MSPs urged to take tough stance on IT fiasco probe

With the Scottish Government officials involved in commissioning the flawed IT system for delivering farm support payments due to give evidence to the Scottish parliament's public audit committee today, NFU Scotland urged MSPs to give them a good grilling.

Farmers across Scotland are missing out on their cash. Picture: Chris Young/PA Wire
Farmers across Scotland are missing out on their cash. Picture: Chris Young/PA Wire

And the union called on the interrogators to establish whether the IT system would ever be fit for purpose and be capable of delivering payments accurately and on time in the future.

The Scottish Government’s common agricultural policy (CAP) futures programme – the IT programme which has struggled to deliver support payments to farmers and crofters – has already come in for severe criticism, not least in a damning report produced by Audit Scotland.

Union president Allan Bowie said that deep flaws within the futures programme had placed the whole rural economy in jeopardy last spring.

“Audit Scotland has questioned whether the CAP futures programme will ever be fit for purpose and this evidence session provides MSPs with an opportunity to drill down on the reasons for that failure and for key Scottish Government officials to identify what is being done to rectify the failings,” he said.

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Loans aim to bridge gap for missing farm support

Stating that the IT system was responsible for the tens of millions still missing from the rural economy, he said that it was totally unacceptable that technical glitches still meant officials were unable to give those still waiting on payments unambiguous answers on why this was so – or to give them a clear timetable for when their payment would be received.

He added that even those who had received payments were still without any details explaining how these had been calculated – vital information for tax and accounting purposes.

Bowie said that the union had welcomed last week’s announcement that national loans would be used to make partial payments to farmers in November.

“However, it must be acknowledged that this measure, however welcome, is an admission that the IT system is still incapable of delivering CAP funds in a timely and effective manner for the 2016 payment run. This evidence session provides an opportunity for MSPs to identify what is being done to address that.”

Bowie also called for those who had been caught up at the tail end of last year’s payment log-jam not to suffer the same fate again.

Loan letters are in the post

The Scottish Government confirmed that more than 17,000 letters had gone out to producers yesterday, offering them the option of accepting a loan of around 80 per cent of their expected support payments.

Rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing said it would provide certainty for farmers and crofters over the winter and inject up to £300 million into the rural economy.

He said that every eligible applicant who applied by the deadline of 12 October would receive their loan in November, and added that work would continue to extend the offer to other eligible businesses by the end of the year.

“I would therefore encourage all of them to apply for this funding which will give them the security and certainty they need to enable them to plan for the year ahead while driving forward the rural economy,” Ewing said.

NFUS policy chief Jonnie Hall said that it was important that farmers realised that this time round they had to opt into the scheme.

“When a similar scheme was launched back in the spring, producers had to take action to opt out if they didn’t want the loans – which meant that if they did nothing they were automatically enrolled,” he said.

He added that, due to EU regulations, the situation had been reversed and producers had to actively apply for the loan this year – by signing and returning the slip included with the letter.

Stating that while he could not give producers business advice, despite some of the “worrying looking” small print, the offer looked like a reasonable way to secure at least some of the support payments due to producers at an early stage.

He said that the loan payments – which were interest-free - would be in either sterling or euros, depending on which currency the claimant had opted to receive their CAP payments in.

However he added: “Even if an individual opted for sterling, their offer letter may give the size of the proposed loan in euros. This is because the EU has not yet set the official exchange rate for the 2016 CAP, when the offer letters were sent out.”