Scots hit by EU rules confusion
By Shelley Wright
MISINTERPRETATION of EU rules by government officials has left 120 Scottish farmers in limbo, still unsure if they might have to repay £450,000 of agri-environment subsidies.
The case hinges on payments to producers who reduced their sheep numbers under the Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) scheme and the Countryside Premium Scheme (CPS).
Those involved received a headage payment to compensate for de-stocking. And, until last summer, the Scottish Executive advised that while the quota covering animals removed from the farm could not be sold or leased, it could be used to make Sheep Annual Premium claims for other stock already on the unit, such as ewe hoggs.
But, following investigation by auditors, the EU Commission has ruled that the double payments are illegal and that £450,000 – the contribution from Brussels – must be repaid. According to the commission, the quota for sheep removed should not be used in any way.
Scottish farm minister Ross Finnie, accepting that his officials are at fault, believes the government should cover the repayment. But, because of EU state aid rules, it is unclear if the commission will accept that. In that case, Mr Finnie will have no option but to reclaim the money from farmers.
In the meantime, producers such as William Wilson, of Dell Farm, Whitebridge, Inverness-shire, who removed 470 sheep from his land after transferring from the old heather moorland scheme to CPS, are left wondering which way to turn.
A letter from the Scottish Executive last week informed him that, in his case, double payments between 1996 and 1998 amounted to £39,950.
He was also told that the £16,000 CPS money he was expecting for 1999 will not be paid because he made SAP claims using quota that should have been frozen. "In my CPS agreement it states very clearly that I can use my quota for the animals de-stocked to cover existing sheep in the business," said Mr Wilson.
"They are penalising us for their mistake." *