Director of Policy's Blog - 21 September 2018

One week on from the publication of the Agriculture Bill and we are still digesting the detail writes Director of Policy Jonnie Hall.

Brexit requires the UK to have a new agriculture policy as after Brexit (and any transition phase) UK and Scottish agriculture will be operating outside of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

This means that a new domestic agriculture policy is needed. It gives the UK Government and the Scottish Government the opportunity to rethink agricultural support and incentives and the general operating environment for farm businesses. This is critical to the future of Scottish agriculture.

The UK Government introduced an Agriculture Bill on 12 September 2018. Agriculture is devolved to the Scottish Government and should remain devolved. And the UK Agriculture Bill should not change that.

Brexit provides a catalyst for change, it is not the reason for change. Consequently, Brexit also provides a unique opportunity to move out of the shadow of the CAP and the publication of the Agriculture Bill takes Scottish agriculture one step further towards its post-Brexit future.

The Bill itself is hugely complex and is written in pure legalese. The Union must scrutinise every line with a fine-tooth comb to fully establish what it means for Scotland’s farmers and crofters.   

Absolute clarity on the Bill’s potential implications for Scottish agriculture is paramount before acting to influence the outcome, and the Union has already begun engagement with officials and parliamentarians in both Edinburgh and Westminster to seek earliest possible clarification on its contents, proposed powers, and its intersection with the development, funding and delivery of devolved Scottish agricultural policy.

In past discussions on overarching UK frameworks and the Bill, the Union has been crystal clear that the interests of Scottish agriculture will be best served by Scotland setting its own future policy so that it respects and underpins the unique agricultural profile of Scotland and recognises how Scotland differs from the rest of the UK.

It is just important that commonly agreed regulatory frameworks are put in place and safeguarded by this Bill to preserve the integrity of the UK internal market, recognising that the most important outlet for Scottish produce is within these shores.  But that process must be right - no administration should impose its position on the others, nor should any one administration veto the will of the others.

Preserving or enhancing future funding levels for Scottish agriculture remains a red line issue for NFU Scotland as the UK and Scotland steps away from previous funding arrangements determined by the CAP.  There needs to be assurance that previous commitments on how Scotland’s share of future agricultural funding will be determined and delivered. That must take the review of convergence funding into consideration.

Early reading of the Bill suggests that funding would, in the future, sit at a UK level, ring-fenced to agriculture.  That begs questions as to what powers the Secretary of State would then hold in determining how that funding is distributed and what control Scotland would have in determining what type of schemes would be supported.

This could be explained by the UK Government’s existing commitment to World Trade Organisation (WTO) obligations on domestic support. This is a reserved matter, but the UK Government must work closely with the devolved administrations to ensure that obligation does not leave all the decisions on funding and its allocation to the Secretary of State.

Extended powers have been offered in the Agriculture Bill to the devolved administrations of Wales and Northern Ireland, to enable them to create their own farming support systems to replace the CAP.  As things stand, the Scottish Government has chosen not to take any powers in this Bill. Agriculture is devolved and that is the Scottish Government’s choice. But it is also possible that Scotland could have powers similar to those of Wales written into the Bill before it is written into legislation.

The Union’s 'Steps To Change' policy proposals have already mapped out a bold agricultural policy based on supporting activity rather than land per se and would deliver a profitable farming sector that underpins the huge social, economic and environmental contribution made by farmers and crofters.

To take forward such an approach, fit for Scotland’s needs, post-CAP legislation and funding must allow for options equivalent to the likes of coupled support and less favoured areas support in Scotland.  The ability to target precious funding in the future is needed so that it recognises and rewards Scottish agriculture’s active farmers and crofters.

At face value, the Agriculture Bill does not appear to prevent similar support to coupled support and less favoured areas support continuing in Scotland in the future.  They will still be possible under both retained EU law and the Agriculture Bill - which is broad enough to enable an extensive range of future support measures.

The Agriculture Bill also comes within the context of wider regulatory and trading changes that farmers and crofters will face but remain unknown as they depend on the arrangements for the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

So key questions surrounding new UK and Scottish agriculture policy remain, such as

How might UK agricultural policy diverge from the CAP?

How might Scottish agricultural policy diverge from the UK?

How much financial support will the UK Government continue to offer and how will it be allocated across the UK?

How will UK agricultural support be managed across the devolved nations?

How will new trade and labour policies impact UK agriculture in concert with any changes in farm support?

How far will regulation of issues such as food safety, pesticide approval and animal and plant health diverge from the current EU approaches?

All these questions have major implications for every farm and croft in Scotland.  This is a critical moment and it is only right that the Union draws breath to first and foremost understand exactly what the Agriculture Bill, as introduced, means.  

Only then can the Union take the right actions in the best interests of Scottish agriculture and its farmers and crofters - politics should not derail doing what is right.

Author: Jonnie Hall

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About The Author

Jonnie Hall

NFU Scotland’s Director of Policy Jonnie Hall has been involved with agricultural and rural policy for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (BSc. Honours in Agricultural Economics and an M.Phil. in agricultural policy research) and Oxford University (MSc. in Agricultural Economics). Following an academic and consultancy career, Jonnie joined what was the Scottish Landowners’ Federation in January 1998, leading their policy work on agriculture and land use issues. Jonnie then joined NFU Scotland in May 2007, and has overall responsibility for the policy work of NFU Scotland as Director of Policy and Member Services. He has served on all key rural and agricultural policy stakeholder groups.

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