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I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests regarding farming and crofting.
Many members will be aware that we had a similar discussion in the chamber about farming policy a couple of months ago. The Scottish Government’s welcome, if belated, U-turn on less favoured area support scheme payments dominated that debate, as did arguments about the United Kingdom’s and Scotland’s agriculture bills. For the record, I note that we continue to believe that Scotland should be included in the UK bill and that, by rejecting an offer to extend the powers in that bill to Scotland, the SNP is failing Scottish agriculture. However, we did not get as much discussion as many of us would have liked on the specifics of a future support system. That is just one reason why we have brought the debate to the chamber today, and I make no apology for that.
In addition, although Brexit is at the forefront of many people’s minds, that is no reason, in our view, for the Scottish Government to delay setting out its thinking on agriculture support. Leaving the European Union and the common agricultural policy provides us with a unique opportunity to rethink how we support farming. Almost three years have elapsed since the vote to leave the EU, but, in comparison with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, we have had precious little detail or leadership from the Scottish Government.
I look forward to setting that out right now.
Likewise, the continuing round of Government expert groups, task forces, advisory bodies and consultation exercises should not prevent the Government from providing details. However well intentioned those groups are and however well qualified the people who contribute are, we now need to see concrete specifics from the Government. The fact is that Scotland’s agricultural community remains firmly in the dark about the SNP’s plans for support and what it wants to achieve for farmers, crofters and land managers. Unlike people in other parts of the UK, we, in Scotland, have had little direction, lots of posturing and no real action.
That is why we have brought forward the debate—to set out our plans for supporting Scottish agriculture. If the SNP will not set out its vision, we will set out ours, and I look forward to contributions from across the chamber. I really think that we can build a consensus around several points, as there is an overlap and many principles that many of us share.
Our starting point is that any support system must not create friction with the internal UK market, which is by far our biggest market and is of crucial importance to our farmers and crofters. Our focus is on practical, simple support that farmers can access easily and quickly. We want the Government to support environmental measures, new technologies, new entrants to farming and flexibility for those in farming as well as those who wish to exit the sector with dignity. Scotland’s unique landscape poses challenges and opportunities, which we will embrace. Above all, Scotland’s farmers deserve an ambitious programme of support and encouragement that will ensure that our rural communities capitalise on the opportunity that we now have.
As our motion states, we believe that there are several key principles that must be adhered to, which are as follows. First and foremost, we believe that food production and productivity must be at the heart of future farming policy. That is vital if the Scottish Government is to achieve its ambition of doubling the value of food and drink from £15 billion to £30 billion by 2030—an ambition that we share. Scotland has some of the finest food and drink products in the world, and it is important that we create the conditions for the sector to thrive and for producers to maintain the supply of high-quality goods.
However, to ensure that that growth does not come at a cost to producers, we must do all that we can to guarantee that our farmers and crofters will get a fairer return for their products. We therefore propose working with the UK Government to widen and strengthen the powers of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, so that our food suppliers are treated more fairly. We would also look to work with the UK Government to ensure that better and clearer food labelling helps to build brands and deliver better prices, driving up sales and productivity. Last year, the total income from farming fell by 8 per cent, with productivity falling for the third year in a row, and we want to reverse those worrying trends.
Another important step is to encourage and incentivise farmers to invest in new technologies such as global positioning system targeting input systems for arable farms and new weighing systems to make farming and crofting smarter and more efficient.
Secondly, we believe in regional differentiation. There must be a recognition that Scottish agriculture has unique circumstances, with 85 per cent of land being classed as less favoured. The remoteness of many of our farms and crofts often drives up costs and makes it more difficult to transport livestock to slaughter or to market. NFU Scotland has said that any sudden loss of support to less favoured areas could render many hill farms and crofts “unsustainable”. We, too, believe that a tailored Scottish system should deliver a menu of targeted options that are designed to meet regional and sectoral needs, as opposed to our having a one-size-fits-all approach.
Thirdly, a key component of a future agriculture policy is environmental protection. We must recognise our commitments to protecting the environment and reducing our carbon footprint. I put on record my admiration for the many things that farmers and crofters are already doing to reduce their carbon emissions voluntarily. From planting hedgerows and trees to improving animal health and diet or cutting methane output, the sector is already taking the challenge seriously. We agree with NFUS that there is huge potential in having a suite of environmental measures that offer real, practical choices to every farm and croft. We need to promote the environment specifically as one of the key priorities for farming policy and assist those in the sector with what they are already doing.
Fourthly, we believe in simplification. Given the utter chaos that has been caused by the Scottish National Party Government’s inability to deliver common agricultural policy payments on time to our farmers and crofters, it is clear that any future support system must be different. It should be easier to access and apply for, simpler to administer and able to deal with genuine mistakes and errors. We believe that there must be a clear distinction between minor and major non-compliance, with proportionate penalties in any given case. We should aim to reduce bureaucracy, and there should be fewer but better-targeted inspections. In short, a system must be delivered that removes many of the burdens that exist and that supports our farmers and crofters instead of working against them.
Fifthly, we believe that the future of Scottish agriculture can be guaranteed only by encouraging the next generation to enter it. We must be able to attract new entrants to ensure that farming and crofting remain sustainable and productive. We must make it easier to work in the sector, offer new opportunities to develop new skills, promote flexible working and the diversification of businesses, and, as I said, make it easier for those who want to leave farming to do so. It is vital that we equip our farmers and crofters with the necessary skills, training and knowledge to drive up productivity while supporting new, complementary enterprises that those in the sector are undertaking alongside farming and crofting.
A large part of that will come down to how much we invest in research, development and innovation, but the approach also acknowledges the role of advisory services. In addition, we support a rural network to raise awareness and provide a link with innovation.
I note the various amendments to the motion, and I sympathise with elements of them—particularly the part of Rhoda Grant’s amendment that talks about rural poverty and repopulation. I am sympathetic to that point, but I wonder whether it is suitable for agriculture support funding to promote those specific issues.
I have laid out just some of our ideas, and we will actively work with the Scottish Government to see them come to fruition. However, we will do that in the absence of any real, concrete measures from the SNP.
