WE ARE sorry and we are fixing it – Scotland’s new Rural Economy Secretary yesterday apologised to farmers over delays to European payments.

Money from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been held up by major problems with a new £178 million IT system supposed to deliver the subsidies.

Last month, Audit Scotland criticised the Scottish Government over the matter and warned that Holyrood faces a fine of up to £125m if it fails to correct shortcomings in the system within the next few weeks.

The public spending watchdog found that at the end of April, 77 per cent of basic CAP cash had been issued to 13,915 farmers across the country, amounting to £171m. However, none had been paid in full.

Yesterday, Fergus Ewing, who recently replaced Richard Lochhead in the role, said ministers were are sorry for the “anger, frustration, hardship and cost” that had been caused to rural firms.

Speaking in Holyrood, he said: “The CAP payment scheme has caused, amongst the farming and crofting communities and businesses in Scotland, anger, frustration, hardship and cost.“As someone who has represented for 17 years a constituency with vital farming and crofting interests, I am very well aware of that.

“I want to start off with three simple words addressed by me on behalf of the Scottish Government to all farmers and crofters who have suffered as result – we are sorry. And follow it up with four words – we are fixing it. Progress has been made. I can say that most farmers and crofters should have received most of their due payment.”

The Scottish Government has until June 30 to make the payments. Ewing said problems hadve also arisen elsewhere in the EU.

Setting out three objectives, he pledged to complete the 2015 payments “as soon as possible”, to “deliver compliance and minimise any financial penalties”, and to put 2016 payments on “a proper footing”. Acknowledging “very serious criticisms” of the Government, he said: “I believe we shall substantially resolve these difficulties and pledge to all that it will be my first and foremost priority in my new role to bring about that resolution.”

Tory Peter Chapman said Ewing’s words “do nothing to make up for the months of chaos and heartbreak in our rural economy".

Mark Ruskell of the Greens said something had “gone catastrophically wrong”, and Labour’s Rhoda Grant said: “This whole scheme has been shambolic.”

Ewing said he would update MSPs in the autumn, after his department hasve “had the opportunity to carry out all relevant analysis”.

Meanwhile, Douglas McAdam, chief executive of Scottish Land & Estates, said: “The farming payment crisis has placed immense stress on rural businesses throughout Scotland but the apology and update from the cabinet secretary are a welcome step in the Scottish Government getting a grip on this matter. Mr Ewing clearly understands where the problems remain and whilest these will not be solved overnight, we believe the new cabinet secretary is well placed to restore confidence moving forward.

“It must be remembered that this is not just a crisis affecting farmers but has severe knock-on consequences for the whole supply chain, especially in rural areas that are heavily dependent on the farming sector for the majority of their trade.”

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