Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 27 March 2024.

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Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-12640, in the name of Mairi Gougeon, on the Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill at stage 1. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons.

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

Scotland has a proud and long-standing heritage as a farming nation. Today, agriculture continues to play a significant role in our rural economy. Throughout history, how our land has been farmed and stewarded has changed, with change often being done to the people who live and work on the land rather than with them.

The need for the Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill has been forced on us by a Brexit that we neither voted for nor wanted, but we have taken that necessity and have, by working side by side with farmers, crofters, land managers and representative and stakeholder organisations, sought to create a new way of supporting farming in Scotland that responds to our unique circumstances. We have listened to their expertise and experience and—yes—we have taken our time to make sure that we get the bill right.

We have built on the work of farmer-led groups and have, over the past two years, been working closely with industry on developing the proposals in the bill and consulting on options ahead of our having introduced the bill in September last year. That work includes the agricultural reform implementation oversight board—ARIOB—which is co-chaired by me and NFU Scotland president, Martin Kennedy, and includes farmers, crofters, academics and stakeholder representatives.

Wider engagement was undertaken between August and December 2022 through a consultation that received 392 responses from a range of stakeholders and members of the public from across Scotland. We also received feedback from approximately 600 attendees at nine in-person and five online consultation events that were held across Scotland.

I thank everyone who has contributed to the consultation on and development of the bill—everyone who has given evidence at stage 1 and is still engaging with me, with the new Minister for Agriculture and Connectivity, Jim Fairlie, and with Government officials, in order to help to develop the new rural support framework that the bill will underpin.

The bill will embed in law this Government’s vision for agriculture and our ambition for farming and crofting, which is that we become world leading in sustainable and regenerative agriculture; that we farm in a way that increasingly protects and restores nature and helps Scotland to mitigate and adapt to climate change; that we produce high-quality food, and do so more sustainably; and, ultimately, that we enable rural and island communities to thrive.

We have heard from hundreds of people and, overwhelmingly, the message has been the same—that an adaptive and flexible approach to support for agriculture and rural communities is the key to their and our futures.

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

I am concerned that a farm that is local to me has been bought over and planted with trees. Does the cabinet secretary think that there is scope in the bill for a presumption against planting trees on good-quality farmland?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

As Brian Whittle will no doubt be aware, we have a national planning framework that sets out a lot of the rules in relation to such matters. However, we want to ensure that farmers and crofters have the flexibility and adaptability to do what is right for their farms and businesses.

What the bill does not and cannot do is undo the damage that has been caused by—and is still being caused by—Brexit, which was created and delivered by the Tories and is now supported by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The European Union common agricultural policy has many flaws and weaknesses, some of which are being played out on the streets of European cities, but it gave us funding certainty over recurring seven-year periods. Thanks to the Tories at Westminster, we now have no funding certainty. Brexit began with a huge cut to rural funding for Scotland and all the nations in the United Kingdom. The best that we have achieved is an annual ring-fenced funding envelope, but that limited amount of certainty runs out next year.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

The cabinet secretary is absolutely right that, in the views of farmers and crofters across the United Kingdom, the CAP system was seriously flawed. It disproportionately benefited some EU states and did not give sufficient funding for smaller farms. Does the cabinet secretary believe that the Scottish Government now has the power to create a system that can better suit our farmers in Scotland?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

As I have outlined, the bill will ultimately enable us to have the flexibility to design support schemes that benefit our unique circumstances in Scotland. That is exactly how we are developing the policy.

Agriculture requires future funding certainty due to its multi-annual funding commitments and long lead-in times for farmers, crofters and land managers. No matter how hard I try—I have tried, having written to no fewer than four UK secretaries of state covering agriculture in under three years—

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

No. I have already given way a number of times and I need to make some progress.

I asked those UK secretaries of state for some sense of what future funding will look like, but I have yet to receive any clarity or, in some cases, even the courtesy of a response. I welcome the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee’s support on that issue in its stage 1 report.

Despite the lack of future funding certainty and clarity, the Scottish Government’s bill sets out a framework that will enable support measures to be developed and delivered over the long term, as needed. That approach does not tie us to any particular model of support, and it will help to ensure that we can put in place the right support at the right time.

A framework bill provides flexibility. As we continue to recover from the pandemic and are impacted by the illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia, as well as by Westminster economic mismanagement, the bill—crucially—provides us with flexibility to respond to future geopolitical, economic, climate and nature challenges. It gives us the flexibility to design measures, support and conditions to be implemented through secondary legislation and to be further adapted on a regular basis, as required.

During stage 1, many people called for more detail in the bill. However, the complex and technical nature of support schemes and the requirement for regular updating are better suited to secondary legislation. That will allow future schemes to be brought into operation as and when that is appropriate. That will enable me to deliver on the commitment that I have made many times to Scotland’s farmers and crofters that the transition from the current support schemes and framework to new ones will be gradual and just, and that there will be no cliff edges. That is what we are delivering.

To reassure people and to take them with us on this journey, we have published a route map that sets out what they can expect in the future and what they will have to do to continue to receive support. Yesterday, I published an update to that route map, which sets out clearly the changes that will come into effect from 2025 and the support that is available to farmers and crofters now to help them to prepare.

From 2025, we will begin to introduce the foundations of a whole-farm plan. That will require farmers and crofters to complete two baselining activities from a list of options that will include carbon audits, biodiversity audits, soil analysis, and the creation of animal health and welfare plans or integrated pest-management plans.

We are also introducing new conditions for peatlands and wetlands, under good agricultural environmental condition 6, for cross-compliance. Those conditions are vital to protecting and restoring Scotland’s peatlands, which will help us to do so much to mitigate climate change.

From 2025, it will, on land with peat soils over 50cm in depth and in wetland habitats, be prohibited to plough, cultivate, drain or maintain existing drainage that causes further drying out of peatland. Activities that damage the vegetation cover and expose the soil in those areas will also be prohibited.

In addition, we are introducing conditions to help our crucial beef sector to become more productive, profitable and sustainable. Last June, I announced that new conditions linked to calving interval would apply to the Scottish suckler beef support scheme. In October, I made it clear that the new conditions would apply to individual animals, and not to herds. Yesterday, I provided more detail on that. From 2025, a new condition will be added to the suckler beef scheme, stipulating that calves will be eligible for payment only if their dam has a calving threshold of 410 days or fewer, or if that is the first calf to be registered as being born to that dam.

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

I am sorry, but I need to make progress.

The interval has been determined by working with the beef sector and reviewing industry data about calving intervals. All animals claimed for from the 2025 scheme year onwards will be subject to the new calving interval conditions, regardless of their year of birth.

I have made clear this Government’s continued support for Scotland’s livestock industry by announcing that the suckler beef scheme will continue until at least 2028, thereby providing continuity for beef farmers to allow long-term planning and investment, while ensuring that there are no cliff edges. Until now, Scotland has been the only nation in the UK to provide additional support for beef production, and my announcement confirms that our support will continue throughout much of this decade.

At the same time as providing as much certainty and continuity as we can, we are preparing for change, not least through the bill and its powers and provisions. I therefore welcome the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee’s support for the general principles of the bill and its agreement that a framework approach provides the right way forward. I also agree with many of the conclusions and recommendations in its stage 1 report, as I set out in my response to the committee, which I issued yesterday evening.

I note what the committee’s report says, and what stakeholders and individuals have said, in relation to the objectives of the bill and on the proposed rural support plan, and I acknowledge the views that have been given by the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee and the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee on procedures on a range of regulation-making powers in the bill. I will, of course, give further consideration to all those issues ahead of stages 2 and 3.

I hope that we can continue to engage respectfully and collegiately during the coming stages of the bill to ensure that we come together as a Parliament to deliver the legislative framework for future support that our agricultural industry and our rural and island communities need and deserve. Our nation needs them and our rural land to help us to deliver our priorities for the future—to produce high-quality food more sustainably, to cut carbon emissions, to sequester more carbon and to restore and enhance nature and biodiversity. Only our farmers, crofters and land managers can deliver those outcomes, so all of Scotland owes them a debt of support.

As we move to the next stage of the bill and look to the future, I reiterate my commitment that farmers and crofters in Scotland will continue to receive direct support, but that they—and we—will also transition to a different way of stewarding land and producing food in a way that is just, which we will do by taking our agricultural industry and rural communities with us.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I advise members that we have a little bit of time in hand this afternoon. I call Finlay Carson to speak on behalf of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee. You have about nine minutes.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

I am pleased to speak as the convener of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee about our stage 1 report on the Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill. The bill and the direction of our future agriculture policy are of fundamental importance to Scotland. The committee has undertaken considerable work on the bill and agricultural policy over the past year, and I thank my committee colleagues and committee clerks for all their hard work leading up to our report.

During our inquiry, many individuals and organisations gave evidence in person or in response to our call for views. We visited arable, dairy and hill farms, and we held a consultative event with farmers, crofters and other land managers, and representatives from rural communities and development organisations. Those events helped us to better understand grass-roots views about the challenges and opportunities in Scottish agriculture and whether the bill will address those. I thank everyone for their time and contributions. Their views were heard and have helped to inform our scrutiny of the bill.

The Government states that the bill will be the framework to deliver the Government’s vision for agriculture and will be a platform

“to develop the support that farming and rural communities need in order to adapt to new opportunities and challenges, and to prosper in a changing world.”

The framework bill will replace the retained EU CAP legislation by giving ministers the powers to provide financial and additional support for agriculture and rural communities; set conditions and eligibility requirements for that support; and facilitate a transition away from the current support measures.

The committee notes those intentions, but a number of concerns were raised by various stakeholders, which we reflected in our report and on which we agreed to seek greater clarity from the Government.

I thank the cabinet secretary and her officials for their response to the report; however, it is very disappointing that we did not receive it until 6.29 pm yesterday. Although it picked up on some of the issues that we raised, it lacked substantive responses to our specific conclusions and recommendations. The cabinet secretary’s response is heavy on noting the committee’s position, but it fails to engage with the committee’s substantive points. In a few places, the response indicates that the committee will be updated on the Scottish Government’s thinking ahead of stage 2. Perhaps in her summing up, the cabinet secretary will wish to advise members whether there is a timescale for doing so and when exactly that will happen before the stage 2 considerations.

I turn to our report and recommendations. We have heard that this is a framework bill, and that the detail of future agriculture and rural support schemes will follow in secondary legislation. The committee considered whether a framework bill was the right approach to provide a long-term basis for future support schemes. We heard that a framework bill would provide the necessary powers to provide support while also offering flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. The committee agrees with the Government’s approach. However, stakeholders voiced concerns about the lack of detail on how the powers would be used, what the associated costs would be and the time that would be taken to introduce new support schemes. The committee shares the concerns about the impact of delays on farmers’ and crofters’ businesses and livelihoods, and it recommended that the Government should give them additional reassurance by providing for statutory consultation in the co-design of support schemes.

The committee notes and agrees with the views that were expressed by the DPLR Committee and the Finance and Public Administration Committee about the use of framework bills and the challenges that they pose for parliamentary scrutiny. Therefore, we ask the Government to provide more clarity on when and how the potentially large volume of sectoral legislation will be brought forward. We have written to the Conveners Group to consider the broader question of how to ensure the effective scrutiny of secondary legislation and framework bills. I welcome the cabinet secretary’s reassurance on those points.