I will end with some questions, although I have no great expectation of answers. What system of support can farmers and crofters expect? Will it be easier to use? What specific support will the Government offer to encourage farmers to cut carbon, attract the next generation and drive up productivity? Does the Scottish Government believe that we should recognise regional differences and tailor support to the unique needs of farming and crofting? What is the Scottish Government’s position on the capping of payments and the length of any transition period? When can we expect to see a Scottish agriculture bill? That is an important question, because our agricultural communities rightly expect concrete proposals that will enable them to plan for the future. The Scottish Conservatives are willing to make that case; now is the time for the SNP to do so, too.
That the Parliament believes that future agricultural policy should have at its heart the following principles: productivity, regional differentiation, environmental protection, simplification, and research and education that secures the future of farming careers; believes that the Scottish Government’s failure to develop an agricultural policy for Scotland is having a detrimental effect on the country’s farmers and crofters, and calls on the Scottish Government to set out its position regarding the main elements of a future support system for farming in Scotland.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the support that we give to our farming and crofting sector, because it is an iconic industry that not only forms part of our diverse rural economy but is an integral part of our economy as a whole.
However, I must take serious issue with the motion that has been lodged by Donald Cameron, because it contains a quite astonishing and glaring omission. The one thing that Donald Cameron fails to mention is the single biggest threat to farmers, crofters, our rural economy and Scotland as a whole: Brexit.
We are only 23 days away from exit day, and we still have no idea whether we will be leaving with a bad deal or—truly catastrophic—no deal, which the United Kingdom Government belligerently refuses to rule out. That belligerence translates into recklessness—a reckless failure to give certainty on future funding arrangements, reckless inability to rule out tariffs on our most valuable exports, and a callous recklessness in refusing to give certainty to the EU citizens who live and work in our rural, coastal and island communities.
As a Government, we have made our position clear: we will continue to support faming and crofting through payment of common agricultural policy support this year and next. We have set out our proposals in the document “Stability and Simplicity: proposals for a rural funding transition period”, and we have a clear five-year plan to see the industry through the transition following the UK’s exit from the EU and beyond.
Scotland is the only part of the UK with such a detailed transition plan. Our commitment to that work is already being put into effect by the simplification task force, which first met in December 2018 and met again on 13 February 2019. In addition, through a Lib Dem amendment, we as a Parliament agreed to convene a group of producers, consumers and environmental organisations
“to inform and recommend a new bespoke policy on farming and food production for Scotland”.
The simple fact is that, while we are taking those concrete steps in Scotland, south of the border the UK Government is taking us ever closer to the Brexit cliff edge. As if the persistent threat, 23 days from EU exit, of a no-deal Brexit was not enough, we still have no clarity on a number of key issues that are affecting our rural economy now. The UK Government has said that it will continue
“to commit the same cash total in funds for farm support” until the end of the current session of the UK Parliament. We still do not know what “farm support” means. Not all pillar 2 funding is guaranteed, which puts at risk investment in forestry.
We also do not know about the position on LEADER, which is a fund that has played an integral role in empowering rural communities for more than 25 years. Last week, I spoke at an event in Parliament to recognise the massive impact that LEADER has had in our rural areas, and I opened a LEADER-funded community hub in my home city of Brechin on Saturday morning, which is one of four LEADER-funded projects in Brechin alone.
The Tory motion is shamefully silent on questions about future funding and the implications for our wider rural economy. In the two and a bit years since the referendum, we have had just one statement on the detail of the shared prosperity fund. A consultation on it was due to take place last year, but we are still waiting. What exactly will it fund? Who knows?
We also need to recognise the very real and immediate threats across the whole rural economy: farmers, fishers and seafood producers will be hit harder than anyone else. If the UK does not receive third-country listing from day 1, we will lose access to 96 per cent of our export market for lamb. If we get that listing, tariffs on sheep meat will be about 40 per cent, and we can expect the same tariff across red meats.
The EU is also a key market for seafood exports, accounting for 77 per cent of all our overseas seafood exports. The market will be particularly badly hit by non-tariff barriers, including the need for export health certificates, which would see a fourfold increase in administration for the salmon industry alone and would cost an extra £15 million a year. There is no word of that in the Tory motion.
People across our food supply chains are being forced to spend from tens of thousands of pounds to millions of pounds to prepare for a no-deal Brexit. It might never happen, but the UK Government refuses to rule it out.
Above all that, what lies at the heart of the debate is people. I am talking not only about the people who work on our farms and crofts and in abattoirs and processing, but the people who are in all the jobs that keep our rural communities going, including nurses, social care workers and hospitality workers. A large number of those workers are EU citizens. In the north-east, 70 per cent of the people who work in fish processing and 95 per cent of vets in abattoirs are EU citizens. How will our rural economy continue to function without the people who sit at its very heart?
This is not just about the economic imperative behind the movement of people: we are talking about people’s lives. I would love to hear what the Tories have to say to my family and my friends, and to the hundreds of thousands of other families who are affected by the hostile environment that its Government has created. People—many of whom have known only Scotland as their home—now have to apply for the right to stay in Scotland.
John Scott says that the threat to EU citizens is happening on our watch, when it is because of the policies that the Tory Government in Westminster is pursuing. Is that happening on our watch? The Tory Government’s policies are absolutely abhorrent, and I have absolutely nothing to do with them. As I said, the policies are affecting my family and hundreds of thousands of other families across the country, right now.
On 10 January in Parliament, we were able to achieve consensus on our shared approach to future rural policy. Compare that with the approach that has been taken south of the border, where there have been 26 ministerial resignations over Brexit since last year. The most recent resignation was that of George Eustice, who was the Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, such little faith has he in his Government’s policy direction. That is why I will take no lectures or lessons from the Tories on rural policy.
The Scottish Government will continue to do what it has always done, which is to stand up for our farmers, crofters, fishermen, fish processors, EU citizens and rural and island communities, while working collaboratively to build policy for the future.
I move amendment S5M-16123.2, to leave out from “future agricultural policy” to end, and insert:
“the principles that it agreed following the debate on motion S5M-15279 on 10 January 2019 should be at the heart of future rural policy, namely sustainability, simplicity, innovation, inclusion, productivity and profitability; recognises the significant role that research and education should play to secure future careers in rural industries; reaffirms its view that a no deal outcome to the current negotiations on EU withdrawal would be completely unacceptable, not least because of its potential disastrous impact on Scotland’s rural economy, and agrees that, as well as supporting Scotland’s farming and crofting sector, a future funding system should also support rural, coastal and island community activity and promote environmental stewardship.”
