The Scottish Government is facing the prospect of being fined up to £60 million as a result of failures in its £178m farm payments IT programme.
A damning new report released by Audit Scotland has revealed that an additional bill of £33 million will also have to be paid to two contractors to develop and maintain the flawed system, bringing the total committed to the programme to £211 million.
Yet the IT system is still struggling to make timely payments to farmers and Audit Scotland say it will not be sorted until 2018 “at the earliest”.
Most chilling of all for those who are reliant on farm support payments is the revelation that there is still no back-up system in place in the event of a complete breakdown of the IT programme.
In an understatement Audit Scotland said the system was “not delivering value for money or planned benefits for applicants”.
That comes as no news to the farmers’ union whose members have been most acutely affected by the widespread failings of the IT programme.
NFU Scotland (NFUS) president, Andrew McCornick said virtually all farmers had already come to the same conclusion.
“And regrettably, we are no further forward in building the necessary trust and confidence in this delivery system,” he added.
“I am on record as saying that if this IT system had been a tractor that I had bought, then it would have been returned to the dealer years ago with demands for a full refund.”
Mr McCornick added:“For three years, we have been highlighting the problems of the IT system. Several loan schemes have been won by NFUS and put in place to bypass the IT system and deliver much needed funding to farms and crofts. But we know that the loans don’t work for everyone.”
Rural Secretary Fergus Ewing responded aggressively to Audit Scotland’s criticism and insisted improvements had been made in the operation of the system.
He said these included a new senior management team, improving contract management and cost controls, improving management information practices to track progress more accurately and working to ensure on-going audit and scrutiny requirements remained stringent.
Mr Ewing also insisted the IT system had been independently reviewed as architecturally sound and should be retained.
And he claimed the cost of £178 million compared favourably against DEFRA costs to modernise their system.
The Scottish Conservatives shadow rural secretary, Peter Chapman, said farmers have had to “bear the brunt of SNP incompetence for too long”.
“It’s bad enough rural communities were starved of hundreds of millions of pounds last year because of this. But now we learn this will keep causing problems for countryside businesses until next year at least,” he said.
“In addition, the lack of a disaster recovery solution is alarming. This could be catastrophic if the system was hacked and this was highlighted as a risk a year ago.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat rural spokesperson Mike Rumbles said the report amounted to a “damning indictment” of the Government’s failures.
“Audit Scotland have made it clear that this is not just a problem with a broken IT system or a single ministerial bungle. The Scottish Government has repeatedly added fuel to the fire, blunder after blunder.
“The SNP’s ignorance and contempt for our rural communities has caused lasting damage to jobs, investment and growth in our rural economy. They still refuse to put the time and effort into fixing these issues. They won’t even assess the harm that has been done.”