A PLAN to 'stabilise and improve' Scotland's Common Agricultural Policy payment process has been unveiled by Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing.

Speaking in Holyrood on Tuesday, Mr Ewing pledged that his plan would tackle the "major causes of poor customer service, error and payment delay" in the Scottish Government's rural payments system, which has suffered several years of IT misery as the £178million computer installed to apply European farm support reforms – most importantly, the shift to area-based payments – has repeatedly failed to meet expectations.

Central to Mr Ewing's plan is a measure that he has already used more than once to calm industry concerns over delayed farm support payments – an interest-free loan scheme, whereby farmers can quickly access ScotGov funds equivalent to 90% of their approximate CAP claim, with the balance payment coming at a later date when the computer is satisfied that their actual claim has been processed to the EU's exacting regulations.

Loading article content

But in addition to that, Mr Ewing also promised to provide a clear payment schedule for ScotGov's schemes, to help claimants plan ahead, and work towards a "reliable IT platform that meets customer expectations".

“We are absolutely committed to ensuring that CAP entitlements are paid promptly and in full, and I am clear that we have not achieved that aim in recent times," conceded Mr Ewing. “So in order to deliver payments in full and on a more certain timetable, I am committing to tackling the major causes of poor customer service and experience.

"This plan will target specific and sustainable improvements in our approach, business and IT processes, and importantly puts our customers first. The plan will produce a leaner service that better helps customers to understand what to expect and when, when applying for future funding, enabling them to plan ahead."

The National Farmers Union Scotland's immediate response was that the Cabinet Secretary's announcement "drew a line under uncertainty and provided clarity to farmers and crofters", noting that, in the absence of a fully functioning IT delivery system, loan schemes had proved an "invaluable route to filling the financial hole that would otherwise open up in the rural economy".

As part of a comprehensive timetable on all schemes, there was also welcome clarification that LFASS 2016 payments will start at the end of this month and LFASS 2017 payments are expected to start in May 2018 – and if delivery in May 2018 looks unachievable, a further loan scheme will be introduced by Scottish Government.

Union president Andrew McCornick said: “In his statement, the Cabinet Secretary was candid about the challenges he, and his staff, continue to face in completing the necessary improvements needed to the IT delivery system, but he has also shown a clear commitment to the wider rural economy with his announcement today.

“Knowing that 90% of your BPS and Greening will be delivered in November and having a timetable when other payments will be received gives clarity and certainty to farming and crofting businesses," said Mr McCornick. "Experience from previous loan schemes indicate that this announcement will have a positive impact on the whole rural economy.

“For our hills and uplands, LFASS is a crucial funding stream. Certainty was provided by the Cabinet Secretary that these lifeline payments will come in May 2018 and if that timetable is in doubt, a further loan scheme will be introduced.

“The Cabinet Secretary recognised the need for stability. Given that we are entering a further year of loan schemes and that Brexit negotiations are some considerable distance from being concluded, stability is badly needed in these uncertain times for Scottish farmers and crofters.”

For in-depth news and views on Scottish agriculture, see this Friday’s issue of The Scottish Farmer or visit www.thescottishfarmer.co.uk