Two months ago, we had a similar debate in an attempt to provide our crofters and farmers with an indication of what Scotland’s priorities for agriculture will be post-Brexit. We appear to be no further forward.
I cannot disagree with the Conservative motion or the Government amendment to it, although I would have hoped that the Government would use its amendment to provide more detail.
Brexit has caused the uncertainty, but the Scottish Government cannot simply wash its hands of it. It is for the Government to govern, regardless of the circumstances in which it finds itself. It is for the Government to steer the direction of travel for our farmers and crofters, and to give them the information that they need to plan for Brexit. The Scottish Government cannot simply carry on as before.
The mood of the debate so far has been unhelpful. Rather than trade insults across the chamber, the Scottish Government must use the opportunity of the debate to provide an outline of its plans.
Our current system is very biased towards production; it allows farmers who could run profitable businesses without support to receive the lion’s share of the available support. The top five recipients of single farm payments in Scotland receive more than the bottom 3,500 recipients combined. Sadly, 45 per cent of farms make an income that is equivalent to less than the minimum agricultural wage, and 23 per cent of farms make a loss. That is why the debate is also about poverty. It is arguable that those businesses offer the most by way of public good—however, they receive the least in the way of funding.
I said all that a month ago in the debate then. I want to hear what the Scottish Government has done since then, as a result of what was said. How does the Government plan to ensure that public money is used for the public good, rather than for personal gain? Our amendment sets priorities for an inclusive system that directs investment where it is most needed, tackles rural and food poverty and supports repopulation.
The Scottish Government has two opportunities to lay out its future policy, because there is to be an agriculture bill and a good food nation bill. If the Government was truly ambitious, there would be one bill encompassing both and making the connection between support and outcomes. We have fantastic and world-renowned produce, yet many of our people are malnourished. Therefore, what we want from our farmers and crofters has to be the basis of the new farming support scheme. Central to that is a good food nation bill.
I agree. After finishing this point, I will come on to that one, which must be made.
We agree with the principles of
“sustainability, simplicity, innovation, inclusion, productivity and profitability”.
They are all laudable, but we also want a right to food. Too many of our children grow up in food poverty, which is storing up problems for future generations and the health service and affects their lifespan and life chances.
Farming and crofting are economic drivers as well as food producers, but the profit from the industry often goes to the people in the long food chain between field and fork. As Brian Whittle said, we need to find ways to tackle that, because rural poverty surely could be tackled by shortening the food chain and keeping the wealth in our communities.
Local procurement could cut costs for the public sector while also supporting the local agriculture industry. The potential to allow farmers and crofters to sell direct to public bodies is something that we have always talked about in Parliament but have never realised. We need to encourage co-operative working between individual businesses, which would allow them to compete for contracts and ensure the supply of goods. However, we also need to look at how small producers could access such contracts on their own. Such enterprises need support to get off the ground and to work towards being able to get into that procurement market.
New schemes must also recognise that co-operative working is important; they must encourage it rather than discourage it, which the current schemes often do by not recognising equipment rings and common grazings, for example, which are fundamental to rural farming and crofting.
If we are to halt depopulation and turn it around, we must maximise the impact of the industry and make sure that secondary processing also remains in communities.
We recognise the uncertainty that prevails and the impact that it has on our agriculture sector. We need an indication of what the future holds. We believe that we have an opportunity to build a policy and strategy that will support farming communities, going forward.
I move amendment S5M-16123.1, to insert at end:
“, and notes that any future system of rural payments should have inclusion as a principle, prioritise payments for those most in need, tackle rural and food poverty, and support repopulation in rural areas.”
Once again, we are debating a motion on farming policy that fails to address the crisis that climate change poses to our farms, coastlines, communities and future generations in Scotland. During the debate in the chamber on 10 January, I made it clear that the Greens cannot support any future farm support system or farming policy that does not address climate change as a core principle. Our position has not changed on that matter.
I lodged an amendment to the motion for debate in January, calling for agriculture to play a key role in addressing the climate emergency that we face and for farming support payments to be used to develop a net zero emissions sector in Scotland. The cabinet secretary failed to speak to my amendment once in that debate, so I am still unsure why the Government voted against it, but an explanation from him of why the Government is so opposed to climate change mitigation forming a core principle of our farm support system would be welcome today.
I know that I am not alone in my frustration about that. This week, the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee published our stage 1 report on the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill, which included the following observation:
“the area where divergence from UK Committee on Climate Change advice is most apparent is in relation to agriculture policy. In this case”— the most recent climate change plan—
“the CCC recommended an approach which was subsequently rejected by the Scottish Government without an explanation provided to justify the decision.”
Our report says that,
“In its most recent report ... the CCC again noted: ‘Not all our recommendations have been implemented. In the agriculture sector, ambitions for emissions reduction have been further scaled back from the draft Plan.’”
The body that was established specifically to advise Government on its climate change plan has made it clear that we are going in the wrong direction and ignoring its advice.
Our report on the bill goes on to recommend that
“the Scottish Government give urgent consideration to the agriculture sector ... and take a holistic approach to emissions accounting, recognising the activities across the sector that play a positive role in reducing emissions, such as afforestation and peatland restoration, and highlighting the opportunities that can arise by developing new rural support mechanisms that encourage this.”
I am looking at John Scott, who will recognise those words—he is nodding sagely in the corner.
That recommendation from a Parliament committee makes it clear that we are not, as some would accuse us, heaping undue blame for emissions on the agriculture sector. Agriculture is both a cause of and a solution to climate change emissions. By leaving out climate change from our discussions of agricultural support, we deny the fundamental role that the industry can play in mitigation and we shut off a potentially valuable source of funding for our farmers. We also deny the farming sector the chance for a just transition, which was discussed on a number of occasions in evidence to the committee. Agriculture was singled out for its vulnerability. A just transition will not come about by ignoring the difficult conversations.
We must recognise the wide range of approaches that are currently in the sector and ensure that we not only promote but financially support the best examples of low-carbon farming in Scotland. The answers are out there in the industry already—initiatives such as the nature friendly farming network, which was established by farmers themselves, are leading the way in low-carbon, sustainable farming, and I find it incomprehensible that they should not be rewarded for their approach to climate change in our future farm support system.
