MSPs grill Fergus Ewing over missed farm payments fiasco

While it was admitted that it now looks almost certain that the Scottish Government will fail to complete the required 95.24 per cent of farm support payments by the end of June deadline, this target will only be missed by 'a few percentage points'.

Fergus Ewing expects about 90% of farm support payments to be made by tomorrow's deadline. Picture: John Devlin

Undergoing another grilling at the hands of the Scottish Parliament’s rural economy and connectivity committee, cabinet secretary Fergus Ewing yesterday said that with 15,115 basic and greening payments valued at £311 million – around 82 per cent of 2016’s likely total payments – confirmed as completed by Tuesday night, he expected around 90 per cent to be paid by tomorrow’s cut-off date.

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“And, while the deadline is of great importance for the EU, getting the balance of their payments is probably more important to farmers and we will keep the pressure on with the aim of getting the vast bulk finalised shortly after 30 June and all eligible payments completed by the end of August,” he pledged.

MSPs questioned him on the details of exactly when the Scottish Government had applied to the European Commission for an extension of the payment window until 15 October – and who knew about it – with North-east MSP Peter Chapman claiming several “clear opportunities” had been missed to inform parliament and the farming industry of the move.

Claiming that the application had been a “prudent contingency”, Ewing dismissed the possible £60m of fines mentioned by the parliament’s audit committee which had conducted a review of the IT system’s operations as “speculative”.

He said that due to the complicated nature of how fines and disallowances were calculated, there was still no clear indication even of the situation on 2015 payment.

“The audit committee suggested that 2015 fines could be between £45m and £125m – but while we can’t even make anything as strong as an estimate yet, indicative figures would suggest that any fine for that year could be closer to £5m than the figures mentioned.”

Ewing also grasped the morning’s news of further cyber attacks to defend his decision not to release the details of the Fujitsu report conducted into the £180m IT system.

“As the recent plethora of cyber attacks confirm, it would have been foolish of me to release not only the details of the vulnerabilities but even to release details of the systems used which security experts warned me could be used by hackers,” he said.

Asked by committee chairman Edward Mountain if a loan scheme would be required for the 2017 payments, Ewing said that the over-riding aim would be to have the system working fast enough that one wouldn’t be needed, but added: “If that isn’t possible then there will be a loan scheme if one is needed.”

He said that a decision on this would be made soon – and if there was any threat that payments would not be completed within the EU’s time-frame, then another loan scheme would ensure that farmer’s cash flow was not jeopardised.

Speaking later, NFU Scotland’s chief executive, Scott Walker, said farmers were still smarting from not being informed about the extension application at the Highland Show.

Walker added: “Complete trust and confidence in the IT system will only be achieved when the Scottish Government outlines a clear monthly timetable for payment delivery and that timetable is met without exception.”

Sheep cash held up again

Only around two-thirds of hill farmers will receive sheep payments by the end of this month, it was revealed yesterday.

The Scottish upland sheep support scheme (SUSSS) payment run will mean that around 700 of the 1,050 eligible producers can expect to see a payment of around £65 per eligible animal reach their bank accounts in coming days.

However, the remainder will need to wait until next month for the support – originally promised for a May delivery.

This means that more than £2m of the £6.7m payments under the 2016 scheme will be further delayed – and while the initial announcement indicated that payment would reach all producers, a correction was issued late in the day.

NFU chief executive Scott Walker said that while the news would be welcomed by those in the first payment run, the delays for others would be a further blow to confidence in the system.

Union vice-president Martin Kennedy said that the union was still focused on changes to help the funding hit its intended target – and that claimants were less likely to fall foul of the various “legislative trip wires and a Draconian penalty matrix” for any breaches.

“NFU Scotland still believes improvements including a wider application period would be of genuine benefit to the scheme,” said Kennedy.