Rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing has refused to confirm whether or not £10 million of EU convergence funding will be spent entirely in the marginal areas with the poorest land.
Last week it emerged that the money would be “drawn down early” from next year’s second tranche of convergence funding, worth a total of £80 million. This year’s total – £80 million, plus the fast-tracked £10 million – is due to be paid out before April 2020.
However, when asked if the £10 million would be spent solely on regions two and three, which is the preferred option of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Mr Ewing’s spokeswoman said: “The £10 million will go to those farming and crofting on the most challenging land. Precise details of the allocation have yet to be decided.”
Mr Ewing caused a storm of protest earlier this month when he announced that half the EU money – meant to be given to those crofters and farmers on the poorest land – was to go to region one, where the best land is located.
This week, SCF chief executive Patrick Krause said he had a “personal assurance” from an unnamed senior official that the £10 million would be spent entirely in the marginal regions. “None of the £10 million should be spent in region one,” he added.
As the EU have stipulated that convergence funding is only for those producers who are under 90 per cent of the European average, at 91 per cent the bigger Scottish farms do not qualify, Mr Krause added.
Mr Ewing’s office also refused to be drawn on the allocation of next year’s convergence funding of £70 million.
His spokeswoman said: “The cabinet secretary made clear in his parliamentary statement that he intends to allocate the remaining funding by the end of March 2021, and that arrangements for that would be confirmed once the funding is delivered by the UK Government. He will, of course, discuss with stakeholders and farmers and crofters how best to allocate the second tranche of funding.”
Mr Krause said that, as Mr Ewing had “his fingers burned” in the row over the first tranche, he wasn’t surprised that he is going to “listen for longer before making a decision”.
He added: “I think he was taken aback by the strength of feeling on this issue and he doesn’t want a repeat of that.
Editorial: “Historic wrongs” and current wrongs
There was much talk about “righting historic wrongs” from the Scottish rural economy minister Fergus Ewing at the end of last month.
Mr Ewing was referring to the transfer of £160 million of European Union agricultural subsidy from the UK Government to his own administration in Edinburgh.
That “convergence funding”, announced Mr Ewing, would go “to where it was originally intended – with a significant proportion going to those farming in our marginal and remote areas”.
He added: “This funding will also meet my commitment to maintain support for farmers and crofters in the Less Favoured Area.” In the event, when Mr Ewing published his distribution plans a few days later, the first tranche of £80 million went nowhere near crofters in the less favoured areas of the Highlands and Islands.
Instead, the bulk of it was allocated to Scotland’s wealthy Lowland and east-coast farming sector. That allocation not only broke Fergus Ewing’s earlier promise. It also contravened the purpose of the EU’s convergence funding, which is to support smallholders in difficult circumstances on marginal land.
Mr Ewing then promised £10 million of “new” money to crofting. Following investigation by the Scottish Crofting Federation, the minister was discovered to be economical with the truth.
The £10 million will not be new at all. It will be sliced off the top of the next tranche of EU £80 million, to be distributed next year. In other words, a very small amount of the subsidy which was intended by Brussels to go to crofters will go to crofters, once big agriculture has taken the lion’s share.
The uproar was predictable, with the SCF describing Fergus Ewing’s allocation of convergence funding as a “disgraceful misuse” of the money. Politicians of all parties, including his own colleague Alasdair Allan, MSP for the Western Isles, and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar weighed in with various statements of discontent.
It is difficult to know why Mr Ewing took those decisions, particularly at the beginning of a General Election campaign in which there are more crofters’ than farmers’ votes, where at least a couple of SNP-held seats are reliant on those crofters’ votes, and given his own government’s terrible record in failing to distribute previous crofting subsidies.
Farmers may not outnumber crofters at the ballot box, but they have a much richer and more powerful lobby. Or perhaps it is a cunning plan to win back the rural north-eastern constituencies lost by Messrs Salmond and Robertson in the General Election of 2017.
It could be down to simple incompetence, or it could be a combination of all three. Whatever the cause, it does not augur well for the future of crofting support in Scotland in or out of the European Union. If there are any “historic wrongs” around here, they lie in Scotland’s treatment of its crofting communities. Fergus Ewing is compounding rather than righting them.
Main Article by Michael Russell.