We are working towards a position in which most of us in the chamber agree to the public money for public goods approach to subsidies. What bigger public good is there than being part of the solution to climate change and helping Scotland to achieve net zero emissions?
I thank the Conservative Party for using its debating time today to raise the important issue of our rural economy. Unfortunately, although I am sure that Donald Cameron has the best of intentions, I believe that he fails to recognise what has to be the way forward for our rural economy. In the motion, he
“calls on the Scottish Government to set out its position regarding the main elements of a future support system for farming”.
No. If it did that, the Government would be ignoring what our Parliament decided on 10 January. Can you imagine the uproar in the chamber if the minister did that and decided to ignore the will of Parliament? Parliament decided, in a vote after the debate on 10 January, that the Government’s way forward would be
“to convene a group consisting of producer, consumer and environmental organisations to inform and recommend a new bespoke policy on farming and food production for Scotland”.
That has to be the way forward if we are to design a new bespoke system of rural support that has buy-in from all our stakeholders.
Indeed, the Government’s amendment today would have contained a reference to that commitment but, unfortunately, the Presiding Officer decided not to call the amendment that I lodged to the Government’s amendment, so we do not have an opportunity to vote to reconfirm Parliament’s and the Scottish Government’s commitment. I do not question the Presiding Officer’s decision. Perhaps I am assuming something, but he may have felt that Parliament did not need a vote to reconfirm what it had already decided, and I absolutely accept that. I am sure that, during his summing up, the cabinet secretary will update us on the work that he has been doing to establish that group, so that we can see that work is under way to recommend a bespoke system that will work for Scotland.
I do not wish to be unkind to Donald Cameron, but the Conservative call for the Government to outline the new system that we need is, if I may say so, a typically paternalistic approach. The Conservatives seem to want the Government to tell our producers, consumers and environmental organisations that the Government always knows best. Ignoring buy-in from our producer, consumer and environmental stakeholders, which is what we would do if we went down the route that Donald Cameron wants us to, is a recipe for failure, and that is why the call from the Conservatives must be resisted once again. Donald Cameron tried that approach during the debate on 10 January, and Parliament said no. Unfortunately, Donald Cameron repeatedly misses the point and he is back again with very much the same motion.
We will support the Labour amendment, but we must be careful not to pre-empt the work of the producer, consumer and environmental organisations that form the new group.
As I said in the debate on 10 January,
“in designing a new and bespoke system of support for our rural economy that works, the rural economy secretary has a difficult task ahead of him”— it is not going to be easy—
“and we must all make the extra effort not to create false divisions between us”, which is what I think is happening,
“simply for party advantage.”—[
, 10 January 2019; c 74-5.]
Even now, I call on the Conservatives to engage with that inclusive approach because, as I said in the debate in January and it is worth repeating:
“The great prize is a bespoke and successful system of rural support that will enable our rural economy” to overcome the real challenges that it faces and
“to thrive.” —[
, 10 January 2019; c 74.]
Surely that is what we all want to see.
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, which shows that I am a partner in a farming business. As someone who has a farm and comes from a family that has farmed for three generations, and who has spent 12 years of their professional life offering advice to farmers, I believe that it is right that I have strong and informed views on farming.
Farming is a long-term business that does not always mirror the patterns of normal business or the Parliament’s election cycles. Farmers have to plan 10 years in advance to ensure that the huge capital costs that they require to pay are well invested. Preparing for the future is everything, and being able to predict the future is all important.
Cabinet secretary, that is why farmers up and down the country are getting more and more frustrated with your lack of forward planning and a long-term vision for Scottish farming. You always point to your “Stability and Simplicity” document, which I believe you waved earlier. My question to you is this: what workable, comprehensive plan contains 46 questions? When I worked as a surveyor in private practice, if I had gone to my boss and said, “Here is a plan with 46 questions in it,” I do not think that he would have given me a fair hearing. I believe that the document is quite simple in what it says, but it offers no certainty and no vision for the future. Farmers are not seeing enough progress, and the Scottish Conservatives now call on the Scottish Government to get on with it. Too much analysis often leads to paralysis.
First, let us look at productivity, which has already been mentioned. For far too long, productivity on Scottish farms has plateaued. Barley yields per acre have hardly increased in 20 years. We need to be far more progressive in our use of new technology, from using smarter digital technology to boost crop yields to investigating how we can improve resilience through plant and animal breeding.
Secondly, with the new system that is being developed we now have an opportunity to recognise the differences between the Lowlands and the Highlands, and future policy must do so. Clearly, there is a difference between the productivity of the alluvial coastal and riverine plains and that of the pioneer habitats on the upper slopes of our hills. As we have seen in the past, one policy never suits all. We must ensure that we lay out what we want each of Scotland’s habitats to achieve.
Thirdly, we believe that farmers are the custodians of the countryside. We all benefit from the landscape that our farmers maintain and have produced over hundreds of years. Scottish Conservatives feel that the principle of public money being used for public good must be at the heart of future funding.
Fourthly, the current funding system is far too complicated. Time and again, we have stressed that the penalties for errors are too stringent. Frankly, if the Government’s agencies had been fined for their errors in delivering agricultural support in the same way that farmers have been in trying to receive it, they would be bankrupt. Here is an idea for you, cabinet secretary—you did ask for them: we could simplify the system by using the many assurance schemes that are currently in place to form the basis of information checking for farming. It would cost less, because farmers would be paying for it, it would be more efficient and it would perhaps result in a decrease in demand for the approximately 750 staff who are required to implement the current scheme.
Finally, we must secure future farming careers. I see that time is tight, but I want to make this comment. On land reform, I believe that we have got to the point at which, because of the legislation, we are not seeing new tenancies being created. We also have older farmers, less land to rent, lower incomes for farmers, and greater reliance on subsidies—all of which point to failure.
Farmers have been left in the dark for too long by this cabinet secretary, who is playing politics with them as he uses Brexit to delay introducing a Scottish agriculture bill or signing up to the UK Parliament’s Agriculture Bill. Cabinet secretary, it is time for you to stop sitting on the fence. Farmers do not want or need you there—they want you to back Scottish farming and come up with a plan, which you have fundamentally failed to do.
Crofting is a major part of the fabric of life in my constituency. The Western Isles are home to approximately one third of all Scotland’s crofts, with more than 6,000 island crofts spread out among nearly 300 townships. Crofting is closely connected to the way of life, the culture and even the language of the islands that I represent.
