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3. To ask the Scottish Government what discussions the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy has had with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work, regarding how much will be allocated to farmers in the next budget. (S5O-03987)
The Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work and I work together closely. We have discussed our concerns that the United Kingdom Government has not provided any meaningful, long-term statement about replacing European Union common agricultural policy funding.
Over the past three years, I have repeatedly pressed the UK Government—notably Michael Gove—to honour the pledge that it made during the Brexit referendum to at least match EU funding post-Brexit. After three years of my persistent questioning, it belatedly confirmed funding for direct payments for 2020. However, serious gaps in its assurances remain, such as the impact of exchange rates. Crucially, there is no certainty for funding for farmers, foresters, land managers, LEADER projects or wider rural businesses beyond 2020.
With respect to the cabinet secretary, I say that the UK Government agreed to match the current annual budget available to farmers for every year until 2024, starting with £472 million in financial support to farmers in Scotland over the next two years. By failing to publish a new common agricultural policy and arrangements for financial distribution in the agriculture sector post-Brexit, the Scottish National Party Government has left Scottish farmers in the dark. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that work on that is under way? When will it be published?
I am not sure whether Mr Balfour has read the letter from Rishi Sunak, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work. I have it in front of me. It does not say what Mr Balfour says that it says. It does not contain the categoric assurances that he said it provides. It goes some way to doing that. After three years of my questioning Michael Gove face to face in umpteen meetings of the ministerial group—probably questioning him more frequently and persistently on that issue than anyone else—I am pleased that, at long last, there is a belated reply. It remains a mystery why it took three years.
However, there is still no assurance on the specific funding that will be received beyond this year and there is no certainty about the exchange rate issue. Further, there is residual doubt about whether the assurances apply beyond farmers. The reference to assurances is to “farmers”. Foresters are not necessarily farmers—in fact, most of them are not farmers. LEADER is not farming. Why does the Government not specifically mention all those who receive the rural funding?
I respectfully suggest that, if the member wishes to make categoric statements of a sweeping nature, he gets his facts right first.
I welcome the news that the less favoured area support scheme loan payments have begun. Will the cabinet secretary update Parliament on the value of the funding of those payments that have been provided to farmers and crofters this winter already, and will he say whether there is still time for people to apply for a loan payment?
I am speaking from memory, but I think that the money thus far provided by way of LFASS loan funding is just more than £38 million, and that, in the first tranche, 7,595 farmers and crofters have received loans, to the tune of 95 per cent of entitlement. I believe that the payments have been made slightly earlier than they were last year—on average around 10 days earlier—and that that support has been welcomed by farmers and crofters throughout the country, particularly in the light of the huge remaining uncertainties about Brexit, the import of cheap meats from other countries and the possibilities of tariffs on sheep meat, 88 per cent of the exports of which go to the EU.
That is welcome funding to a vital part of our community, namely hill farmers and farmers on challenging land, and I was delighted, as cabinet secretary, to take that decision to get that money out as soon as possible. That funding is extremely important and I am grateful to Iain Carmichael and his team of officials, who have so efficiently delivered it.
Finally, I recommend that anyone who has already received an offer of an LFASS loan—more than 10,000 have—should return it, if they have not already done so, so that we can get on with paying the remaining balance of payments.