Confusing red tape is behind frustrating delays in Scottish government farm payments to farmers and crofters under the Less Favoured Area Support Scheme (LFASS).
Many producers have been baffled by lengthy application forms which need to be correctly filled in before the subsidy payments can be released.
A number of last year’s payments have still to be released, as errors on the forms from those who have ticked the wrong box or inadvertently given the wrong answer are slowly ironed out.
The hardship has been made doubly hard by the harsh winter period before Christmas, which pushed up the price of feed produce. High fuel prices have never been far from many peoples’ minds.
Now fresh criticism is being levelled at the way the scheme, which is largely directed towards intensive farming systems in more fertile areas, operates.
Parliamentary spokesman for the Scottish Crofting Foundation Norman Leask, who crofts at Snarraness, Bridge of Walls, said even “slight discrepancies” in the paperwork were causing unwelcome delays for producers.
He added many older crofters had found the pages upon pages of forms confusing, which made mistakes all the more likely.
“There is a problem with payments of LFASS. There is a problem with all government payments, but with LFASS, even having a slight discrepancy in the paperwork, has really been slowing it up,” he said.
“They follow up other things quickly enough if they think there is a problem, but LFASS payments have been very slow.”
In past times Mr Leask has called for Shetland to be recognised as an area of specific handicap.
However last year’s Brian Pack inquiry into agriculture has opened up the possibility of a “vulnerable area” designation for the isles – something Mr Leask is keen to see developed.
“We, as in the federation, would love to see the Highlands and Islands made that. Personally, I would love to see Shetland, at least, put down as a vulnerable area.
“If we could be called a vulnerable area, it would be to the advantage of everybody. It shouldn’t be to the disadvantage of anyone else on LFASS because it would be coming from another pot of money.”
Together with the federation’s chairwoman Eleanor Arthur, Mr Leask has now raised his concerns with Lib-Dem candidate for the Holyrood election, Tavish Scott, who is calling for rapid action to help clear the backlog.
He wants the Scottish government to investigate why the delays have occurred so that they don’t happen again.
“LFASS payments are absolutely critical to farmers and crofters in Shetland and elsewhere,” said Mr Scott.
“Without the payments most would not be viable and even delays in paying out money is likely to cause real hardship and serious cash flow problems. This is especially so, after the hard winter we have just been through.
“While moves to resolve this situation do now appear to be under way, it is scarcely credible that it took so long for ministers to identify shortcomings in so many LFASS applications. Without the intervention of the NFUS who knows when all this might have come to light?
“As well as making sure that changes to applications can be made and payments issued as quickly as possible, the minister should initiate an urgent investigation to ensure that nothing like this happens again.”