Lists of 20,000 farmers who are paid up to £600 million a year in public subsidies have been pulled from the government’s website. Last year, three farmers in the northeast and one in the southwest received record amounts of more than £1 million each.
Wealthy landowners - including the former owner of Harrods, Mohamed al-Fayed, the Duke of Buccleugh, Lord Morton and the Earl and Countess of Moray - were also given hundreds of thousands of pounds each. The subsidies infuriate environmental and anti-poverty campaigners, who say that poor farmers at home and abroad suffer as a result.
But now the names of all those who get agricultural subsidies have been scrubbed from the Scottish government’s online database, and there is uncertainty over whether they will be named in the future. Ministers were forced to act by a judgement last month from the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
The court found in favour of German farmers who were objecting to their names being published. It said that making their details available to everyone via the internet breached their rights to privacy and to the protection of their personal data.
As a result the European Commission has asked member states to withdraw the information they had previously published naming all the farmers in receipt of subsidies. The Scottish government announced on its website that the details had all been removed while the court ruling was being considered.
The ruling, however, has been condemned by freedom of information campaigners. “This makes a mockery of government commitments on public accountability,” said Heather Brooke, an author and activist who helped uncover MPs’ expenses.
“If a landowner is prepared to accept taxpayers' money then he must be prepared to be accountable to those taxpayers. There is no public interest in keeping these identities secret from the people providing the cash, and indeed a good deal of public harm.”
She added: “We should all be suspicious of the way bureaucrats are increasingly hiding behind 'privacy' as a means to avoid having to be accountable for the spending of public funds.”
According to the Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, the names of farmers could still be made available to individuals who request it under freedom of information law. “Although the European judgement challenges the wholesale publication of such data, in my view it does not necessarily affect whether such information can be put into the public domain in response to individual requests,” he told the Sunday Herald.
Dunion pointed out that the Swedish authorities had already said that future disclosure should be considered under freedom of information law on a case-by-case basis. He also argued that it would help if the Scottish government altered its application forms so that major agricultural businesses could be distinguished from small sole traders.
Although they have been removed from government websites, lists of individual farmers who have received public subsidies are still available on the campaign website, farmsubsidy.org. “The public has a right to know who gets what from the Common Agricultural Policy, and why,” said the website’s co-founder, Jack Thurston.
“We're not talking about welfare payments, this is about government subsidies to farm businesses. The silver lining is that we now have a chance to improve the European transparency law on farm subsidies.”
Carole Ewart, a freedom of information campaigner in Scotland, hoped farmers’ names wouldn’t keep under wraps for long. "I expect the Scottish government to ensure that it follows a technical process to comply with human rights law, promptly, thus enabling this information to again be disclosed,” she said.
The Scottish government confirmed that it had suspended publication of the information while it considered the European court ruling. “We are committed to the freedom of information principles underpinning this publication,” said a government spokeswoman.
“We hope to resume doing so in due course. In the meantime, we continue to accept individual freedom of information requests on farming support.”
Bob Carruth, the spokesman for the National Farmers Union in Scotland, said: “This information has been freely available for several years now and we will abide by whatever the legal position is.”
The Scottish Rural Property and Business Association, which represents landowners, said it was waiting to see how the court judgement would be interpreted into new UK regulations.
Read an earlier story on the subsidies given to farmers here.
The information removed from the Scottish Government's website has also been made available by the land campaigner, Andy Wightman, on his blog here.