Yes. That is our intention.
The remaining cases from 2017 have been complex to process, with there being eligibility issues associated with each claim, which staff are currently working to resolve. My officials assure me that they are confident that all outstanding issues will be cleared over the next few weeks, which will allow all remaining claims to be paid by 30 June this year.
I appreciate that it is not an instantaneous process and that there will be some delays along the way. Given that total Scottish farm debt is currently about £2 billion, and that almost half of our farmers are failing to make enough money to pay themselves the equivalent of the minimum wage, those resources are vital.
What safeguards can the cabinet secretary put in place to ensure that such delays are lessened in subsequent years?
Mr Mason raises a perfectly fair and correct general point. It is for precisely that reason that, at my specific direction, working with the full co-operation of colleagues including the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work, farmers and crofters in Scotland received advance payments—up to 90 per cent of their full entitlement, in most cases—on 5 October last year.
From memory, I think that there were nearly 18,000 offers, which were worth more than £317 million. That money was received by the bank accounts of farmers and crofters in Scotland about 2 months before those south of the border received money.
Yes. It is precisely because of the difficulties and enormous uncertainties that are being caused by Brexit—which is Tom Mason’s party’s preferred policy; or, at least, we think it is, because it does not really say—that we have ensured that farmers and crofters get their money, and that they get most of it earlier than farmers in the rest of the United Kingdom. I want to keep it that way.
We have made a strong start to the payment of the 2018 agri-environment climate scheme claims. We commenced the 2018 payments on 29 March, which is two months earlier than we commenced the 2017 payments. More than 47 per cent of claims, which are worth £7.8 million, have now been paid. At the same point last year, we had not yet begun to make payments. I hope that members will agree that that is excellent progress.
I pay tribute to all the hard-working staff in rural payments and inspections division offices throughout the country who are delivering that work. They do a superb job and are respected by the farming community. I am wholly indebted to them for their efforts.