The future of crofting faces some very real challenges. The age profile of crofters is higher than the rest of the population, and there remains a difficulty in attracting new entrants, which is not helped by the occasional casually dismissive remark that crofters are “people who have a couple of sheep and a back garden”—a quote that I am sad to say is directly attributable to members on the Opposition benches.
The high levels of bureaucracy that are associated with crofting are a source of constant frustration, with a recent survey showing that 95 per cent of crofters do not see crofting as economically viable unless they supplement their income in other ways. It is therefore worth mentioning the importance of the less favoured area support scheme to my constituency, and I thank the cabinet secretary for his commitment to finding a solution that will deliver funding under LFASS at approximately 100 per cent for this year and the next two years of the scheme.
I like and respect Mr Cameron, not least for his knowledge of the subject under debate, but, in my view, today’s motion fails to take account of one other thing that is making crofters anxious. When people in my constituency say “‘S e bùrach a th’ ann!” or “‘S e brochan a th’ ann”—or worse—they are talking about Brexit and the catastrophe that is the UK Government’s handling of it. Some members have decided that the issue should not be brought into this debate, but it has added huge new uncertainties for crofting. According to a survey of crofters that was conducted in November by the Scottish Crofting Federation, 14 per cent of respondents were confident about the future, compared with 31 per cent who classified themselves as despondent, while 55 per cent of respondents were uncertain, citing Brexit and the potential knock-on effects on prices and support payments.
We can only marvel at the blame-shifting exercise that is under way in the Conservative Party’s motion. We are now only 23 days from Brexit, but we still do not know what kind of Brexit we are facing, what markets producers will be able to sell into, the rules that will govern them, whether their exports will face high tariffs or what kind of customs checks they might expect to face. However, having dragged—in Scotland’s case, the more appropriate word might be “shoved”—us on to the cliff edge of a disastrous hard Brexit, the Tories have the sheer brass neck to turn around and say that it is uncertainty from the Scottish Government that is having a detrimental impact on farmers and crofters. There is a large body of evidence that shows that Scotland’s agriculture sector would be worse off under every conceivable Brexit scenario, and I ask the members opposite who so casually dismiss those concerns to support calls from members on the SNP benches for the UK Government to guarantee that farmers and crofters will be compensated in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
I hesitate to remind the member that at present his own party is not showing any sign of voting for its own deal. That remark is representative of the species of foolishness that I have been talking about.
I have focused on some of the risks of Brexit to crofting, not because they are the only threats to crofting—far from it; I could happily, but will not, spend an afternoon berating greylag geese—but because they are, at the latest reckoning, some 561 hours away.
Providing the right support for agriculture and rural communities in the wake of Brexit is essential, not just for the sector and the communities that depend on it, but for Scotland’s economy as a whole. Agriculture is a vital source of employment and income in our rural areas and the foundation of a food and drink sector that is worth billions of pounds and countless jobs across Scotland. However, it is also one of the sectors that is most at risk from the utter chaos of the current Brexit process.
During this time of uncertainty, we need the UK Government to take a no-deal Brexit off the table, but we also need more direction, detail and clarity from the Scottish Government on its long-term vision for a future for agriculture that goes beyond five years and which brings together the many key stakeholders in the sector.
The last time that we debated this topic in the chamber, the cabinet secretary, after pressure from Opposition parties, agreed to convene a group that would develop a new policy in detail. As yet, however, we have little progress on the matter.
The minister mentioned that commitment again today, but she still provided no detail. Given the urgency of the matter and the scale of the work that the group is to undertake, the lack of progress is a deep concern. I accept that there are challenges caused by the continued uncertainty about long-term funding from the UK Government and I share the Scottish Government’s frustration on that point, but I do not accept that that is an excuse to delay the development, in partnership with stakeholders, of far more detailed proposals for a Scottish system. We should be making the case for the level of funding that we need and putting forward credible and detailed plans that show what a new Scottish system could look like in the long term.
That system needs to incorporate the principles that are outlined in the motion of
“productivity, regional differentiation, environmental protection, simplification and research and education”.
A great deal of agreement exists on those principles across a range of stakeholders.
There is also widespread recognition of the need to do more to support environmental sustainability in the sector, taking into account factors such as emissions, biodiversity and air and soil quality. Likewise, it is broadly agreed that payments should be set up in a way that better fosters a culture of innovation and entrepreneurialism in the sector by making funding available for measures that are intended to increase productivity and resilience.
I certainly hope that that will be the case. It is interesting that the figure has actually risen in the most recent budget, which is a matter of concern.
We also need reforms to support a more equitable distribution of the funding that is available, irrespective of the cost of running the system. The current emphasis on direct payments provides large and often wealthy landowners with significant sums of money, while 45 per cent of farms generate income that works out at below the minimum agriculture wage. Funding needs to be allocated more fairly and according to the principle of public good for public money. It should promote inclusive growth and a wide range of social benefits as well as economic and environmental ones.
Support needs to be in place to compensate for natural disadvantages such as biophysical constraints and remoteness. LFASS is currently a lifeline for many farmers and crofters, and the cabinet secretary must not only guarantee protection against the upcoming 60 per cent cut but make it clear that there will be a source of support of that kind in the long term.
Our future support system should also be used to improve support for animal welfare by, for example, better incentivising those who make the choice to keep calves and cows together for longer and by supporting the rearing of male dairy calves instead of exporting them. There is growing concern that the live export of animals for fattening and slaughter does nothing to positively promote Scottish agriculture. We should bring that practice to an end; otherwise, the Government’s claims to support the production of meat close to where animals are born and reared are worthless.
There needs to be a clear commitment to a replacement for LEADER funding. Crucially, our new agricultural support system must also work to tackle the scandal of food poverty in Scotland. It is an absolute disgrace that, in a country with a world-class food and drink sector, children still go to bed hungry. The new agricultural support system must help the sector to fulfil people’s basic human right to food, and I once again call on the Scottish Government to enshrine that right in law.
Today’s debate on this Tory motion feels a bit like groundhog day. I wonder whether members remember this:
“That the Parliament acknowledges that future policy for Scotland’s rural economy should be founded on key principles, including sustainability, simplicity, innovation, inclusion, productivity and profitability”.