Section 1 sets out the Government’s four objectives of agricultural policy. They are:

“sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices, ... the production of high-quality food, ... on-farm nature restoration, climate mitigation and adaptation, and ... enabling rural communities to thrive.”

Stakeholders expressed support for the four objectives, but they noted a lack of definition of the meaning of each objective. They broadly agreed that agriculture and rural communities are fundamentally intertwined, and that that should be reflected in the bill. The committee was told that farmers are “a cornerstone” of their local communities and that, in turn, rural communities are essential to the agricultural industry and landscape. The committee recognises the importance of the objectives in shaping the direction of future support, and we agree with stakeholders that their scope and meaning should be made clearer in the rural support plan and secondary legislation.

Stakeholders commented on potential tensions in the allocation of funding for achieving each objective, and they made some suggestions for additional objectives such as food resilience and the sustainability of farm businesses. The committee has asked the Government to consider those suggestions.

Section 2 places a duty on the Government to prepare a five-year rural support plan that sets out the “expected use” of the section 4 powers. Section 3 places a requirement on Scottish ministers to “have regard to” various considerations in producing the plan, including the climate change plan and EU alignment. Many stakeholders supported the provision for a rural support plan and the proposed five-year plan period. However, many had concerns about the content and detail of the plan and felt that the plan should set out more detailed outcomes, targets or milestones; information about the budget priorities for each tier; delivery mechanisms; and procedures for monitoring and evaluation. The committee believes that such additions, as well as an evaluation of the previous plan period, would make the plans more meaningful and useful for stakeholders.

It was also noted that the bill does not provide for statutory consultation on the plan. I would welcome the cabinet secretary’s commitment to that, and the committee recommends that an amendment be lodged to that effect at stage 2. There is also no provision for parliamentary scrutiny of the plan. Stakeholders and the committee felt that such scrutiny would be important and that the Parliament should have an on-going role in scrutinising future support schemes. The committee asks the Government to consider lodging an amendment to the bill at stage 2 to require a draft plan to be laid before the Parliament for scrutiny.

Regarding the first plan, the committee believes that it would be helpful for the Parliament to have sight of a working draft in advance of stage 3 and that the draft plan should be laid before secondary legislation is laid in 2025. Given the huge significance of the rural support plan and the numerous calls for a draft to be produced as a matter of urgency, it is very disappointing that the Government was silent on that. The Government’s response to our report made no mention of when the plan will be produced, so perhaps the cabinet secretary will also bring us up to date on that.

Part 2 of the bill gives the Government powers to provide, and place conditions on, support for the purposes that are set out in schedule 1. Those include agriculture, food and drink production, the environment, forestry, knowledge exchange and animal health and welfare. The committee was broadly content with the powers that are set out in that part. Some stakeholders felt that the list of purposes could be broader, and the committee asked the Government to consider amending the purposes of support in line with the evidence that we heard.

The committee notes that schedule 1 may be modified by regulations under section 4(2). Currently, such regulations would be subject to the negative procedure, but the committee agrees that the affirmative procedure might be more appropriate, given the potential implications for stakeholders of modifying the purposes of support. Any change to schedule 1 should be taken forward through consultation and co-design with stakeholders.

The committee took evidence on the section 9 powers to limit or cap support for assistance or to progressively reduce support beyond a certain threshold. The committee understands that a similar power is in place under EU CAP legislation. We heard from the Government that no agriculture support in Scotland surpasses the threshold for UK subsidy control. Some stakeholders held strong views on the need for the element of redistribution in agriculture support through a system of capping, tapering or front loading of payments, whereas others had reservations about capping. However, there was broad agreement that any cap should not be applied to payments that are targeted at achieving specific outcomes, such as environmental payments.

The Government should set out its thinking on payment distribution in the rural support plan, and any proposals must be accompanied by impact assessments to avoid unintended consequences. Given the potential impact of that power, the committee agrees with the DPLR Committee’s recommendation that section 9 regulations be subject to the affirmative procedure.

Regarding the section 13 powers to make regulations on eligibility and enforcement of support, the committee will monitor the use of that either-way power. We consider that the definition of what would constitute “significant” powers that will thereby be subject to the affirmative procedure should be expanded.

The committee was generally content with the part 3 powers to amend existing post-EU legislation.

I turn to part 4.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You need to begin winding up.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

Section 7 gives a power to provide continuing professional development for farmers and landowners. The committee agrees that a well-designed and co-ordinated CPD scheme would be important.

Finally, the committee considered the costs that are associated with the bill. As a framework bill, it contains very little detail on costs, and the committee recommends that the information is fully set out along with the secondary legislation. The committee also notes that the Government’s funding decisions on allocations between each tier were announced by the First Minister outwith Parliament. No information was shared specifically with the committee, despite it considering the issue at stage 1, and we would like the Government to reflect on that approach.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You need to conclude, Mr Carson.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

I look forward to taking views from our colleagues and to stage 2 of the bill.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We have a little bit of time in hand, but that is more to allow for interventions than for members to go over their allocated speaking times.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

I am grateful for the opportunity to open the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives. I thank the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee clerking team and my colleagues for the way in which we got to this stage 1 debate.

I appreciate the cabinet secretary’s presence here today. I hope that her recent trip to Chile to discuss aquaculture was not the reason why her response to the committee’s stage 1 report came through this morning or why the update to the agricultural reform route map arrived yesterday.

After years of endless consultation and discussion groups, the stakes are high for the survival of rural Scotland. Key decisions that are made during the passage of the bill will have a significant impact on the lives of farmers, crofters and rural communities across Scotland for decades to come. That is why it is so important to bring people along with us on this journey.

The Scottish National Party’s choice to introduce yet another framework bill has come at the cost of parliamentary scrutiny. I accept that framework bills offer some benefits, but it is crucial that we strike a balance between providing flexibility and ensuring that the Parliament can scrutinise the secondary legislation, which the Government continually reminds us will contain the core of the policy decisions.

After reading the cabinet secretary’s response to the stage 1 committee report, I am somewhat suspicious of the motivations behind the desire to use a framework bill. Specifically, I am concerned about the Parliament’s ability to robustly scrutinise key aspects of the secondary legislation.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

Notwithstanding the suspicions that Rachael Hamilton has expressed about the reasons for having a framework bill, will she acknowledge that the evidence that we received at committee was overwhelmingly in favour of a framework bill?

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

That is absolutely correct. I thank Alasdair Allan for that reiteration.

In response to the stage 1 committee report, the cabinet secretary implied that the affirmative procedure will be used only for matters of principle or of great significance, later adding that the Scottish Government will give careful consideration to concerns from Parliament about the use of negative instruments on specific issues—thereby making it clear that it is up to Scottish National Party ministers and their Green allies to decide which pieces of secondary legislation will be put to scrutiny in the chamber.

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

I do not know whether Rachael Hamilton is talking about the provisions in section 13. As a member of the rural committee, she will be aware that there are either-way provisions and that we have introduced—I think—seven pieces of regulation over the past three years in relation to which we have used that procedure, and not once has the committee questioned or queried the type of procedure that was chosen. Does she therefore recognise that it is a recognised and established practice in relation to some of those instruments?

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

I am not sure whether the cabinet secretary is insinuating that the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee is not doing its job properly. However, currently, the way that the power to provide support sits is through the negative procedure, which is, in fact, a Henry VIII power and should be subject to the affirmative procedure, as was noted by the DPLR Committee. That is where the committee took its advice from.

I know that it can be hard to justify this Government’s policies, but Parliament should nevertheless have the opportunity to hold it to account. Should we really trust the SNP to decide what are not matters of principle or great significance? I, for one, alongside many farmers and rural communities, have stopped trusting this Government.

It lost all trust when the cabinet secretary failed to stand up for rural Scotland at the cabinet table, leading to a £33.2 million reduction in the agriculture budget. It lost the trust of farmers by stealing £45 million of ring-fenced funding from the agriculture budget—cuts so deep that they were described as a “last act of betrayal” by farmers across Scotland.

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

There is so much to address in the falsehoods that have just been perpetrated by Rachael Hamilton, who has used such emotive words that are completely untrue. The money and the savings that we had to take from that portfolio—every single penny of which will be returned to it, as has been committed to by me, the Deputy First Minister and the First Minister; they are ring-fenced funds that must be returned—were a result of the economic mismanagement of the Tory Government at Westminster, which has given us the worst settlement since devolution—

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

— and cut our capital allocation by 10 per cent.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Please resume your seat, Ms Hamilton.

I would encourage interventions, but they will need to be brief. I also caution against using language that, as the cabinet secretary will know, is not acceptable in the chamber.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Deputy Presiding Officer.

I heard your remarks to the cabinet secretary. I wonder whether you would care to give us an opinion from the chair as to the appropriateness of Rachael Hamilton making the accusation that the Government is “stealing” money from farmers. That word rather jars with me, and I would be grateful for your opinion on whether it constitutes appropriate language to be utilised.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I thank Mr Swinney for that point of order. As Mr Swinney will know, I would encourage robust debate. However, the reference to “falsehoods” skirts—as Mr Swinney will acknowledge—very close to language that is not acceptable in the chamber.

I call Rachael Hamilton to continue.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.

The bill fails to deliver on the detail. Why should we be surprised that the raison d’être of the SNP-Green Government is to sow seeds of division? Let us take, for example, the bill’s provision for continued alignment with the EU. While farmers in the rest of the UK will be able to benefit from gene editing technology, Mairi Gougeon and Jim Fairlie have decided to put Scottish farmers at a competitive disadvantage by siding with ideology and not science. Instead of backing hard-working farmers in Scotland, they have put their obsession with independence first.

Last March, Mairi Gougeon chose to give an indulgent soliloquy on independence rather than use the time to provide farmers with key details on this vital bill. The lack of detail has left farmers uncertain about their future, uncertain about their future investment and uncertain about how they will continue to put food on plates up and down Scotland.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

Have I got time, Presiding Officer?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I can give you a little bit more time back, but probably not the time for all the interventions.

Can we have the minister’s microphone on, please?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

As the minister’s microphone is not working, I call Rachael Hamilton to continue.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

The First Minister regurgitated a promise of 70 per cent direct payment in tiers 1 and 2 but gave no indication of a successor to the less favoured area support scheme. Previously, under LFASS, direct support made up up to 86 per cent of payments. If the Scottish Government wants to avoid Highland clearances, it needs to provide clarity on that.

While the SNP Government was supposedly providing all the answers for creating an entirely independent nation in its 12 independence papers, it failed to provide one iota of detail on its rural support plan. We need to deliver a bill that is designed with farmers and communities at its core. Although I welcome the Government’s recognition of that, stakeholders have warned that a steering group must be different from the current oversight board.

Recently, we have seen this Government cast aside the experience and knowledge of rural stakeholders to suit its own dogmatic and conceptual aims. The Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill and the consultation on managing deer for climate and nature are recent examples of that. Many are rightly worried that that approach will be repeated, given that the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee’s suggestion to include a requirement for statutory consultation due to the strategic significance of the rural support plan was flat-out refused by the cabinet secretary.

In response to the committee, the cabinet secretary notes the concerns of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee and the DPLR Committee that decisions to be made on capping should be subject to the affirmative procedure. There is a lot of noting but not much commitment to acting on recommendations, which is deeply disappointing.

