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.