Scottish government to speed up farmers' payments
Scottish ministers have pledged to speed up payments to farmers hit by delays in processing of EU subsidies.
Up to £200m in national funds will be used to support thousands of farmers while Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) claims are being processed.
Payments have been affected by major issues with a £178m IT system set up in Scotland to administer the new CAP.
By Monday, 10,164 first instalments worth about 80% of basic and greening payments had been made.
That equates to about 56% of eligible claims.
The government pledge means that any farmers and crofters who have not yet received a first instalment by the end of March will automatically receive a cash advance worth 80% of their CAP claim.
The move was announced by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon ahead of a meeting with NFU Scotland, who have warned of a "deepening cash crisis" facing farmers and crofters.
'Cash flow issues'
Ms Sturgeon said: "The transition to a new, more complex CAP that is affecting payment schedules right across Europe is happening as farmers and crofters are dealing with poor market prices and challenging weather conditions.
"We are less than half way through the payment window allowed by Europe, and the majority of Scottish producers - more than 10,000 - have already received a subsidy payment.
"However, payments are not being made as quickly as we would like.
"I very much recognise the cash flow issues facing Scottish agriculture, which underpins our £14bn food and drink industry.
"That is why the Scottish government has earmarked up to £200m of national funds so that any farmer or crofter who has not received an instalment by the end of March receive a nationally-funded payment from the Scottish government in April."
Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead confirmed that the announcement would also enable Scottish Beef Scheme payments to be made in the middle of April, in line with previous years.
He added: "We are continuing efforts to speed up progress, such as taking on extra staff, but given the current difficulties facing Scottish agriculture, the Scottish government will use national funds to ensure farmers and crofters will receive support, totalling hundreds of millions of pounds, in the coming weeks."
NFU Scotland President Allan Bowie said: "The log jam has broken. For months, NFU Scotland has been looking for focused thinking and clear leadership from the Scottish government to resolve this farm payments crisis for the benefit of the whole rural economy.
"We welcome the first minister's involvement and intervention and finally we have clear timelines drawn when all basic payment scheme claimants will receive the majority of their claims; when hill farmers and crofters will receive the majority of their Less Favoured Areas scheme money and beef payments have been promised in mid-April.
"That meets many of the demands that NFU Scotland has raised with Scottish government as a direct result of the cash flow crisis that has emerged in recent months.
"I praise the efforts of all those farmers, crofters and trade representatives who have taken time to brief politicians in the past few weeks."
He added: "The flawed IT system to deliver CAP payments, funded by £180 million of taxpayers' money, desperately needs to be addressed and investigated and that must happen in due course.
Earlier, the Scottish Conservatives called for a full and independent inquiry into delays to the support payments.
Leader Ruth Davidson called the Scottish government's handling of the situation "shambolic".
The Tories have tabled a motion in advance of a Holyrood debate on the issue on Wednesday, stating that farmers across the country have "lost trust" in the ability of Mr Lochhead to deliver the funding before the end of the financial year.
Scottish Labour's spokeswoman for environmental justice, Sarah Boyack, said the Scottish government's record over farm payments was "one of calamity, chaos and complacency".
She added: "This is a real scandal, affecting real people and the minister just wrings his hands and complains that it is all very complicated.
"I've already asked him what representations he has made to Europe to speed things up and received no reply.
"Of equal importance is what the position is likely to be next year?"
Scottish Liberal Democrat rural affairs spokesman Tavish Scott said: "These payments are four months late. They could and should have been made in January or February or this month. But instead the delays have created financial chaos in the Scottish rural economy.
"This must now be the last rites for the Scottish government's £178m computer that has utterly failed to deliver."