Fergus Ewing told to '˜get a grip' on farming crisis

There will be no honeymoon period for newly appointed cabinet secretary for rural affairs Fergus Ewing, with NFU Scotland president Allan Bowie yesterday calling for him to 'get to grips immediately' with the faulty computer system responsible for issuing farm support.

Fergus Ewing is the third holder of the farming brief at Holyrood. Picture: John Devlin
Fergus Ewing is the third holder of the farming brief at Holyrood. Picture: John Devlin

Bowie’s comments came after a report by Audit Scotland into the commissioning and operation of the system. This highlighted that it had already cost £126 million and even the final revised budget of £178m could be spent before the IT system fully met European Commission regulations.

Ominously, Audit Scotland warned that if improved performance did not take place, the European Commission could impose financial penalties of between £40m and £125m on the Scottish Government.

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Bowie described the report from the Auditor General as “damming” as it confirmed just how badly Scottish farmers, crofters and taxpayers had been served by the malfunctioning computer system.

Back in March, the union claimed that the IT system’s inability to process and deliver applications for support in 2015 had blown a £400m hole in Scotland’s rural economy.

Following a farmers’ demonstration outside Holyrood at that time, the Scottish Government put temporary funding schemes in place to bridge the gap.

However, Jim Walker, a former union president, claimed yesterday there were still a number of farmers who had not received a penny of their 2015 support cash.

“The report confirms my view that the whole matter is a debacle on a similar scale to that which occurred when the cost of building the Scottish Parliament and the original cost of £40m expanded to beyond £400m,” he said.

Walker was adamant that the problem was far from being solved and that future support programmes due to be processed by the computer would fall behind agreed timetables.

Bowie took a similar view: “Far from being ‘back on track’, the legacy of failure is continuing and this report will guarantee that confidence in the system remains shot.

“The list of outstanding work still to be completed by the programme includes proper processing of all 2015 claims; completing the regionalisation and mapping requirements; delivering outstanding balance payments to all applicants; settling claims to the national reserve and distributing funds under the new upland sheep scheme.”

In addition, problems surrounding the mapping process required by the Basic Payment Scheme has seen the deadline for 2016 support claims recently extended to 15 June – the second year in a row where IT problems around the application process have required an extension.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said: “Our focus right now, as it has been throughout this programme, remains 100 per cent on getting payments out to farmers and crofters, keeping a tight rein on activity, costs and risks to secure the best value we can for the taxpayer.”

New rural ministerial team given a cautious welcome

Fergus Ewing MSP was yesterday appointed as the third holder of the farming brief in the 17 year history of the Scottish Parliament although he could claim he will be the first to combine the rural economy role with that of “connectivity”.

This will be the Inverness and Nairn MSP’s first foray into the Scottish Government Cabinet although he previously held the junior post of minister for business, energy and tourism.

He is joined by Roseanna Cunningham, MSP for Perthshire South and Kinross, who is to be cabinet secretary for environment, climate change and land reform.

Both appointments were welcomed by rural lobby organisations, with NFU Scotland president Allan Bowie saying they came at a hugely challenging time for the industry as “volatile markets across every sector mean that we have seen farm incomes fall three years in a row”.

For the forestry sector, Stuart Goodall, chief executive of Confor, was especially pleased that forestry was included in the rural economy and connectivity brief. This, he said, reflected its significance as a £1 billion industry employing more than 25,000 people.

For Christopher Nicholson of the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association, the big issue for both ministers will be the implementation of the 2015 Land Reform Act.