Scottish government risks £60m fine for ‘serious issues’ with IT system for farmers north of the border
Farmers in Scotland have to contend with numerous challenges in their industry, but are certainly not being helped by the rural payments IT system run by the Scottish government.
This is the conclusion of Audit Scotland, which said the Scottish government risks fines of £60m and will have to deliver even more funding to resolve the problematic IT system.
This is despite the fact that Nicola Sturgeon’s party oversaw the £178 million IT and business change programme, which was designed to enable the Scottish Government to provide financial support to farmers and rural businesses in line with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Futures programme.
“Over the last year, significant changes in leadership have been introduced which have brought about a renewed effort to stabilise the programme,” said Audit Scotland. “However, to date the programme has not delivered value for money or planned benefits for applicants.”
And it warned that the IT programme still presents significant risks and costs for the Scottish Government.
It noted that the applications process has improved, but there are still problems with making payments.
“The Scottish Government will need to incur further costs to develop the IT systems used for payment applications and maintain existing processes,” it said. “There is not yet a fully developed or tested plan for recovering the systems in the event of a breakdown.”
And it lamented the fact that the Scottish Government has had to use loan schemes to get money to farmers more quickly, and warned of fines going forward.
“There is still a risk of fines if the payments system doesn’t comply with EC regulations, for example by missing deadlines or weaknesses in controls,” it said. “ Audit Scotland’s latest assessment is that fines of up to £60 million are possible.”
“The challenges of building a complex rural payments system mean the Scottish Government is juggling multiple demands on its time and resources,” said Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland. “This has had an impact on its progress over the past year.”
“It’s crucial that knowledge is effectively transferred to staff so the system can be maintained and payments made on time for 2017,” she added. “The Scottish Government also urgently needs to fully understand the financial risk it faces, so that it can target funding at ensuring the system is compliant and secure.”
And it seems that the SNP is being blamed locally for the IT problems. The BBC for example pointed to speculation that a drop in support for the SNP in areas like the north east of Scotland in the recent elections was down to farming payment failures.
It also highlighted that the Scottish government’s former rural affairs secretary, Richard Lochhead, stepped down after months of criticism over the problematic IT system.
“Clearly there is more for us to do and I recognise that we are not there yet, but I welcome that this updated report from Audit Scotland recognises a range of improvements that have been made and reinforces the actions we have taken since last May,” said new rural affairs secretary, Fergus Ewing.
“We will consider the findings carefully in the context of the significant improvement activity already under way,” he added. “However, it is disappointing that overall the key points do not fully reflect all the progress made.”
“In particular, some of the conclusions reached bear further scrutiny,” he said. “For example, the loan schemes we established have been a prudent measure and have offered positive benefits for farmers.”
Meanwhile south of the border, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) warned last year of an impending crisis in the farming industry, if the British Government does not do more to support the rollout of superfast broadband and improve mobile coverage in rural areas.