On the financial memorandum, the Scottish Government says that it will provide further detail on the transition costs associated with the bill and is currently using estimated costs. Stakeholders, including RSPB Scotland, the NFUS and Scotland’s Rural College are concerned that costs will be passed to farmers, crofters and land managers. If a business conducted itself in that manner, it would not survive.

The Scottish Conservatives will bring forward sensible amendments to fix the bill, but we can do that only if the SNP is willing to work with us. We will give the Scottish Government the opportunity to work with us to design an agricultural system that has Scotland’s farmers at its heart. Central to that will be ensuring that the Scottish Parliament can scrutinise the detail, particularly on the Government’s introduction of enhanced conditionality.

Presiding Officer, would you like me to conclude, or do I have a bit more time?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I can give you a little more time.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

We want to ensure that claimants do not have to jump through hoops to access support. That means that farmers and crofters must be part of the co-design of the compliance parts of the bill, the code of practice and the continuous professional development scheme.

On that point, it is regrettable that the financial memorandum does not contain any projected cost for the CPD scheme. We want to see Scotland’s food future at the heart of the bill. We want a critical mass of livestock to be retained rather than Scotland’s uplands replaced with renewables and rewilding. We want a catchment management approach to protect Scotland’s best growing land. We want farmers to benefit from a fit-for-purpose public procurement strategy, as is outlined in our paper on Scotland’s food future


I could say so much more, but I will close by saying that the Scottish Conservatives are pleased to support the general principles of the bill but have distinct concerns about the financial memorandum.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I thank the clerks and staff of the committee and all those who gave evidence during stage 1 consideration of the bill.

This is rightly an enabling bill, because it needs to adapt to future circumstances. However, because it is an enabling bill, most of the meaningful legislation will be secondary legislation. That is why we need to see a draft rural support plan before the bill is finalised and we need scrutiny of that secondary legislation—an affirmative process with consultation to ensure that the rural support plan is right.

We should have had the bill a long time ago, and we should have had the rural support plan before now. As the clock runs down, there is the excuse not to make change, because we cannot have cliff edges. We do not have a clear direction of travel and that cannot be done with farming, which is a long-term industry. Farmers need time to adapt, and introducing legislation this late in the parliamentary session shows that there is no clear vision for agriculture. That is stalling innovation in the sector, because people do not want to move until they have a clear indication of which direction they should be going in.

Finlay Carson talked about the principles of the bill and I think that everybody agreed with them, but many witnesses who gave evidence suggested that there should be further principles, such as food security, local production, fair work practices in both terms and conditions and housing for migrant workers, protection of income for farmers and crofters, animal welfare and so on. A number of other things along those lines should be principles within the bill, and funding the sector should depend on those.

As I said earlier, the rural support plan is where the detail will be, and that detail can make or break farmers and crofters. It needs to be co-designed, and changes in direction must give the industry time to adapt. We had evidence saying that the outcomes of the rural support plan need to be highlighted, and that they should be clear and measurable. At the moment, there is nothing in the bill about that.

The bill allows capping. There is a need to manage that and to show a clear direction of travel, because people need to know when the capping powers will be used, which I hope that they will be. At the moment, 50 per cent of the entire agriculture budget goes to the top 7 per cent of recipients, based on the size of their enterprise. That cannot be right.

Crofters and other small producers are contributing to public goods. Indeed, at the round-table meeting, we heard that many are already sequestering carbon and providing local food, but they are not paid for any of those public goods. They are often unable to access environmental grants, because their small areas of land cannot have as many features as the larger areas that sweep up all those grants, even if proportionately they do more.

Funding is not currently given to those who work on three hectares or less; they are excluded. There is a small producers pilot fund, which distributes £1 million of funding to small producers, but that equates to an average of £143 per year to the registered producers who have less than 30 hectares. However, if we compare that with region 1 funding, where every hectare receives £223 per year just for fulfilling the minimum requirements of active farming, it shows the disproportionate influence that some of our larger farms have compared with smaller producers.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

Rhoda Grant is speaking passionately about the crofting sector, but the supply chains are key to ensuring their success, particularly in providing abattoirs and mitigating the issues that crofters have that others across Scotland do not have. That could be a part of the bill that could be very important for crofters.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

Indeed. I f we are looking at local production, we need to look at how to provide abattoirs and the other services that allow people to farm, produce and put the end product into the market, because that is where the funding is.

We also need to ensure that the legislation is in keeping with other legislation. For example, the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill seeks to deal with our pattern of land ownership and make it more diverse. However, the payments that we give out for agriculture encourage larger holdings and that simply is not right. We need to make sure that we create a level playing field.

Concern was also expressed about unsupported forms of agriculture, such as market gardening, and co-ops such as grazings committees in the crofting counties. Grazings committees have a history of working together, but such committees cannot claim agricultural funding for themselves as well as for individual crofters who might wish to apply for it. That ability is missing from the bill, and I hope that it will go into the bill at a later stage.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

Rhoda Grant mentioned market gardening. There are some really good producers that produce a lot of local produce for delivery in a very small area. Does she agree that we need to think about how we support smaller producers such as market gardeners?

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

Yes, I do, because they are a public good, not least in the work that they do in providing healthy, good-quality food to their local community.

There are a number of anomalies with the bill, one of which relates to sustainable and regenerative agriculture. Everyone agrees that that should be defined in the code rather than in the bill, because we must change as the science changes. However, in her response to the committee’s report, the cabinet secretary said that, as the code would not be mandatory, there was no need for a lot of scrutiny of the code. She also suggested that the provision of support would be dependent on adherence to the code, which suggests that the code will be mandatory for people who wish to receive funding.

Concerns were expressed about continuing professional development. Everyone agrees that that is a good thing, but it must be proportionate and it must be delivered locally, given that farmers and crofters are tied to the land.

In addition, the bill needs to be joined up with other legislation. We need to make sure that the bill ties in with the good food nation plan, the climate change plan and all our statutory duties under EU law and policy and the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, rather than cluttering up the landscape any further.

Finally, it is right that farming funding should not be devolved through the Barnett formula. Currently, we get 17 per cent of the funding, plus convergence funding. That needs to be retained, if not increased.

Scottish Labour will support the bill. We look forward to working with the cabinet secretary and to the bill being improved through consensus working, rather than the Government using its built-in majority to force it through.

Photo of Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

I, too, o ffer my thanks to the committee clerks, committee colleagues and all who have been involved in the stage 1 process.

The passion of people in the agriculture sector to grow and produce quality food is evident. As custodians of the land, many have shown good practice for nature and the climate, and that should be fostered and encouraged. For years now, crofters and farmers have been crying out for certainty over future agricultural support. Combined with the increased uncertainty that Brexit has caused, the impacts of global political instability and rising costs, the length of time that it has taken to introduce the bill has had negative impacts—including on mental health—on farmers, crofters and land managers across Scotland.

I recently met young farmers in my Shetland constituency. They are enthusiastic and knowledgeable, but the information vacuum on the future support system has made them—as it has made others in every part of Scotland—hesitant to invest in improvements or new innovations.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

I agree with much of what the member is saying about the need for greater certainty in the support that is given to farmers. However—she knows what I am going to say—does she also accept that there is a need for greater certainty on the funding envelope from the UK Government, under which we will have to build an agriculture policy in Scotland, if we are to achieve any of our aims for agriculture?

Photo of Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

I will come on to that. If the member will give me a minute or two, I will get there.

Certainty is needed soon to avoid a scenario in which many scale back their activities or leave the sector altogether, as some have already done.

The changes that the bill will bring will have far-reaching impacts not just for farmers and crofters directly, but for members of the wider associated professions—agricultural suppliers, fencing contractors, sellers of farming vehicles and equipment, vets, auctioneers and abattoir workers.

A healthy and profitable agriculture sector adds value to rural economies and communities through rural employment. Schools, health services and businesses need people living and working the land in rural and island areas.

An industry cannot change overnight, but if the right support is given, farmers, crofters and land managers will be able to make positive changes to create a thriving sector that works for both climate and food production.

Photo of Jim Fairlie Jim Fairlie Scottish National Party

Does the point that the member has just made not signify that the Scottish Government, in ensuring that there are no cliff edges, has taken exactly the right approach in the first place?

Photo of Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

It is important that there are no cliff edges, but we still need a bit of certainty.

The Scottish Government is requiring a 31 per cent reduction in agricultural emissions by 2032. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for the sector to deliver on the climate change targets now, given that the Scottish Government’s introduction of the bill has been so delayed.

I understand the reasoning behind the use of a framework bill to establish a flexible basis for future support schemes. However, I share concerns about Parliament’s ability to effectively scrutinise the detail in secondary legislation. The Parliament must be given an opportunity to scrutinise significant funding decisions, and I echo calls for the Parliament and the Scottish Government to work together to ensure that Parliament will have sufficient time and information for effective scrutiny of secondary legislation.

I highlight the committee’s call for the Scottish Government to ensure there is a multiyear, ring-fenced budget for support schemes. The UK Government needs to make that possible, using a formula that reflects Scotland’s agricultural landscapes. The excuse that it cannot bind a future parliament does not stop policy making in other areas, so it should not stop it here.

The Scottish Government previously said that it could not provide detail on the funding split because it did not know the overall budget from the UK Government. That budget is still unknown but the funding split has been announced, which proves that that information could have been provided sooner.

I ask, as others have asked, when the Scottish Government will introduce the draft rural support plan. Questions remain over who will be consulted and how it will be scrutinised by Parliament. That is time critical. The Scottish Government must publish a draft plan as soon as possible.

Scotland’s agricultural sector is diverse. Small producers and crofters play an important part in many rural communities, including in my constituency. The bill must work for farmers of all sizes and be sensitive to the needs of crofters and small producers—Rhoda Grant highlighted the importance of grazings committees.

Active farming should be encouraged, and everyone should get access to support schemes. I have heard how essential it is that the less favoured area support scheme continues. Concerns have been raised about the capacity and resource of the Scottish Government to implement the new support scheme, and I ask the cabinet secretary to respond on that point.

I have received reports of prime agricultural land being sold at way above the asking price for the sole purpose of planting trees. The Scottish Government appears to be doing nothing to control that use of agricultural land, rendering the rhetoric of “the right tree in the right place” meaningless.

The bill carries a weight of responsibility. Getting it right is key to securing the future of the agricultural sector and providing not just existing farmers and crofters, but also new entrants, with the confidence that they need. Scotland’s agricultural sector is important not just to our rural areas, but to our entire country. The bill must reflect that importance.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to the open debate.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

I am pleased to speak in the debate in support of the general principles of the Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill. Previously, I was a substitute member of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee and had been present for some of the evidence sessions. My colleagues on the committee must be thanked for all their work, including the committee clerks and everyone who came to provide evidence for the bill.

I am now a permanent committee member, and I was able to attend a consultation event that was held in Parliament in February, which almost 40 farmers, crofters, land managers and representatives from the rural community and development organisations attended. The purpose of the event was to engage directly on the ground with the agricultural and rural practitioners to hear their views about future agricultural policy.

As has been mentioned, this is a framework bill, which will provide measures that the Scottish ministers will use to develop the support that farming and rural communities need so that they can adapt flexibly to new opportunities and challenges and prosper in a changing world.

That means that the bill must allow for a flexible model of support to be delivered. The bill replaces the common agricultural policy legislation that was retained after the UK’s exit from the EU. As the bill progresses, I will explore the area of food security and food resilience.