That is very similar to the motion that we are debating today, but it is from a motion that was lodged by the Scottish Government and that was debated on 10 January. The motion included a proposal from the Liberal Democrats, which Mike Rumbles spoke about,
“to convene a group consisting of producer, consumer and environmental organisations”.
We debated that proposal at length, but the Tories voted against it.
“We are 78 days from Brexit, yet we still do not know what sort of Brexit we face. What is clear is that none of the Brexit options is good for Scotland’s rural economy—all are problematic for sectors such as farming, food and drink, aquaculture, forestry and fisheries.”—[
, 10 January 2019; c 59.]
As has been said, we are now only 23 days away from Brexit and it is very clear that nothing has changed. Everyone in this chamber, whether or not they admit it, knows that the real and present threat to the rural economy—the real detrimental effect—is not some perceived inertia from the Scottish Government. The biggest threat to every sector in Scotland, including the rural economy, is being taken out of the European Union.
Brexit will damage UK agriculture, regardless of whether we come out with no deal or Theresa May’s bad deal. Our farmers have no certainty that they will have access to the European market at the end of this month. UK sheep meat exports, nearly 90 per cent of which are destined for the European market, are worth £390 million a year, and sheep farmers now face the prospect of tariffs as high as 45 to 50 per cent being forced on them. It is devastating.
Our celebrated food and drink sector, which Colin Smyth mentioned, estimates that having no deal could lead to the loss of £2 billion in sales—an estimate that is based on the UK Government’s economic projections. Fresh, chilled and perishable products including our seafood, red meat, poultry, fruit, vegetables and dairy, which attract a premium for their quality and freshness, could be delayed and spoiled due to extended customs checks.
Our red meat industry faces obliteration in the current export market due to punitive tariffs, and the problem will be exacerbated if the UK adopts a policy of low or no tariffs or checks on equivalent imports, which, ultimately, could flood the market.
I am sorry, but I do not have time.
What will happen to our precious protected geographical indication status?
NFU Scotland said, in its discussion paper “A New Agricultural Policy For Scotland Post-Brexit”:
“Change is inevitable, but change must be managed and not chaotic.”
However, all that we see from Westminster on Brexit is chaos.
We want to, and will, do things differently in Scotland. The Scottish Government has said that it is working on plans for future support. The cabinet secretary made a statement in the chamber recently that outlined our plans, and the minister laid out our position in her opening speech. Future support must be simplified—we all agree on that. It should support the whole of our countryside and the environment. It should reward good practice, productivity and stewardship of the land. It should also take account of carbon impact and biodiversity. Above all, it must be fair. It must support communities and work for everyone.
It is just not true that we are sitting back and doing nothing.
I declare an interest as a farmer, food producer and member of NFUS.
The Sunday Times and by Gail Ross, of 9 million lambs in the UK being unsaleable into the EU market this year with or without a Brexit deal, with sheep farmers facing potential losses of about £100 per head. What plans does the cabinet secretary have to deal with that problem on behalf of the many sheep farmers in Scotland? I urge him to vote for the deal.
While we are discussing the future shape of rural Scotland, the much bigger question is how many working farmers there will be in our landscape in the future. NFUS has declared its vision of “actively farmed hectares”, but landscapes require people in them to make them work, and too many livestock farmers cannot make a living that is sufficient to allow them to continue farming or environmentally enhancing our countryside.
That is demonstrated by this year’s total income from farming figures—historic TIFF figures, I would say—which might come as a surprise to Mairi Gougeon and Gail Ross. That is happening now, before Brexit.
The Government continues to make life harder for the people who are trying to make a living. This week, it laid a statutory instrument to introduce beavers as part of its project to create wilderness landscapes in Scotland. Sea eagle introduction, red kite introduction and now beaver introduction are all active choices that are supported by the Scottish Government, all of which have a cumulative impact on the viability of our agricultural sector.
No, I am afraid that I will not. I am sorry.
Land abandonment is a current and real threat that could create wilderness on a scale not seen since the 18th century as well as causing rural depopulation and the loss of the people who have the skills to produce and maintain the working and managed landscapes that we currently enjoy.
In addition, computers that do not work have taken another £200 million out of Scottish farmers’ pockets. Rural payment schemes that reduce or delay cash flows do not really help, and reducing LFASS payments just makes a bad situation worse.
I know that the cabinet secretary is doing his best to support farmers, but those are some of the day-to-day obstacles that need to be overcome just to put food on the table, before we even start considering where we are headed.
Of course, we need increased productivity, but productivity cannot be achieved without profitability. Again, I refer the cabinet secretary to the TIFF figures. Of course we need environmental protections and enhancement in the delivery of public goods and climate change mitigation, but not if the delivery of those public goods helps to put farmers out of business.
Simplification is long overdue, and the new support scheme that is proposed under new Scottish legislation should seek to achieve that. Perhaps we should take a leaf from the Irish Government’s book on how to create a simplified system.
Education and knowledge transfer are also vital if our heirs and successors are to be equipped in the use of more sophisticated food production techniques at the same time as delivering on further greenhouse gas reduction targets. I hope that the cabinet secretary and Mark Ruskell agree that being the world leader in climate change mitigation targets is not worth it if that means driving farmers and food producers out of Scotland and forcing us to buy more of our food from other countries in the world to replace lost production in Scotland.
The huge success of Scotland’s food and drink sector cannot be continued or sustained without the raw materials to do so, but the levels of those raw materials are constantly reducing, particularly in the livestock sector. We will get to a point at which we will have difficulty in sustaining the idea that the end product is derived from produce that is grown in Scotland.
The cabinet secretary knows how important having people in our countryside is, and he knows how important LFASS payments are to the 85 per cent of Scotland that is classified as less favoured areas. That is why existing payment rates must be sustained. I commend Donald Cameron’s motion.
I will respond to a couple of issues that have come up in the debate. I share John Scott’s concern about the Tayside beavers. There are now 550 of them, descended from what we must remind ourselves were illegally released, or perhaps escaped, beavers. The Government is picking up the tab for someone else’s illegal activity and I wish that we did not need to do that.
I want to pursue Mark Ruskell’s point on climate change. To a certain extent, John Scott and I will make common cause on the issue. Mark Ruskell asked for a net zero farming sector. Moving the whole of our environment to net zero could damage the climate change agenda. It would be perfectly easy to move the human race to net zero emissions: remove all humans from the surface of the planet and it would be achieved overnight. Of course, that is not what we will do, but people who ask for net zero in farming are making a similar suggestion.
