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Supporting Scottish Agriculture

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 6th March 2019.

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Photo of Donald Cameron Donald Cameron Conservative

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.

I move,

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.