Section 1 covers the four overarching objectives of the future agricultural policy. Those are sustainable and regenerative agriculture, the production of high-quality food, which I will come back to, on-farm nature restoration, climate mitigation and adaptation and enabling rural communities to thrive. Enabling rural communities to thrive is important to me and is one of the items that came up at the February consultation event. Another item that we needed to consider from that event was depopulation. A lot of issues were raised at that event in Parliament.

Any action that we take to address depopulation and enable repopulation is extremely important. I know that many members across the chamber raise questions about retaining our young people or encouraging them to return following university education and raise questions about attracting people to choose to move to and settle in our rural communities, including in Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders. We hear about the same issues of recruitment, retention and the need for rural housing in the current inquiry of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, which I am a member of. In that inquiry, we are focusing on healthcare in remote and rural areas. The same issues are reflected in different portfolios, so it is welcome that the Government has launched a depopulation action plan. I recognise the work that the Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees, Emma Roddick, has done on that, and I thank her for her visit to Dumfries last year to hear directly from young people.

On objective 2, which is the production of high-quality food, the stage 1 report recommends that

“the Scottish Government ... explore amending the number, theme or wording of the objectives, in line with the evidence provided.

An example of that could be found in relation to food resilience and sustainable farm businesses. I would be keen to hear from the cabinet secretary in her closing speech on whether amendments to the objectives that would strengthen the language to do with food security and resilience could be considered, given the impact on farm production of the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis that people living in Scotland are still experiencing.

Supporting our local producers, whether they are small enterprises or small-scale market gardeners, who produce and provide food that serves local communities and uses short supply chains, needs to be considered. I know that our farmers, crofters and producers who raise the best welfare-bred animals in Scotland—

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

Reflecting on what Emma Harper just said regarding market gardeners and small producers and supporting the local economy, does she support capping and redistribution?

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

We need to look at the wide range of what is happening in food production across Scotland. As we move forward, I will certainly be engaging to hear everyone’s feedback, and I thank the member for that intervention.

I know that members will cover other aspects of the stage 1 report and the inquiry, including the creation, monitoring and evaluation of the rural support plan, so I will not go into too much detail about that, except to say that stakeholders, including industry bodies and land managers, wanted early input into the plan. Quality Meat Scotland argued for embedding co-design principles into the plan.

To relate that back to the creation of the framework legislation, co-design will be very important. I know that the cabinet secretary acknowledged the importance of co-design when I asked her about it during her recent appearance at the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee.

This is my final point, Presiding Officer. This issue has been raised directly with me by NFU Scotland, as well as in its press release today. The committee noted in its stage 1 report a lack of certainty about future funding for agriculture and rural support from the UK Government, and the committee believes that it is important for Parliament to have oversight of the minister’s strategic priorities.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

No, I am in my last 10 seconds. In fact, I probably have no seconds left, so my apologies.

The committee believes that it is important for the Parliament to have oversight of the minister’s strategic priorities, budget priorities and the consequential impact on the support schemes. There should be democratic oversight and an appropriate level of scrutiny.

I realise that time is short. I agree with the general principles of the bill and, although there is a lot more that we could have discussed today, I will support the bill at decision time.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

I have had two treats in two weeks: I had a chance to talk about muirburn and wildlife management last week, and I have the treat of talking about agriculture this afternoon. I refer members to my entry in the register of interests. I am a member of a farming partnership in Morayshire. We grow barley and vegetables, and we produce pedigree cattle. I am in that partnership with my wife, and we receive subsidies as a result of being in it.

My family has farmed for three generations, and we take it very seriously. I am sad that we are where we are today, and the reason why I am sad is that we could have been here two years ago if the—I believe—strange deal that was done between Mike Rumbles and Fergus Ewing, who, sadly, has left the chamber, had not been allowed to happen. The Conservatives wanted this policy to be in place by 2024, but the deal that was done between Mike Rumbles, of the Liberal Democrats, and the SNP allowed the policy be put back until 2026. This is not where we should be; we wanted the policy earlier, and I am sad that we are not there. However, we are getting closer, and I accept that the bill is a step towards an agricultural policy.

I have looked carefully at the proposed legislation and, although I do not like framework bills, I understand the need for a framework bill in this situation. I also understand the need to move forward. It would have helped if the cabinet secretary had told us about some of the proposals that she will moot after the bill has been passed, so that we can see what the bill is all about and what it will bring in.

Farmers are desperately nervous, because the last time we went through a review was under Richard Lochhead, and it was called, “The Future of Scottish Agriculture”. As a result of that, we had the project assessment committee—PAC—review and we ended up with a complete rewriting of the agricultural subsidy scheme, which was a disaster because it had not been costed. Richard Lochhead did nothing to find out where the money would go or to understand the outcome of what he proposed. Consequently, some farmers who were not doing a huge amount of farming got a lot more subsidy than those who were doing a lot of farming.

I would have liked to see the policy come forward, because I want to understand how the Government will ensure that farmers get properly rewarded for their high-quality food. Make no bones about it, what happens at the moment is that, if farmers grow barley, for example, the people who buy the barley look to see what subsidy the farmer will get from the Government per acre, deduct that off the price that they are prepared to pay for a tonne of it, and farmers end up with a profit of about 5 per cent. That is not where we want to be. We want to be rewarding farmers for public good, not rewarding the people who are consuming their products. A careful balance is needed.

I looked at the bill and at the evidence carefully to try to find a definition of “sustainable and regenerative agriculture”—what does that term mean? To me, it is just three words grouped together without a definition. I am told that it is going to be defined, but we are being asked to pass the first stages of a bill on something that we do not know the meaning of, That seems bizarre. If the cabinet secretary would like to stand up and define sustainable and regenerative agriculture, I am very happy to give way. I see that she does not—no, the cabinet secretary does want to intervene, so I am happy to give way.

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

I understand the member’s point about the definition of sustainable and regenerative agriculture, but I am sure that he will also understand that this is about a basket of measures. We set out a lot of that information in our route map, which I hope the member has read.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

I try to read everything, even if it comes out just before we are discussing something. I try to read the response to the committee—if it is circulated to members. I have watched the route map change on a daily basis, and I am not sure that I am any clearer.

I want to pick up on three specific points and I will have to do this carefully and quickly. I understand the need for capping, but we need to be careful that we are not capping support when it is linked to environmental projects and improvements because, if we do that, we will get even further away from the environmental targets that we are setting out to achieve.

I understand why people want to talk about increasing—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Mountain, I can give you most of the time back if you take the intervention.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I will try to be as quick as possible.

The member surely realises that those with larger areas of land are pushing smaller land managers out of getting any funding at all for environmental benefit, because they have more features than the smaller land managers.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

I accept that there is a need to make sure that there is a careful balance here, but what we have seen in the past few years is money being paid under the farming scheme to charities that are not actually farming. That is the kind of thing that I want to get away from. I would like to see farmers being rewarded for farming and also being rewarded for doing environmental schemes.

I am very keen on animal welfare, and I make the point to members that, in Scotland, we have some of the highest standards of animal welfare in the world. I am rightly proud of that, and that is where we should be. However, those animal welfare standards do not cut across when housewives and people are buying meat in the shops. They look at what is often the cheapest cut of meat and will buy meat that is—

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

No. I am sorry, but I cannot give way. [


.] I did say “housewives”. If that is the point that you are going to make, I will say that anyone can do the shopping; it is the basket that counts. [


.] It is very difficult to conclude, Presiding Officer, when I am being barracked by somebody in a sedentary position.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Mountain, could you bring your remarks to a conclusion? I would discourage members on the front benches from heckling during the speeches.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

My final point is on CPD. This Government loves to make sure that everyone is trained and I refer people to section 27(3), which gives a whole range of reasons why farmers need to go through CPD. I can support that if ministers would do the CPD training as well, because I think that, if it is good for farmers, it is good for ministers.

Presiding Officer, I know that I have run out of time. I will just say that I am supporting the bill at stage 1 but I want to see a lot more clarity from the Government, because the bill is seriously unclear at the moment.

Photo of Elena Whitham Elena Whitham Scottish National Party

As a member of Parliament representing the vast and wonderful rural constituency of Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, a new member of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee, a granddaughter of a dairy farmer—and, indeed, a former housewife—it is imperative that I stand here today to speak in this debate and support the Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill at stage 1. My constituents saw no just transition away from the mining industry, which, along with the agricultural sector, was the life-blood of many generations in rural Ayrshire. It is vital that we support our rural communities through their transition away from EU agricultural funding and that we support them in the transition towards land use that is mindful of the existential climate and nature emergencies—emergencies that we must ensure are at the heart of policy creation and direction.

The Scottish Government’s vision for Scotland is for it to become a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture. The new support powers that are outlined in the agriculture and rural communities framework bill must enable delivery of the Scottish Government’s vision for agriculture and provide flexibility to deliver future outcomes beyond the current vision. I would welcome additional clarity on how those powers will work in practice.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

D oes the member agree that the framework is a framework and that the bill—the substance of it—will be delivered through the rural support plan, and that it is important that we see that as soon as possible, to give clarity to farmers on what the Government sees as the way forward?

Photo of Elena Whitham Elena Whitham Scottish National Party


I agree with the member on that and I was just coming to that point.

In order to secure that just transition and vision, Scotland must have a support system and a rural support plan in place to deliver high-quality food production, climate mitigation and adaptation, nature restoration and thriving rural and island communities. Scotland’s vision for agriculture, as set out, is positive; it puts farmers, crofters and land managers at its core and values their effort to help feed the nation and steward our countryside.

So far, the Scottish Government is demonstrating that it understands that the sector needs flexibility now and into the future so that it can respond to the pressures and challenges that we will face in an ever-changing and volatile world. A framework bill will allow for adaptive support for farmers, crofters and land managers in the near, medium and long-term future. I know that the cabinet secretary recognises the need to ensure that there is real co-design in developing the detail of the Scottish Government’s agricultural policy, with the people who are directly affected by it being able to participate in its formation and adaptation. As the Scottish Government continues to co-develop the measures for the four-tier support framework, I implore ministers to remain committed to supporting active farming and food production with direct payments now, and to have a phased approach to integrating any new conditionality. I ask them to please ensure that we have no cliff edges for our rural economies and that stakeholders and the Parliament are consulted along the way, which will allow for adequate scrutiny.

All that I have just set out has been repeated to the committee by stakeholders across the rural landscape during our consultation on and detailed consideration of the draft bill. The biggest plea that we heard repeatedly was the need for certainty, and although I appreciate the Government’s commitment to multiyear funding, I also recognise, as have others, the impossible situation of having yearly funding tranches coming from the UK Government with no information on what will happen to that funding beyond next year. The uncertainty since Brexit is wholly unfair to rural Scotland. Collectively, the committee recognises the need for future agricultural funding to be set out on a long-term, multiyear basis, as per the former EU support payments, and we call on the UK Government to engage with the devolved nations to that end. The Scottish agriculture sector requires future funding certainty due to the long-term nature of investment decisions and the long lead-in times that are required. We heard repeatedly that farmers and crofters are reluctant to invest, as they have been completely uncertain since Brexit about what the future will hold.

