Getting farm payments sorted

Farming is one of Scotland's essential industries. It helps us to feed ourselves, preserves and acts as the guardian of our countryside, makes our land productive, and employs and invests in rural communities.

But running a farm is tough right now. Those doing so are devotedly working in a sector which is under attack in a whole number of ways, from supply chain issues and low prices forced by the big supermarkets through to concern that the Tories at Westminster want to end the direct support payments which are so vital.

And at present, there's another worry.  Farmers are concerned about the speed at which they're receiving these payments from Europe, made under the Common Agricultural Policy. This year the money hasn't come through as quickly as they'd have liked or expected.

It's an issue which everyone is trying to solve - and, contrary to statements by some other politicians, it's not all the fault of the Scottish Government. The fact is that the way in which CAP is now being administered at the behest of Brussels has changed radically, and everyone is still trying to catch up with that.

The move to an area-based scheme - a big change - has been challenging and costly and delivery hasn't been easy. When England moved to it in 2005/6, payments to farmers were badly delayed, with just four per cent receiving money by the following March.

By contrast, here in Scotland, the Scottish Government has done a lot better. Over 50 per cent of farmers have now received their first payments. 

Yes, people in the industry have become accustomed to getting their money by December, but in fact delivery of the payment doesn't actually have to be made until the end of June.

That having been said, everyone is pulling out all the stops - the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Richard Lochhead, is fully committed to sending out support money as soon as possible, with extra delivery staff having been recruited and officials working seven days a week to facilitate payments.

The farmers' union, the NFUS, has been critical of the speed of disbursement. It's an organisation I have massive respect for: no-one could do a better job for those in the sector, and I'm in complete agreement with them on a whole range of things. Indeed, we work closely together to fight for the best deal possible for Scottish farming from the UK Government.

But the NFUS knows and understands the problems surrounding CAP payments. Indeed, its leading officials were at the heart of the decision to move to the area-based scheme, and a more complex CAP which strives to meet the needs of the different sectors. And they knew it could mean delay in getting the money out - in fact, they were explicitly told this at the time by the Scottish Government. 

The risks were explained, but they were adamant they wanted the change. So the change happened. And as predicted, it has caused issues.

This isn't surprising when you look at the sheer complexity of the new system. Under the old CAP, there were two schemes under Pillar One. Now there are six, and they all require geographical targeting.

New payment entitlements need to be calculated into three regions. That involves assessing some 400,000 fields and four million hectares. No matter how hard you try - and people are trying very hard indeed -  that's going to take time.

Richard Lochhead and those around him are doing whatever they can to help our farmers in the interim. For instance, they've implemented a £20 million scheme, funded by the Scottish Government, to support farms if they have cash flow difficulties. 

Richard has also spoken directly to the banks to explain the situation and to encourage them to take a sympathetic approach in providing financial help to farming clients where it's needed. He's also providing weekly updates to parliament and working closely with area offices to identify particular problems and ensure cases of real hardship are prioritised.

The new IT system powering the Scottish payments cost a lot - £178 million - but it's being asked to do a lot.  And it is going to be cost effective, as it's expected to remain in use until well after the current seven year CAP cycle.

Yes, there was a delay in implementing it, but that was outside the Scottish Government's control as final details of the new EU rules didn't emerge until just a year before the new regime was due to be applied. And then there were necessary negotiations with our industry leaders which took another six months.

Of course, everyone wishes that this problem hadn't happened. However, it's the product not of systemic failure, but of a complex system taking time to accommodate everyone's interests.

I fully accept that the NFUS and other industry organisations are working hard to serve farmers' interests. They care passionately and are doing a great job representing the people and communities they are charged with serving.

So are Richard Lochhead and the Scottish Government. Their commitment to the sector is total and their track record in proving support speaks for itself. They have a belief in the industry and a real recognition of its importance.

There has been pain, frustration and inconvenience. But this situation will be resolved - and indeed is being resolved with more payments going out every day - and everyone will learn from the experience.  And while everyone works to make that happen, goodwill and a joint approach to getting everything sorted will make things a fair bit easier.

Let's aim for that.