Forgive me, but I do not have time. I am watching the clock.
The point is that we want to have net zero as measured across all our sectors, but not in every sector. We should spend the pounds that will get us to net zero where they will be most effective.
We must remember that farmers do not get enough credit for the efforts that they are making. For example, the work that is done in forestry is not attributed to the farming sector. There are now days when all of our electricity comes from wind farms. Where are the wind farms? By and large, they are on agricultural farms, but, in the numbers that we have, not a single part of the climate change benefit is attributed to farmers.
The bottom line is that we need to spend the money on climate change mitigation and reduction in the most cost-effective way. If putting the money into farming will lead to the greatest reduction in emissions for every pound spent, we should do that. However, if, as is more likely, greater reductions will come from putting the money into insulating houses and decarbonising our transport sector, that is where we should put it.
If, for doctrinaire reasons, we decide to put it into farming, where it may not give us the greatest bang for our buck, we would damage our ability to reach net zero overall. We need to be very cautious about those—forgive me, Mr Ruskell—simplistic views of a complex issue.
I have one minute to go, so forgive me, Mr Ruskell—we will have a chat afterwards. [
I come back to the core issue of farming and support for it, which is at the heart of the motion that we are debating. I found Mr Cameron’s, and indeed Mr Mountain’s, remarks baffling, considering what the NFUS briefing to us says.
“It is the view of NFUS that ‘Stability and Simplicity’ ”
—the Government document—
“effectively captured the recommendations from various expert groups appointed by ... Government in recent years.”
It is saying that “Stability and Simplicity” has been a pretty good thing. It is not giving uncritical and absolute support, and I would never expect that from farmers. It also says:
“It is the view of NFUS that if the ‘Steps to Change’ approach were to be adopted,” much of what
“is required by way of future support for Scottish agriculture could be delivered with greater efficiency—in terms of funding, process and outcomes.”
The farmers have got the message; they know where we need to go and I look forward to continuing to engage with farmers in my constituency and across Scotland on the many occasions that present themselves. Indeed, I hope that at this year’s Turriff show I will once again sit next to Mr Gove. I hope that he will be able to account for what the UK Government will have done in the period from 29 March—but I am not holding my breath.
The debate has improved with time, thankfully, and I hope that it has given the cabinet secretary some food for thought.
A number of speakers have questioned our amendment and why we have tackled food poverty and rural poverty in a debate about farming. I repeat that 45 per cent of farms make an income of less than the minimum agricultural wage and 23 per cent operate at a loss—that cannot be anything other than poverty. If we are looking at schemes going forward, we will need to tackle that. It is simply wrong that some people make huge amounts of money out of the support that is available but the 45 per cent who really need that help are not getting it. If we are devising a new scheme, we need to make sure that the support goes to the right people.
The same applies to food production and food poverty. At the moment, we are not paying some producers enough, yet food is not affordable to our population. Those things are inextricably linked. When we look at support, we need to make sure that we make those links and ensure that the industry—and the support that we put into it—deals with those issues. Colin Smyth said that we should enshrine a human right to food, and I believe that we should do that. If we do, it will inform our policy. That is the mainstay of our amendment, and I hope that people will support it, because it is incredibly important.
A number of speakers—Mark Ruskell, Colin Smyth and Stewart Stevenson—spoke about farming and the environment. It is a big issue and the move to net zero has been looked at by the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee. Mitigation has come up in the debate. The farming sector mitigates a huge amount of carbon and it is not given credit for that. Although we look at farming sector outputs, nobody looks at what the sector is sequestering. We need to do that to encourage more farmers to take carbon sequestration on board, and we need to reward them for their work. Any new scheme in that direction must not be competitive; I have heard so many people say that they cannot qualify for environmental schemes because they are competitive and a small farm cannot compete with a large farm and tick the same boxes.
John Scott said that net zero may force people out of business. We need to talk about that now, because we need a just transition, so that we do not force people out of business but make sure that support is available. We already have too many air miles for our food; we need local producers and local procurement so that we cut food air miles and carbon.
Needless to say, the debate has focused a great deal on Brexit, which is not surprising. Mairi Gougeon talked about the other rural funding, LEADER, and said that we have no idea what will be in place going forward. It would be good if the Scottish Government considered what it would prioritise in those schemes. The EU prioritises peripherality and we need our Governments to look at those issues. Yes, they may be waiting to hear whether they have the money, but we need to ensure that the direction of travel is there and that people know what they can expect from future policy.
As Colin Smyth said, having no deal would be a disaster. However, the backstop would also be a disaster for farming, because it includes fish and agriculture and tariffs would become payable. That would therefore not improve the situation either.
In conclusion, Presiding Officer—I can see that you are looking at me—Edward Mountain talked about land reform, the lack of tenancies and the need to stop land reform. I argue that that is a reason to push ahead with land reform, because, if those who are managing the land cannot provide the tenancies, we need to put the land in the hands of those who would manage it for the many, not the few.
I am pleased that we, as the Scottish Government, set out last summer in our document “Stability and Simplicity: proposals for rural funding transition period” proposals for a rural funding transition period of five years. That was a consultation document, and we listened carefully to the responses that we received, which were largely positive and supportive. We have now, therefore, set out a clear five-year plan that we believe will see the industry through the transition following the UK’s exit from the EU—if it takes place. I am delighted that we have had a positive response to that plan.
I respect many of the farmers who sit in this Parliament, and I always listen carefully to their advice. I agree with much of what John Scott, for example, has to say about improvements in farming practice. Sadly, I do not have enough time to answer—as I would like to—all the individual points that have been made.
If I may, I will get to the nub of things, which is this: in a debate just a few weeks ago, Parliament agreed to take a certain path, and it did so by an overwhelming majority. I think that it had the support of everyone except the Conservatives—although, if anyone in the other Opposition parties did not support me, please correct me. Everybody said that we should proceed on the basis of the principles that we had set out in the motion for debate—with an amendment from Mr Rumbles that I was happy to accept—namely, that we appoint a group of people to guide us and to provide advice on the way ahead and the long-term future after the five-year period is over.