I have been passionate about regenerative agriculture for many years—maybe I will sit down sometime with Edward Mountain and go through what I feel regenerative farming is. Indeed, one of my first speeches in the Parliament was about the trailblazing work of dairy farmers in Ayrshire who have developed and implemented regenerative practices and shared those innovations with their fellow farmers at on-farm, peer-to-peer continuing professional development events. I learned that the costs of new machinery and a wholesale change in methods was costly in the short term, but was being done for long-term sustainability. I urge the Government to consider how it best supports the sector to embrace regenerative agriculture through effective CPD as well as through funding for innovation and the transition that is required. I ask the cabinet secretary to confirm that that will be included in the detail of the rural support plan.

We must look at the bill in the context of the wider legislative and reform landscape in which it will operate—as others such as Rhoda Grant have mentioned—and consider issues such as land and estate management, land reform and environmental and biodiversity matters. It is absolutely necessary that we consider the interplay and overlap between such reforms to ensure that there is a consistent and aligned approach across all policy development that is affecting the rural sector. We cannot operate in silos. I ask the cabinet secretary to outline in her closing remarks how the bill will interact with our aims for a wellbeing economy; how it will help our rural communities to embrace and support the principles of community wealth building via local and small producers, which we have heard about time and again in the debate, including supporting shorter local supply chains; and where food resilience and security will fit into its priorities.

I represent a vast rural area that is facing significant demographic and depopulation issues, and it is only when we put those challenges at the heart of decision making that we will be truly supporting our rural communities.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

There is much in the bill that I can, in principle, support, such as the laying down of conditions on the grants, loans and guarantees that are paid out. Those conditions must include fair work and must cover seasonal workers—not just their terms but their conditions, including their living conditions. The retention of the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board is welcome and the promotion of biodiversity is positive.

I am drawn to the summary in the financial memorandum that states:

“In future, support will be focused on food production” and

“actions that support nature restoration and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a way that is economically and socially just.”

For too long, under the old common agricultural policy, incentives worked in precisely the opposite direction, with hedgerows and trees uprooted and biodiversity destroyed. All too often, a great injustice was served upon those who live and work on the land.

The vital role of producer co-operatives is acknowledged in the bill. They must be nurtured and grown. The commitment to continuing personal development will be applied, I hope, to the 67,000 farm labourers as much as to the managers of our land.

The bill’s title, with its recognition of rural communities, its schedules, with their recognition of rural economies, and the importance of investing in local secondary businesses

“relating to agriculture, food production or processing, forestry or other rural land-use activity” all represent important statements of intent.

I must also record—this may not be my party’s exact position—that I quite like the idea of a five-year plan, and a recognition that market intervention is absolutely necessary, not least when there are exceptional market conditions.

In my view, those are all correct principles, but there are some basic flaws in the bill that need to be addressed. We know that 62 per cent of direct farm payments go to the largest 20 per cent of farms, and we know—only from freedom of information requests—that the biggest recipients of farm payments continue to be the least deserving: the biggest and wealthiest landowners.

I n 2022, the Duke of Buccleuch pocketed £1.8 million for Queensberry Farming Ltd, and then £1.7 for Bowhill Farming Ltd. Some of our other ancient noble families are also apparently in need of a helping hand from the state, such as the Earl of Moray, who netted £1.7 million, the Duke of Roxburghe, who got £1.4 million, and the Earl of Rosebery, who got £1.3 million. When we are talking about a cap on support and assistance under the bill, we need to remember that that aristocratic lot have had centuries of practice in rigging and fleecing the system.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

I understand that Richard Leonard is passionate about ensuring that there is a balance here, but the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee heard from a lot of stakeholders, from the grass roots through to large-scale farmers, and it is important to recognise their contribution to biodiversity, rewilding and reforesting. It is important that we get that balance right.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I can give you the time back, Mr Leonard.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

I am trying to argue for getting the balance right, as well. This is the people’s hard-earned cash, so the people should know who benefits from it. We need transparency, which is why, in my view, a table of who the recipients are should be published by the Scottish Government as a matter of routine.

We cannot preserve the existing system—we must break with it. We need decisive, radical change in the payments system so that it is much more closely aligned with need and with solving the ecological and climate crisis, is proportionate, and better rewards smallholders, small tenant farmers and crofters.

The same is true for forestry, where the spivs and speculators are everywhere, buying and selling land. When bill talks about so-called private sector green finance investment, does the Government really mean the likes of Gresham House, which receives a huge capital injection from the Scottish National Investment Bank and which is now the third-largest landowner in Scotland? I have raised the case of Gresham House in Parliament on numerous occasions. It was recently taken over by a US private equity corporation, and its speciality is not in planting trees or in saving the planet, but in tax avoidance for the super-rich. It represents extractive capitalism at its voracious worst.

At the same time, we have widespread food poverty and growing inequality, and our seasonal and all-round workforce is exploited ruthlessly. We import 46 per cent of our food. Meanwhile, dairy farms are amalgamating, smaller farming enterprises are struggling and medium-sized holdings are being hollowed out.

So let me finish with the words of someone for whom I know the cabinet secretary shares my affection—the words of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, who said:

“this Autumn’s crops, meal for the folk of the cities, good heartsome barley alcohol—would never be spread, never be seeded, never ground to bree, but for the aristocracy of the earth, the ploughmen and the peasants. These are the real rulers of Scotland: they are the rulers of the earth!”

With this bill, we cannot go back to being ruled in the old way by the old ruling class in the old order. Power should pass from one class to another—from the old aristocracy to this real aristocracy. That really would be transformative; that really would be radical; that really would be revolutionary and, one fine day, it will happen.

Photo of Kate Forbes Kate Forbes Scottish National Party

This agriculture bill is a key moment in Scotland’s history. For decades—indeed, centuries—agriculture has been a core part of our economy and our society, but in the past 10 years there have been unthinkable disruptions to the certainty of farmers, crofters and agricultural workers that they will be able to plan ahead.

I commend the Government enormously for the work that it has done in consulting key stakeholders—not least the NFUS—to devise a plan that seeks to give farmers the certainty that they need and to ensure that Scotland has a vision for agriculture, moving forward.

When we deal with such a bill, it is crucial that we face up to the reality that we are not able to deliver everybody’s objectives. The committee had a number of round-table meetings that were well attended. At those meetings, I asked stakeholders whether they felt that the number of objectives was right or that they would add more objectives. If I recall correctly, the responses were almost unanimous: everybody wanted to add objectives. It is always interesting to see that very few people want to remove objectives.

Of course, the danger for such a bill is that, in order for it to be effective and transformational and to deliver what agriculture workers—and the communities that rely on them—need and want, we have to be clear. Therefore, I will highlight the three core objectives that I think the bill should deliver, and on which the success of the bill and eventual act should be measured.

The first objective is food security. It often baffles me that, when people are discussing agriculture, land use and Scotland’s economy, little thought is given to food security. We have an incredible resource in Scotland. We have a plentiful supply of food—the seafood from our seas, the crops that come from our land and the livestock that graze on our land—and drink.

I remember, during the first few days of Covid-19—I was the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and a local MSP at the time—being incredulous that, on one hand, our food producers could not get their food to market and, on the other, people were struggling to access food, and yet, there was no connection. I know that the situation is more complicated than I have just set out, but being resilient and secure when it comes to our food production really matters in a world that is incredibly uncertain, whether the uncertainty is due to war, other geopolitical risks or, indeed, the trade and tariff barriers that exist post-Brexit.

The second objective has to be land management. Effective management of our land is the basis for our tourism, culture, food and drink industries and of some of Scotland’s biggest exports. Although we might focus on some of the public bodies and the national strategies that exist to manage our land well, at the end of the day, right now, it is the farmers and the crofters who are out there working in all weathers to manage our land who are really at the coalface, doing the job. It is incumbent on the Government and politicians to recognise the work that they do, and not to put up additional barriers or hurdles that make what they more difficult than it needs to be, and to incentivise good behaviour.

The third objective, which is really the outcome of the first two objectives, is that we reach net zero and improve biodiversity. By focusing on food security and effective land management, we will further our progress towards meeting net zero and our biodiversity targets. The flipside is that failure to do that and to recognise the role of agricultural workers will only hinder our progress towards net zero. We cannot get there without taking people with us, and the people whom we need to take with us are the workers.

The NFUS briefing is very clear that high-quality agricultural production is vital to our economy. The sector is worth more than £16 billion and employs more than 130,000 people. Agriculture, including discussion of it, is not a niche topic that is relevant only to that sector; rather, it has a huge impact on Scotland as a whole.

As I draw to a close, I emphasise again that if we try to make the bill do too much, it might do nothing. Doing a few things excellently is a far better objective than doing many things in a mediocre way.

I commend the Government, and I encourage it to continue to engage with stakeholders. I look forward to voting for the bill tonight.

Photo of Ariane Burgess Ariane Burgess Green

The Scottish Government, like many Governments around the world, has acknowledged that we are living in a climate and nature emergency—“emergency” being the operative word. That means that, despite having one hand tied behind our back by the unequal union that is the UK, we have a responsibility to mobilise and direct resources as best we can in order to address those twin emergencies. This is not a game or a political football: it is our reality.

I thank everyone who gave evidence on the bill—especially the farmers who came to Parliament or welcomed us to their farms to share their views. I extend my thanks to the clerks and to the Scottish Parliament information centre for synthesising the copious amounts of evidence that we took.

An on-going flow of work has been taking place to support farmers. The bill is a milestone that marks one point in that flow, but it started long before the bill and will continue long after it is passed. However, a huge change in direction is needed and we are at a crossroads. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve how we support agriculture and rural communities. We can secure food production in Scotland and support farmers, crofters and growers to thrive while we also reduce the sector’s impact on climate and nature. We can help more farmers to enhance biodiversity and to capture carbon as they continue to produce food and underpin rural communities. There is no doubt that that is a tall order, and I do not underestimate the hard work, graft and changes that it will require—primarily from farmers, but also in other parts of the supply chain, agricultural policy and the payment system.

I cannot express enough my appreciation to the farmers, crofters and growers who are already leading the way. I am clear that the bill must lead to more support for them, and it must support others to adopt climate-friendly and nature-friendly farming, while ensuring that it is profitable for their businesses as well as for the planet and our future.

Currently, too many farmers are struggling. One third of agro-ecological growers are not planting this season as they face a severe financial squeeze.

The Scottish Farmer has reported fears about the future of the wider horticultural sector. In the uplands and the islands, the inflated cost of inputs has pushed some farming and crofting communities to the brink. Even before the latest cost crisis, it was difficult for hill farmers to make a good living, with the average less favoured areas sheep farm making a loss of £38,000 without support.

Unlike the position in England, the Scottish Government has committed to continue income support payments to farmers. That is welcome. However, some change is needed, because it is clear that the current system is neither working for farm businesses nor working well for public finances. Indeed, the Scottish Government highlighted that most common agricultural policy funding from the last round

“did not deliver the intended benefits or value for money”.

The current system is also not working for the climate or nature. Since the 1950s, an increasingly intensive agriculture system has, on the whole, driven biodiversity loss above ground and below ground. The proposed measures to reduce the sector’s emissions would take us less than halfway to where we need to be in order to stay on track to reach net zero by 2045. Therefore, the Scottish Government’s aim to transform how we support farming and food production is absolutely the right one.

The bill is a significant first step in that direction. However, as is often the case at stage 1, there is room for improvement. As the charity OneKind said:

“Given that there are millions of animals in our food system, it is quite a startling omission not to list animal welfare as one of the key objectives of the bill.”—[

Official Report


Rural Affairs and Islands Committee

, 6 December 2023; c 7.]

