inroads into “filling the substantial hole that remains in the Scottish rural economy” by the time the Royal Highland Show started on 23 June.

But Walker highlighted the fact that a huge task still lay ahead. “The list of work from the 2015 scheme that remains to be completed is substantial,” he said.

“Not only do we want outstanding support payments delivered to farmers and crofters before the end of June but mapping, regionalisation, fixing entitlement rates, national reserve awards and delivery of the new sheep support scheme have also been delayed and must be completed if the Scottish rural economy is to have a chance of getting back on its feet any time soon.”

Application deadline looming

Despite the announcement of some breathing room for the authorities, Scottish farmers were yesterday reminded that their own cut-off date for the submission of 2016 support applications was now approaching.

With just one week to go until the extended deadline of midnight on Wednesday 15 June, Fergus Ewing urged farmers and crofters not to leave it until the last minute to submit their single application form (SAF) applications.

Perhaps with the problems encountered by those trying to register online at the last minute to vote in the referendum in his mind, the cabinet secretary said that while his department was well on track to getting all applications in on time, he knew the last seven days of the SAF window were traditionally the busiest.

He said that with 16,787 SAF applications submitted so far, things were well ahead of the “one week to go” position last year – when almost 6,500 applications were submitted in the final days.

“Although we are way ahead of that tally this year, farmers and crofters should not leave it until the last minute to get their forms in,” he said.

Scotland’s chief agricultural officer David Barnes reminded producers that as the system was still new, filling in the SAF could take them longer than in previous years.

“Ensuring the Rural Payments and Services website continues to perform, and helping customers get in their SAFs and BES applications are the focus for my team this week. If you do need any help with either application, or encounter any issues, then support is available from local area offices.”