[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair] — Common Agricultural Policy
Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan, Scottish National Party)
The hon. Gentleman raises a valid point. In their current form, the greening proposals are probably unworkable. They are inherently bureaucratic, which is exactly what we should be trying to move away from. I am afraid that they will have unintended consequences and that the one size will simply not fit everyone in exactly the same way as we have seen in previous incarnations.
One priority for farmers in my constituency, as well as other parts of Scotland, is the need to retain the option for coupled support for the beef sector. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned that in relation to upland farmers. The Minister will know that Aberdeenshire is famed for its beef, but we face challenges in least favoured areas. A lot of the land used for livestock grazing in Scotland is not suitable for arable farming. Grazing livestock is the most sustainable and environmentally friendly way to manage that land. I hope that the Minister listened to the concerns of Scottish farmers when he met representatives of the National Farmers Union earlier this week. I am sure they made their views known; I hope that he will take their concerns on board and respond to that issue.
Another issue that relates to the point about greening is the three crop rule, which will not work in those least favoured areas where only grass can grow—a lot of those areas are permanent pasture. I hope that the Minister can find a workable solution to that, too.
CAP reform gives us an opportunity to clear up some of the problems with the current approach, including the opportunity to target support at those who are actively farming the land. There has been recent controversy
about so-called slipper farmers. It is worth making the point that, certainly in Scotland, more than 98% of those in receipt of farm subsidies are actively farming. It is important to keep that in proportion, notwithstanding the need to tighten up and close that gap.
This is a time of austerity throughout Europe, and everyone is feeling the spending squeeze. We need to justify the support that we give to farmers through direct payments if we want to keep public confidence in the benefits that they accrue. A very strong case can be made for our food producers and land managers, but it is hard to justify large handouts to those who are not actually involved in farming.
It is important that any active farming test is based on how the land is managed, not on an arbitrary accounting measure, because many small crofters in Scotland are part-time farmers—they either run other businesses or have other employment—and they could be adversely affected. Increasingly, perhaps more in my own area than in some others, farmers are trying to diversify their farm businesses. Renewable energy is probably the most obvious example, but they are moving into areas that are sometimes considerably more lucrative that their farming businesses. Farmers who are actively managing land sustainably should not be penalised because of their other business interests.