We should also expand our consideration of climate mitigation and nature restoration through the agriculture sector, and ensure that policy supports improvements upstream and downstream of the farm gate, as well as making measurable landscape-scale improvements on the ground. We must see farms and crofts as part of the wider ecosystem, so we must support farmers to improve soil health through biological and regenerative practices.

There have been calls for the bill to commit to a fairer payment system that includes fair work principles. There have also, as several colleagues have mentioned this afternoon, been strong calls to redistribute some of the budget away from the largest and wealthiest farms to smaller producers. I whole-heartedly support that, given the evidence that was cited in the committee’s report saying that small producers generate most jobs per hectare; that they are among the most productive and feed local communities; and that they are more likely to implement nature-based solutions and diversification.

In particular, I would like a commitment to extending support to small-scale fruit and vegetable growers. The key workers in green jobs are hugely valued by my Highlands and Islands constituents, but most receive no public funds, despite modelling the kind of climate-friendly and nature-friendly farming that could make Scotland a true leader in regenerative agriculture.

Photo of Ariane Burgess Ariane Burgess Green

In order to plan and implement positive change, farmers need multiyear funding certainty, as others have said. That is being denied them by the UK Government. They also need a clear idea—

Photo of Ariane Burgess Ariane Burgess Green

I am sorry—I did not hear the member. I am just winding up.

Farmers also need a clear idea of budget priorities across tiers, which the rural support plan should provide as soon as is reasonably possible.

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change how we support farming. It might also be the last chance that we have to course-correct and get on track to end the nature emergency—

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

You must conclude, Ms Burgess.

Photo of Ariane Burgess Ariane Burgess Green

— and keep our Paris agreement commitment. I will be supporting the—

The Presiding Officer:

Thank you, Ms Burgess. I must ask that you conclude.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill comes at a moment of enormous change and challenge for the industry in Scotland. The decision to leave the European Union has necessitated the repatriation of decision making on agriculture; the instability in the global community, especially arising out of the illegal invasion of Ukraine, has created a renewed focus on the importance of food security; and climate change is becoming a real and apparent risk for rural communities, with specific pressures on those who are involved in agriculture.

That backdrop of uncertainty makes the consideration of the bill and the issues that it covers ever more difficult, given that there is a wide range of views about what different stakeholders want to see achieved through the bill and from the new support regime for agriculture.

The Scottish Government’s willingness to engage with the agricultural community and a wide range of other stakeholders with an interest in developing the proposals in the bill is to be welcomed, as it has been by many organisations, including NFU Scotland. Equally, the decision of the Scottish Government to take a framework approach and to co-develop the detailed propositions that are involved strikes me as the reasonable way to proceed.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

In the agricultural reform route map, peatland and wetlands have been added to the cross-compliance conditions, and provisions on cross-compliance have been added to the bill. There has been no consultation with farmers on that. John Swinney spoke about consultation, but we must be genuine when we do that. That change will affect farmers.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The Conservatives cannot have it both ways. I have sat and listened to them for years saying—Edward Mountain even made this point a moment ago—that the Government has been talking to too many people for too long. Now, apparently, according to Rachael Hamilton, we have not been talking to enough people for enough time. The Conservatives need to make up their mind and to stop being obstructive to everything, because that is all that they do in any debate in this Parliament.

I would imagine that there are some people—indeed, perhaps even members on the Conservative benches—who voted for Brexit, who previously bemoaned the intricacies and complexities of the common agricultural policy and who are now beginning to regret the loss of some of the inherent stability and certainty that that policy brought to agriculture in Scotland. There was long-term financial stability that enabled effective forward planning. In its briefing for the debate, NFU Scotland bemoans the absence of financial certainty beyond the end of the current United Kingdom Parliament. That is a valid worry, and it does not help long-term planning. However, it is a problem that emanates from Whitehall and not from St Andrew’s house.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

Will John Swinney remind members which Government provided five years of multiyear, ring-fenced funding to the Scottish agricultural budget and which Government took £63 million out of the Scottish agricultural budget?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

That takes me back to my point about the Conservatives not knowing which way they are standing—whether they are up or down or inside out or whatever. Earlier, Edward Mountain bemoaned the fact that the Scottish Government had provided funding certainty for as long as it has provided it. Edward Mountain wanted the new regime in 2024, and now Finlay Carson is demanding that we carry on as we are to 2026. Really, the Conservatives are a shambolic bunch when it comes to any issue.

It is vital to note that, also in its briefing for today’s debate, NFU Scotland makes the plea, echoing the contents of the committee’s report, that the Scottish Government does not take the approach of passing on the Barnett consequentials of the funding settlement for agriculture in England. In my experience, organisations in Scotland normally clamour for a Barnett consequentials approach to be taken. Why is NFU Scotland not doing so? The answer is simple: it is because the UK Government is butchering financial support for agriculture in England. NFU Scotland can spot the obvious fact that that might have massive ramifications for the financial support that is available for agriculture in Scotland.

I cannot see an incoming Labour Government in the UK taking any sort of different stance. Here we can see one very visible example of the reckless damage that is being done by Brexit. There is a direct financial challenge for Scottish agriculture due to the folly of Brexit and the highly damaging decisions of the UK Conservative Government in the aftermath of Brexit.

The global issues that are now having an effect on food security create an imperative for us to strengthen our approach to maximising our food production here at home. I appeal to the Government, as it wrestles with these key questions, to act in its planning system to preserve as much prime agricultural land as possible for the utilisation of prime agricultural purposes and to place less emphasis on providing planning consent for solar farms that take a significant amount of prime agricultural land out of production and put the money into the hands of some already very wealthy farmers.

The bill that is before us creates opportunities to address the implications of climate change, which now poses a real and present threat to us all but which is manifesting itself acutely in rural Scotland. The Parliament does not need me to explain the detail of the generally wet, stormy and atrocious series of weather incidents that we have experienced since October, but I will say that I have lost count of the number of my constituents who are active in farming whose volume of land has been eroded because of significant flood damage as a consequence of climate change. That will affect the livelihoods of some of the farmers whom I represent who are unable to actively cultivate land because their land has, quite simply, disappeared.

That is the real and present threat of climate change in our society. I am grateful to the cabinet secretary, the Minister for Agriculture and Connectivity and the Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity, who have engaged with me on those questions.

The Presiding Officer:

You must conclude, Mr Swinney.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The bill that is before us will create the framework for some very challenging questions to be resolved. The approach that the Scottish Government has taken of bringing together disparate and competing voices to try to create a common approach is at the heart of the bill, which merits our support this afternoon.

Photo of Tim Eagle Tim Eagle Conservative

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, which shows that I am a farmer. Sadly, as members can see, I cannot be in the chamber today in person. When I put in my own tups last year, I did not know that I was going to become an MSP, and I now find myself here in the middle of lambing. I am not from a farming background, but agriculture has become my life. I have built what I can of my own farm and worked as an agricultural adviser, a land agent and an assessor for Quality Meat Scotland and Scottish Quality Crops.

For hundreds of years, farming has helped to shape and build our country and our people. That said, how we farm must continue to change and, over the past 15 years, I have seen it change at first hand in the north-east and across the Highlands. Traditional methods are being replaced with environmentally friendly and digitally fuelled practices, with people modernising and protecting the environment as they move forward. It is important to recognise and commend all those in the sector who already deliver in the spirit of the bill.

I have three quick points to make on the bill. The first is about the framework and the detail. Framework bills seem to be becoming the norm. Although I recognise the need for the adaptability that the framework is trying to provide, it is important to stress the need to be as detailed as possible in the primary legislation, and further thought should be given to how that can be accomplished.

My second point is on objectives. The stage 1 report—[



The Presiding Officer:

Colleagues, if you bear with us a moment, we will try to resolve this issue.

The Presiding Officer:

You are back, Mr Eagle.

Photo of Tim Eagle Tim Eagle Conservative

I apologise for that, Presiding Officer. My connection has been stable all afternoon, but it now decides to go off.

I was talking about the objectives. There is an interplay between food production and the environment. We should not have a contest between food and the environment, so more thought needs to be given to balancing the objectives and to their broadness to ensure that that interplay is a strength and not a potential limitation.

My third point is on consultation. I recognise the value of all stakeholders in this debate. A commitment to consultation is vital for the development of the proposed secondary legislation. I support the call for amendments at stage 2 to provide for that, with clear plans provided to stakeholders as soon as possible and consideration given to forming a new advisory group.

The rural support plan is, in essence, the beating heart of the bill. The Scottish Government’s current plan is to publish the rural support plan without an accompanying funding plan. I worry that, without funding, the bill will become meaningless. I urge the minister to commit to ensuring a funding plan that runs alongside the rural support plan.

I cannot stress enough that the sector simply cannot take any more bureaucracy or overly complicated schemes. I want applications for schemes to be positive and to involve working with the wider sector and the Government to achieve shared objectives. Overly complicated application forms, punitive punishments and paperwork that is not useful to the objectives should be minimised.

Most people in the sector agree on the principle of front loading payments. Funding must be shared equally, and front loading is a positive way of doing that. I urge the Government to consider that above capping, the powers for which are laid out in section 9.

There is no current provision in the bill for parliamentary scrutiny of the secondary legislation or the rural support plan, so I urge the Government to give a commitment to introduce that at stage 2.

Other members have picked up on various elements so, finally, I want to pick up on a couple of issues from my personal experience as a slightly ageing new entrant with a small sheep farm. First, as has been said already, it is hard for crofts and small farms to get funding through the current area-based system. I understand that there is the small producers pilot fund, but that still excludes—[



The Presiding Officer:

We have lost Mr Eagle again. We will wait a moment and see whether we can reconnect.

Do continue, Mr Eagle.

Photo of Tim Eagle Tim Eagle Conservative

The connection is really not great.

The Scottish Government’s proposal for a whole-farm plan—more details of which, I note, came out yesterday—would include a range of measures, such as soil testing, animal health and welfare and so on. It will pose difficulties for small and medium-sized units and crofters. Will the cabinet secretary look at how that will work for smaller farms, given the potential cost, and make sure that there is provision for them to complete the plan themselves?

I have heard talk of new entrants and young farmers for many years, yet both those groups continue to face huge barriers to establishing themselves in the industry. Access to land for sale or rent is minimal, and capital costs for even basic equipment are high. This issue has not been raised yet, but I press the cabinet secretary to think about the inclusion of a succession plan scheme in agriculture that not only gets new blood into the industry but absorbs the years of experience and expertise of those leaving it.

There is so much yet to be done before the next stage. To do it right, we will need intensive industry discussion, clearly defined objectives and a commitment to work with all those in farming across the many regions of Scotland. Above all, it will require the commitment of the Government to genuinely listen to the rural sector, to give more details about what is to come and to reduce unnecessary burdens so that the focus can be on the delivery of all the objectives that the stakeholders want to see achieved.

I apologise for my internet connection this afternoon.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

The Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill and the secondary legislation that will follow it will have far-reaching effects across rural Scotland. The Rural Affairs and Islands Committee, on which I serve, has not been idle in taking evidence on the bill. It has already visited farms, held round-table events and received evidence in person and in writing from a wide range of stakeholders. The voices that we have heard have represented not only farmers and crofters but many others who likewise have a stake in rural development, the environment and questions of food security.

