Scotland’s farmers and crofters are heading to the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh next Thursday (March 10) to highlight to Scotland’s politicians the deepening cash crisis in the countryside.
Young farmers, new entrants to the sector and all businesses supplying farmers with goods and services are invited to join them.
With the wettest winter on record and farm commodity prices at dire lows, Scottish farmers and crofters want all Scottish MSPs to understand that the farming industry’s position as the cornerstone of rural communities is under threat.
NFU Scotland President Allan Bowie said: “The gaping hole in the Scottish rural economy is of Scottish Government’s making and, with parliament closing down on 24 March ahead of the Scottish elections in May, they have a three week window in which to turn this disastrous situation around.
“Our Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead has to finish what he started and deliver payments to farmers now. If that requires intervention by the First Minister to deliver then she would have the agricultural communities backing.
“Although this is the busiest time of year, with calving, lambing, sowing and spring work all underway, we will be bringing members from across Scotland, young farmers, new entrants and representatives of the supply trade to Holyrood next Thursday (10 March) to impress upon all MSPs the damage that payment delivery failure is doing and the urgent need to resolve this matter."
Along with falling commodity prices, only £100 million of BPS payments have been paid out from a total budget of about £400 million, gradually leaving a ’gaping hole in the rural economy’.
Mr Bowie continued: “We want our MSPs to recognise the scale of the problem, the potential impact on jobs in the wider rural economy and the need for Scottish Government to take urgent and drastic action to resolve the IT and payment issue.
“Various MSP meetings are already taking place across the country in the coming few days but we want to build on that by bringing farmers and crofters to Holyrood next week.
“The decision to ask farmers to come off farm at this time of year is not one that we take lightly but such is the seriousness of the situation that we feel it merits taking our concerns directly to the politicians.
“All politicians will receive another briefing from NFU Scotland this afternoon, laying out our priorities and how we think payments can be delivered to all Scottish claimants in the coming weeks.
"The rural economy will be an important part of all election manifestos and we need politicians of all parties to show their mettle on this matter.”
The position of Scottish Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead appears to be ever more precarious after key industry figures and opposition MSPs called for him to be sacked.
With more than half of Scottish farmers still waiting for the first instalment of their Basic Payment, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson called on First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to ‘step in and take personal charge of leading rural Scotland out of this crisis’.
Only £100 million out of a BPS pot of £400m has been paid so far. Ms Davidson blamed the delays on an IT system which ’has already run £75m over budget and still does not work’.
“It is a complete failure of government, it is damaging people’s livelihoods and the problem is still not fixed,” she said, claiming the issue had ‘slipped off the SNP’s radar’ because it mainly affects rural Scotland.
She cited comments by former NFU Scotland president Jim Walker, who urged NFUS to call for Mr Lochhead’s resignation, saying he ‘could never support a party, a minister or a government who have been quite so incompetent and frankly naïve’.
Ms Davidson said: “Jim Walker speaks for thousands of farmers and crofters who are looking for action, and the Cabinet Secretary is part of the problem rather than the solution.”
Ms Sturgeon acknowledged the BPS delays were an ‘important and serious issue’ but did not defend Mr Lochhead in her response, although a spokesman was later quoted as saying she retained confidence in him.
Ms Sturgeon said the Government was in ‘fortnightly discussions about the situation with banks’, while Mr Lochhead had announced a £20 million hardship for affected farmers.
“We are doing everything we can, and we will continue to do so,” she said.
Scottish Liberal Democrat's Rural Affairs Spokesman Tavish Scott MSP has said Scottish crofters and farmers have lost ‘all faith in their government’ over the continuing uncertainty about the timing of BPS payments.
In his blog, NFUS chief executive Scott Walker fell short of calling for Mr Lochhead’s resignation but said the ‘added pressure’ this week backed up the calls the union had made for payments to be delivered on time and for a ’transparent payment timetable’.
He said there would be ’no let up’ in the ’constant pressure’ NFUS was putting on the Cabinet Secretary to deliver on his rhetoric.