Parliament instructed me to proceed in that way and I, of course, respect the will of Parliament. Indeed, I imagine that were I not to respect it, the Conservatives would be the first people to criticise me for ignoring the will of Parliament. I intend to do what Parliament asked me to do. I am happy to respond to the specific request that Mr Rumbles made and confirm that we are making good progress towards selecting a group of people using consideration of the particular wording of the amendment. I am happy to say that I will announce the composition of the group in due course, and as soon as we can. There are practical matters about appointing people to serve on groups—we must ensure that they are available and ready to do it, which takes a little time.
I am proud that we have set out our five-year plan. However, I asked one question of the Conservatives at the beginning of the debate. It was this: what is the Scottish Conservatives’ policy not just specifically on future funding for agriculture, but for rural areas as a whole? As far as I know, other than some abstract nouns and some desirable sentiments, there is no policy whatsoever. It might be—although no Conservative member mentioned this—that they support the vague proposals that were set out in Michael Gove’s “Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit” paper. However, they have not said that, and I think that I know why. It is because Michael Gove proposes that all direct payments to farmers cease by 2027, in eight years.
I am happy to accept clarification from Mr Cameron. Do you support that or not?
First, it is your responsibility to set out what your policy is for your Government. Secondly, if you read our document, you will see that we support continuation of direct payments for farmers.
There will be a time when the Conservatives need to start to develop policies of their own and stop the endless negativity, carping and bickering. They will get absolutely nowhere by pursuing their current approach. That does not cause me too much grief, but there we are. I have not even asked for payment for that advice; I have given it freely.
I guess that I do not have much time left, Presiding Officer.
I find it quite staggering that the Conservatives should have brought the motion to Parliament for debate. However, I will ignore it in one sense, because my job is to do my best for Scottish farmers. I am determined to do that, and it is one of the things that I do every single day.
I am pleased to inform members that we have, in the past few days, issued 10,600 offers of loans to LFASS recipients, and we intend to make payments to those who return acceptances as soon as possible—preferably before 29 March.
We will do our job for Scottish farmers. The tragedy is that the Scottish Conservatives, either through cowardice or through their duty to obey Mrs May—we heard about that yesterday—have said absolutely nothing about Brexit, and appear to be quite ready to see Scotland go over the no-deal precipice. The rest of Parliament believes that that is a profound and grievous error.
The Scottish Conservatives’ approach is feckless and reckless, and they have nothing positive to say. Perhaps a period of prolonged silence for a week or so would be their best course of action.
I declare an interest as a partner in a farming business.
The debate has allowed us to have an important conversation about the future direction of travel for Scottish agriculture. I have always said that the great prize that Brexit offers is the opportunity to design a system of support that is better suited to the needs of Scottish agriculture, and to move away from the outdated CAP system, which has simply not worked for our farmers for many years.
Although I am glad that we are having the debate, it is unfortunate that Conservative members had to initiate it. Despite constant requests from everyone in Parliament and the farming community for certainty on the future direction, we know only that the Scottish
Government intends to carry on with little change to the CAP rules until 2024. That is very disappointing: that is far too long a lead-in to changes that can, and should, be made much more quickly.
NFU Scotland has said that “Brexit is a golden opportunity” for change. Today, we have published our plans, which I commend to everyone in the chamber. My colleagues have explained some of those plans, but it appears that the cabinet secretary has not been listening.
Nevertheless, I am glad to hear that we all agree that a farmer’s first priority is to produce the high-quality food that we all enjoy. Efficient food production must be built on strong environmental and animal welfare standards, so it is important that a suite of environmental measures that all farmers can join be put in place. Payments should be made for environmental outcomes that are simple to apply for, simple to implement and easily measured.
I have always been vocal about my support for the Scottish Government’s target to grow the value of our food and drink industry to £30 billion by 2030. However, to double that industry, we must support and sustain the growth of our agriculture sector and the farmers who grow the raw materials from which our award-winning and world-renowned products are made.
I had hoped that the debate would be a positive one, but Mairi Gougeon went straight into the usual SNP grief, grievance and scaremongering mode about a no-deal Brexit. Let me spell out to her and to all SNP members here that the simple way to avoid no deal is to vote for the deal. They should listen to NFU Scotland and the National Farmers Union in England and Wales, and they should listen to business. They want a deal that will give us certainty and tariff-free access to EU markets, and allow our lamb to flow into Europe.
The hypocrisy from the SNP is breathtaking. Mairi Gougeon also said that there is no certainty about funding. The UK Government has guaranteed support payments until 2022: that is more certainty than farmers in the EU have, given that our contribution to the EU will cease and support for agriculture is likely to fall as a result.
Our document explains that we would encourage carbon sequestration and tree planting. We will support peat restoration, more efficient use of inputs through targeted inputs, and efficient livestock production.
I thank Stewart Stevenson for his contribution to that part of the debate.
Mark Ruskell asked what greater public good is there than addressing climate change. The answer is this: feeding our population.
Alasdair Allan spoke about the importance of LFASS and funding for crofting. We fully agree, which is why we talk about it at length in our document and say that it should remain.
I remind Gail Ross that there are challenges from Brexit, but also opportunities. However, we must leave with a deal. We can and will leave with a deal, and SNP MPs could help that to happen. Will they vote for it? They will not, because they want a failed Brexit. They want chaos to drive independence.
To close, I make it clear that whatever future policy the Government eventually adopts, I hope that today’s debate has given it some ideas and that it will come forward soon with new ideas for continued support for the industry.
Let me quote a worrying statistic: last year 82 per cent of farming profits came from support payments. That has nothing to do with Brexit. It has happened on the Government’s watch, before Brexit even happens. That staggering figure shows how important it is for the Government—both here and in Westminster—to provide farmers with certainty on future farm support and how it will be delivered.
In the middle of February, the Scottish Government announced the creation of another new group to drive forward the recommendations of the National Council of Rural Advisers. I have lost count of the number of advisory groups and consultations on future policy that the Government has formed, yet there is still no clear idea of its desired key principles and structure.
Today, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party has published our desired key principles to drive future agricultural policy. We do not have a team of civil servants to crunch the numbers and come up with detailed policies. The Government does, so it is time that it stopped kicking the can down the road and gave the industry a degree of certainty, which it not only needs in order to plan ahead, but deserves.
I support the motion that is in the name of Donald Cameron.