Like others, I thank all members of the committee and the clerking team for their work in producing the stage 1 report.

Parliament will now scrutinise the bill closely, as befits any legislation of this scope and scale. With Scotland being forcibly removed from the European Union, the common agricultural policy, as we have all understood it for half a century, now requires wholesale legislative replacement.

As others have pointed out, this is a framework bill. A wide range of voices in the countryside have recognised that that is the best way to proceed. Indeed, a framework bill is the only practicable solution, and it is therefore inevitably only in secondary legislation that many of the questions about the future direction of agricultural policy will receive their answers. However, I have to refute what I think was said in the previous speech, which seemed to suggest that secondary legislation does not involve scrutiny by this Parliament.

The objectives of agricultural policy, as set out in the legislation, take on a particular importance. The overarching objectives of agricultural policy are set out in part 1, which lays out the Scottish Government’s vision for agriculture—a vision that has been broadly welcomed by stakeholders and that commits to transforming how the Scottish Government supports farming and food production.

The aim is to make Scotland a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture, and a requirement is placed on Scottish ministers to prepare, lay before Parliament and publish a rural support plan. That plan will cover up to a five-year period and must set out the strategic priorities for providing support during the plan’s period. It must also give details of each support scheme that is in operation, or that is expected to come into operation, during that period.

The plan also allows ministers to make clear how agricultural support contributes to other statutory duties, such as climate commitments and EU alignment. Such a plan offers a level of certainty, which was sought by many through the consultation, within the flexible support model.

Making those objectives into policy on the ground will ultimately involve wrestling with some clear tensions. To cite but one such question, we will have to ask how we reconcile the need for food security, including production at scale, with the need to support forms of agriculture that have a low environmental impact. That has been alluded to by other speakers, but I think of my crofting constituents who, on average, receive £1,400 each in annual farming payments. I hope that we will ask whether that is the balance that we want to see in the future.

As a committee, we have also pointed to the need to recognise that we cannot simply offshore some of these big questions rather than answer them effectively ourselves. I think that we all agree that there would be no point in simply asking areas of the country that cannot easily support much agriculture beyond livestock to stop producing livestock. That would not, of itself, change the demand in Scotland and the UK for meat; it would simply transfer its production to parts of the world that have far lower welfare and environmental standards. At the same time, we are going to have to ask contentious questions about whether the need for national food security should be taken so far as to include subsidising the large-scale production of grain for whisky.

Many of the answers to these and other questions about Scottish agriculture depend to a very large extent on the UK funding envelope that is made available to Scotland in the first place. Despite the posturing of the Tories—[


.] I hear some posturing from the Tories, so I will give way.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

I just want to clarify whether the member was suggesting that we stop whisky production in Scotland. Did I mishear that? That is what I thought that the member said. I am sure that he cannot have meant that.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

The member did mishear that. I merely asked, as others have, whether there are some forms of agriculture that we might want to ask questions about in the future—forms that require less support than others. That does not mean that we do not support—[


.] That does not mean that we should stop growing grain for whisky, as the member well understands.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

That is just what the member said.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

No, it is not just what I said. The member well understands that point.

When I gave way, I was making a point about posturing by the Tories—a point that has just been illustrated more adequately than I could ever have done myself.

Despite that posturing, we know that there has been a wider catalogue of failures on the part of the UK Government to protect the interests of Scottish farmers and crofters. The obvious example is Brexit itself, about which others have rightly spoken today. However, there has also been the UK’s abject failure to secure trade deals that protect our agrifood sector.

Despite all of that, our farmers and crofters remain resilient, and the Scottish Government is determined to support them as we transition from the EU’s CAP payment system to a support system that realises the vision for Scotland to be a global leader in sustainable agriculture.

There lies ahead a long process of scrutiny. However, for the moment, I urge the chamber to do as the committee has done and endorse the general principles of the bill.

The Presiding Officer:

We move to winding up speeches. I call Colin Smyth.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

The debate has shown that people get that we cannot dot every i and cross every t of a rural support scheme in primary legislation. We need flexibility to ensure that changes can be made when needed without having to revisit the primary legislation. However, several speakers have rightly highlighted that there is a difference between a framework bill and, frankly, an empty frame.

It is eight years since the vote to leave the EU, and it is four years since this Parliament agreed the Agriculture (Retained EU Law and Data) Scotland Act 2020, paving the way for a transition period—a period that has been extended. However, at a time when the clock is ticking towards the end of that transition period and time is running out to meet our climate targets, the Government’s watch is, all too often, stopped.

We have a bill that does not contain enough detail about future rural support.

Photo of Jim Fairlie Jim Fairlie Scottish National Party

When I was a member of the rural affairs committee, we tried on a number of occasions to get UK Government ministers to come to the committee to answer the question of where the multiyear funding would come from. Time and again, they refused. They also refused to answer the letters from the cabinet secretary. Will it be the Labour Party’s position that it will provide multiyear funding? Will it also ensure that the 17 per cent payment that currently comes to Scotland is maintained, and will it increase the funding to the level that the NFU has asked for?

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

Mr Fairlie is asking us to write a manifesto for the next election, but Labour in government has consistently committed to providing the funding that our agriculture sector needs. Rhoda Grant was clear that we should not subject that to the Barnett formula. The disproportionate amount that comes to Scotland at the moment should continue in the future, but the Scottish Government needs to take responsibility for what it has authority over at the moment. There has been no draft rural support plan showing how the minister would spend that funding. It is all very well to start demanding funding, but when will we see the plan for how it should be spent? There is no sense of policy direction.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

If I have time, I will certainly take Mr Fairlie’s question.

The Presiding Officer:

We have no time to give back at this point in the debate.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

I will continue, and I hope that I might answer some of his points.

There has been no real sense of policy direction from the Government. There has not even been a commitment to statutory consultation on the future support plans. No measurable target has been outlined by the Government. There is no detail on how the Government would allocate any funding that is given and the breakdown of that funding. There is no mention of fair work in the bill. It is a bill that is in danger of undermining the Parliament’s ability to do its job, because it lacks proper scrutiny mechanisms and the ability to hold ministers to account.

The bill should have set out a clear strategic direction. The Government’s very purpose for the bill should have been future support, and it should ensure that the Parliament has a say over that purpose. No one expects that every single area that could be supported by any scheme should be listed in the bill. As Richard Leonard said, the inclusion of basic principles such as conditionality on grants and support is welcome, but it would be an understatement to say that the four objectives—just 30 words or so—that will define our future agricultural policy are too vague and have obvious exclusions.

When so many people are facing a cost of living crisis, when feeding families has never been more challenging and when we are facing the impact of conflict and war on security of supply, NFU Scotland and others are right to say that food production must be at the heart of any support scheme and front and centre of any of the bill’s objectives. We should never forget that what is often lazily described as subsidies is support to put affordable food on our tables.

Scottish Environment LINK members are right to highlight that the heart of the bill must also be about ensuring that crucial food production is sustainable. They have made the sensible suggestion that the objectives in sections 1(a) and 1(b) should be combined, stressing the need for the production of high-quality food but using sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices.

Our farmers and crofters are key not just to producing the food that we eat, but to restoring nature, tackling climate change and supporting our rural communities. They are also key to farmed animal health and welfare. OneKind and other organisations are absolutely right to highlight that it is a failure of the bill not to include in its objectives maintaining and enhancing animal welfare. Scotland’s farmers cannot and will not compete in a race to the bottom on price and standards. High-quality food production is delivered through the highest possible animal welfare, and the bill’s objectives should reflect that.

We know that there is an imbalance in the agriculture supply chain. When our farmers and crofters are facing higher costs, more frequent weather events, a growing need to drive down emissions in the face of a climate crisis and increased threats to food security; when producer margins are increasingly being squeezed by the big suppliers; and when public spending is under more pressure than it has ever been, the power imbalance in the market is growing. The objective of our support schemes should therefore be to strengthen the position of farmers and crofters in the supply chain.

Whatever the objectives are, we need to measure how they are being delivered. I do not expect targets to be in the bill, but, if there are to be no targets in the bill, there should at least be a duty on ministers to set clear and measurable targets in relation to the objectives in any rural support plan.

We need more detail on what the plan should and will contain. When I sat on the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee, we were clear that the draft plan should be published before stage 3 and that the Parliament should be sighted on and allowed to scrutinise future plans before approving secondary legislation. Those plans should be subject to statutory consultation.

Time is tight, Presiding Officer, but I want to make one final point.

The Presiding Officer:

Be very brief, Mr Smyth.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

The bill is an opportunity to better distribute the support that we provide. Rhoda Grant and Richard Leonard highlighted that too much of our current support goes to too few. We need to look at issues and powers such as cap and taper payments and free front-loading.

The Presiding Officer:

Thank you, Mr Smyth. I regret that I must stop you at that point and call Jamie Halcro Johnston. You have up to seven minutes, Mr Halcro Johnston.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests: I am a partner in a farming business and the owner of a registered croft, and I am a member of NFU Scotland, Scottish Land & Estates and the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland. As such, I am in receipt of payments.

I should also note that, as a substitute member of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee, I took part in some of the consideration of the stage 1 report on the bill, although I was not involved in any of the final recommendations that the committee made or in any of the evidence sessions that guided it. I am also a member of the Finance and Public Administration Committee, which scrutinised the financial memorandum for the bill.

The debate has been a long time coming, given that the UK Government’s Agriculture Act 2020 was passed three and a half years ago. In its report, the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee highlighted stakeholders’ concerns about how long it has taken the Scottish ministers to introduce the bill and about the impact that the delay has had on farmers, crofters and land managers.

Even though we have waited so long for the bill, we still do not have the detail that we should have by now. We still await the Scottish Government’s rural support plan, which Professor Thomson of Scotland’s Rural College said

“needs to be front and centre”,

while Douglas Bell of the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association said:

“The earlier that can come, the better. There is a real frustration among agricultural stakeholders just now about working in a vacuum.”—[

Official Report, Rural Affairs and Islands Committee

, 31 January 2024; c 11, 12-13.]

The Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee recommended that the rural support plan should be published before stage 3, and the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee backed that call. During the Finance and Public Administration Committee’s consideration of the financial memorandum, when I asked Scottish Government officials whether the plan could be presented earlier than originally planned, I was advised:

“It would be for ministers to commit to that.”—[

Official Report, Finance and Public Administration Committee

, 6 February 2024; c 25.]

It is disappointing that, despite the clear calls that have been made by committees of this Parliament, the cabinet secretary has failed to make that commitment in her response to the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee’s stage 1 report. That matters because, although I recognise that that committee accepted in its report the need for the bill to be a framework bill, it is worth noting the concerns of the finance and DPLR committees about the difficulties that that poses for legislative and fiscal scrutiny.

I have concerns about co-design. Although I recognise the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee’s position on the commitment to co-design and its concerns about the lack of sufficient detail on how that will be achieved and about the lack of assurances that the key stakeholders will be included in the process, as we have seen with other bills, the co-design process can often lead to outcomes and costs that are very different from those that were originally intended or considered.

I will touch on a number of other areas of concern. My party has been clear that we do not support continued alignment with the EU and the approach that the Scottish Government is taking in that regard, as Rachael Hamilton rightly highlighted, which will mean, for example, that Scottish farmers will miss out on the benefits of new gene-editing technology.

In addition, the EU’s new CAP scheme requires reserves to be kept for crises. It was confirmed to me at the finance committee that the bill includes powers that would allow for a crisis reserve to be established. However, the officials could not provide more details on any reserve or how it would be funded, because

“The bill is silent on that, but there is flexibility. It would be for ministers to decide.”—[

Official Report, Finance and Public Administration Committee

, 6 February 2024; c 28.]

My first concern is about where that funding would come from. Would it be shaved off the top of the agriculture budget? As we have seen with the Scottish Government’s appropriation of supposedly ring-fenced agriculture funding to plug gaps in other parts of the budget, money that was meant for farming and held in reserve for crises in funding could be used by the Scottish Government in other parts of its budget. When she winds up the debate, perhaps the cabinet secretary could give more details on how the Government sees the crisis reserve being funded and administered, and how much it envisages will be held in that reserve.

I turn to other members’ contributions. Rachael Hamilton was right to highlight the bill’s importance to rural Scotland and the lack of trust in SNP ministers in Edinburgh because of the cuts that they have made to the agriculture budget and their diversion of ring-fenced funding away from farming. [


.] It is no wonder that some SNP MSPs seem so sensitive about the issue. That lack of trust is not helped when the SNP-Green Government is able to provide reams of indy papers that no one will read but is not able to produce the rural support plan that farmers are desperately waiting for.

Photo of Jim Fairlie Jim Fairlie Scottish National Party

Jamie Halcro Johnston might not be aware that Jonnie Hall of NFU Scotland told the

Rural Affairs and Islands Committee that not a single penny of the agriculture budget from the UK Government was cut by the Scottish Government—every single penny went to the farmers. The money that Mr

Halcro Johnston is talking about came from a completely different fund that was nothing to do with the original £630-odd million from the UK Government for agriculture.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

There is considerable confusion from the minister on that point. I have spoken with the deputy—[



The Presiding Officer:

Let us hear one another.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

It is probably best for the minister if we move on from that relatively quickly.

I am sorry that Tim Eagle could not be with us in the chamber today, and I am sure that all of us in the farming sector will appreciate—perhaps enviously—why he could not be. I was going to say that I was disappointed that he did not do his speech live from the lambing shed, but he did. That was great to see, although the wi-fi was not good, which highlights in many ways the importance of technology in our farming communities—that is something that should be part of this. It did have the feel of a Willie Rennie press stunt at some point; I was waiting to see what would happen in the background but, unfortunately, no great incident happened, which was disappointing.

It was extremely valuable to hear from Tim Eagle about his experiences and the challenges that he has faced, particularly as a small farmer. He was right to highlight that the discussion about objectives should not become a contest between food and the environment, which are both important. He also raised the important issue of new entrants and succession planning, which are concerns that are raised with me regularly.

Speaking as convener of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee, Fin Carson highlighted his and the committee’s concerns about the lack of detail in the bill, which was a common thread in today’s debate. He reiterated his committee’s call to see the rural support plan before we reach stage 3.

Edward Mountain highlighted his concerns about CPD, and I support his rather mischievous suggestion that, if it is good enough for farmers, perhaps there should be a CPD programme for Scottish ministers, too. More seriously, the committee was clear that it did not believe, other than when training to a certain standard of qualification is required for health and safety reasons or to undertake specific activities, that any CPD should be compulsory or tied to support. Putting additional burdens on the time of already busy farmers and restricting their ability to farm helps no one. As such, I am disappointed that, in her response to the committee, the cabinet secretary failed to rule out the possibility that CPD requirements could be linked to payments or made compulsory.

I agree with Beatrice Wishart on the importance of infrastructure, such as abattoirs, which are an issue in Orkney at the moment. I would also include ferries as a key part of the matter.

Although the bill was delayed and lacks detail, we are being asked to trust the SNP-Green Government, which has siphoned off money that was ring fenced for agriculture, with no answers on when that money will be returned to the sector.

As my Conservative colleagues have made clear, we will look to improve the bill with amendments, and we will support it at stage 1. However, we do so with real concerns about the lack of detail that the Scottish Government has provided—

The Presiding Officer:

I must ask you to conclude,

Mr Halcro Johnston.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

— a lack of detail that impacts on farmers and crofters, on investment and on jobs—

The Presiding Officer:

Thank you, Mr Halcro Johnston.

I have to stop you there.

I call Mairi Gougeon to wind up.

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

I welcome today’s debate and members’ input and views. I am pleased that we mostly agree on the bill’s general principles and content. I am also grateful for the considered responses from members from across the chamber and for the approach that the vast majority have taken to the debate.

I have a lot of information to work through, so I will try to cover as many points as I can. I want to focus on some of the key areas that have featured in the debate, as well as on some of the subjects that were raised during the committee’s consideration of the bill.

First, there is the point about the bill’s being a framework bill. I welcome the committee’s agreement that the approach to establishing a long-term basis for future support schemes is the right one. That framework approach enables tailored provisions and support to be implemented through secondary legislation and to be further adapted regularly, as we might need to do.

That is similar to the approach that we took through the Agriculture (Retained EU Law and Data) (Scotland) Act 2020, which allowed us to introduce regulations that enabled us to start making payments at a much earlier date than was the case previously. As a result of Parliament agreeing to that change, we were able to make basic support and greening payments from September last summer, which we intend to repeat this year. Without that framework approach and the ability to pass secondary legislation to change the dates for making payments, we would not have been able to do so. A flexible approach is needed in the bill too, because that will allow Scotland to adapt to changing social, economic and environmental conditions and challenges.

Secondly, there is the point about scope for parliamentary scrutiny, which I recognise has been widely raised today. I note the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee’s views and those that were expressed by the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee and the Finance and Public Administration Committee on that point. I have been clear about my intention to be transparent with the industry and with Parliament, and I made clear in my response to the stage 1 report that I will, of course, be giving further consideration to the matter.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

I appreciate the cabinet secretary giving way, and I know that she might touch on this matter later, but I want to make sure that the question is asked. It is of critical importance—as has been stated by many stakeholders, the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee and the DPLR Committee—that the rural support plan be published as soon as possible. Will the minister commit, as the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee has suggested, to providing a working draft of that plan prior to stage 3, and if not, why not?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

I am glad that Finlay Carson has asked that question. I will come on to the rural support plan, because I know that it has been widely raised in the debate. In response to Finlay Carson’s question, and as I outlined to the committee, I initially wanted to take advice on that but, of course, we would seek, if possible, to provide an outline or a sketch of the plan. We will endeavour to do that as soon as possible.

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

I am sorry. I need to make some progress.

Another important point that I want to touch on is the claim that there is a lack of detail being made available to farmers. It is disappointing that there has not been any real acknowledgement of the range of information that has been made available—not least through the agricultural reform route map, which was updated again yesterday. Those updates will continue, and we will continue to seek ways to engage with and inform as many farmers, crofters and land managers as possible to ensure that they know what they need to do from next year, and the actions that they need to take now. However, I reiterate that it is right that the Scottish Government is taking the time that is necessary to develop the detail of the policy with the people who will be directly affected by it. That is important if the Scottish Government is to deliver on its commitment to there being no cliff edges for our farmers and crofters.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

The cabinet secretary heard me intervene on John Swinney about bringing in a cross-compliance approach on peatlands and wetlands. That is a significant move, but farmers and land managers were not consulted. She just made the point that the Scottish Government will consult on such significant issues, so what has changed?

Photo of Mairi Gougeon Mairi Gougeon Scottish National Party

As I have already outlined, co-development is the foundation of our approach to developing policy. I am surprised that Rachael Hamilton is raising that issue with me now, because we announced that new condition last year and provided more detail on it yesterday, and we have discussed it. I hope that the member is not insinuating that we should not do everything in our power to ensure that we protect our peatlands from further degradation.

Colin Smyth and others raised concerns about the route map and the general timing of the bill. Those criticisms ignore our commitment to stability and simplicity, which has ensured that we have had some security throughout what has been an incredibly tumultuous time. I realise that it might not have been a popular decision at the time, but it has been proved that it was absolutely the right decision to make.

Rhoda Grant delivered a very powerful contribution, and she made a lot of excellent points, which I want to go through. As Tim Eagle did, she touched on how important our smaller producers are. I absolutely agree with the points that they made about that. That is exactly why the work that we are doing on the small producers pilot fund is so important. A steering group of small producers was established to take forward that work and, ultimately, to design the support that they need, so I was glad that Rachael Hamilton recognised the importance of abattoirs and raised the issue in an intervention. The initial phase of the pilot is considering that point and is working with two abattoirs to test solutions for small producers to access abattoirs, as well as working on other matters. The work that we are taking forward on that is important, because the support that we previously had in place for small producers did not work. The pilot is being taken forward so that we can learn from its work and deliver the kind of support that we know our small producers want and, ultimately, need.

Rhoda Grant also made hugely important points about crofting, grazings committees and support for co-operatives. I know that that support has been raised more widely. We recognise that it is vital. I emphasise that if the general principles of the bill are agreed to at decision time, we will have the powers to deliver that support in the framework that we will develop.

A number of members mentioned the objectives of the bill, including Kate Forbes, who focused on food security.

Ariane Burgess and others touched on the importance of animal welfare. As I set out in the evidence that I provided to the committee, the objectives are, by their very nature, wide ranging and align with the principles that are contained in the vision for agriculture. The four objectives are not hierarchical—they are not listed in order of priority nor in terms of the importance of their outcomes; each serves to support the others.

That said, I acknowledge the committee’s recommendations and I welcome the wide range of comments that were made during the committee’s evidence taking on the proposed objectives. That is why I will continue to listen to views and will consider further whether any changes are needed to the objectives as they stand.

I need to address a couple of important points that were raised today, and I need to clear up the misinformation that has been put from across the chamber. Issues have been politicised when I had hoped that we could work collegiately as we look towards stage 2 of the bill, but based on the way that some contributions have gone today, I fear that that might not be possible.

In relation to the budget, I need to address the comments that were made by Rachael Hamilton and Jamie Halcro Johnston: they were complete and utter nonsense. It is because of the economic mismanagement by the Tory UK Government that we have faced the worst budget settlement since devolution. Significant cuts of up to 10 per cent to our capital budgets have meant that all portfolios across Government have had incredibly difficult choices to make. All funding was ring fenced in my portfolio; we did not take any money from the pockets of farmers and we protected the spend because we recognise how hugely important it is.

It is important that we do not forget that agriculture is devolved and that it is for the Government and the Parliament here to decide what our policy on agriculture should be in the future, and how we will support its delivery. Scotland has a unique landscape, and our agricultural interests and capabilities are different from those of the other nations in the UK. Yes—there are similarities and we should always listen to and learn from one another on these islands, just as we should continue to learn from the EU CAP and from what other European nations are doing.

However, ultimately this is Scotland’s bill, and I am glad that its general principles have the support of most members in the chamber and on the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee. I therefore suggest that the general principles of the bill be agreed to.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

On a point of order, Presiding Officer.

I seek your guidance, because I have been accused of giving misinformation. My key point was that the UK Government provided £620 million of ring-fenced funding for the Scottish agriculture budget and will continue to support the sector. The UK Government also secured £61 million to Scottish farming through the Bew review, but the Scottish Government took £46 million from ring-fenced funding in the budget. Those are absolutely black-and-white facts; they are not misinformation.

The Presiding Officer:

I remind members that points of order relate to procedural matters.