Political Affairs Manager's Blog - 11 October 2018

It was a long haul but the UK Government’s Agriculture Bill received its second reading in the House of Commons yesterday (Wednesday 10 October) and Political Affairs Manager Claire Slipper has pored over the debate.

Agriculture is devolved, but it is the view of NFUS that the Agriculture Bill has become very politicised. For these reasons, NFU Scotland has sought independent legal and constitutional academic opinion on some of the more contentious aspects of the Bill and this opinion was set out in the NFU Scotland briefing for MPs before the debate. NFU Scotland was subsequently mentioned more times in yesterday’s debate than any other stakeholder or lobby organisation. If yesterday’s debate proved anything, it was that politicians are listening to our concerns – but how our concerns are construed are still subject to a very political debate.

The Agriculture Bill is ‘enabling’ legislation, allowing Ministers the ability to develop new policies and tools to support agriculture after EU exit. It is therefore crucially important for the farming sector across the UK and that is why NFUS is engaging strongly with that process.

It is vital that the legislative vehicle to deliver a new Scottish agricultural policy after the transition period is bespoke to Scotland’s needs. Due to the impasse between UK and Scottish ministers in how to agree on future policy frameworks, Scottish ministers have so far refused to have a Schedule for Scotland written in to the Bill. For NFU Scotland, it is vital that a solution is found to allow future frameworks on policy and funding to be commonly agreed between the four nations of the UK.

But it is equally concerning to NFU Scotland that without a legislative vehicle, such as a Scottish Schedule within the Agriculture Bill, Scotland could be unable to take the opportunity of redrawing a new Scottish agricultural policy after EU exit. This is the dichotomy that was set out to MPs in the NFU Scotland briefing before the debate – without a solution to one of these issues, it’s impossible to find a solution to the other.

The advice taken by NFU Scotland has given rise to concerns about how the drafting of this Bill could impose financial constraints in areas of devolved policy without agreement from Scottish Ministers. Our briefing to MPs set out that we would advocate amendments to the Bill which would ensure any future decisions on ceilings of domestic support are commonly agreed by the UK and devolved ministers. The SNP defended this position in the Chamber yesterday.

The Scottish Conservatives speaking in yesterday’s debate also spoke to NFU Scotland’s concerns that Scotland is in danger of not having a long-term plan for future agricultural policy in place – both in terms of having a discussion on future policy tools and having a framework in place on which to build that policy.

Both parties are right.

Yesterday’s debate proved that UK and Scottish governments must cut through the politics and resolve the impasse that has now come to a head under the Agriculture Bill over the creation of policy and financial frameworks, and repatriation of powers. The real prize from Brexit for Scotland’s farmers and crofters is a future agricultural policy that fits the needs and profile of Scottish agriculture, and all it underpins. But we will only get there with trust, goodwill, consultation and agreement on all sides.

What NFU Scotland can perhaps take as happier news, is that yesterday’s debate did go some way in flushing out the intentions of the UK Government on future funding frameworks. In making his opening remarks, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove hinted strongly that there would shortly be a funding review. Even more encouraging is that he added: “I can guarantee, however, that agricultural funding will not be Barnettised, and the generous—rightly generous—settlement that gives Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales more than England will be defended.”

This is the first time that a UK minister has said on the record that future agricultural funding allocations will be ringfenced to agricultural spend. But the question remains, where will that funding settlement be set?

In briefing MPs before the debate, NFU Scotland also set out that profitable agriculture and food production must be front and centre of any future policy framework and it is a concern to us that the Bill is lacking in focus on agricultural production and food security. NFU Scotland and the other UK Unions are supportive of an amendment to the Bill which will put agricultural activity and food security on its face as a strategic priority for the nation – and it was encouraging to see this supported by cross-party MPs across the Chamber during second reading.

Also vital is enshrining the UK’s world-leading standards of agricultural production within any future agricultural policy and NFU Scotland is pleased that many MPs have called for the maintenance of standards in any future trade deals to also be put on the face of the Bill. We support this wholly and will push for a cast-iron guarantee that home producers cannot be undercut by cheaper imports produced to lower standards after EU exit.  

As the Bill now goes to its next stage in the House of Commons, where amendments will be debated and voted on for the first time, NFU Scotland will also be pushing for an amendment to the Bill which will resolve the long-running issue of red meat levy repatriation once and for all. It was encouraging that Conservative and SNP MPs both made representations about this issue during the course of Second Reading. After many years it is important that the Agriculture Bill is used as the legislative vehicle to drive these changes through, which will bring around £1.5 million back to Scotland in levies.

Notwithstanding the politicised debate regarding powers, frameworks and funding, it is vital that this Bill gets the right outcomes for Scottish farmers and crofters, allowing a new Scottish agricultural policy to be developed after Brexit which underpins the huge social and environmental contribution made by farmers and crofters to the Scottish economy as per the proposals set out in NFU Scotland’s ‘Steps to Change’ document, which was published in March.

NFUS has identified that many of the objectives of future agricultural policy in Scotland now being established reflect similar goals of the other devolved administrations of the UK. However, there is also a clear recognition that Scotland has to meet those objectives on its own terms, and at its own pace, in order to ensure the successful delivery of the desired outcomes. That is why it is critical that, within a commonly agreed regulatory and standards framework across the UK, Scotland retains complete autonomy in the development and delivery of new agricultural and rural policy, through an effective transition period, that will enable managed change at business, sector and industry levels.

Author: Clare Slipper

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About The Author

Clare Slipper

Clare Slipper joined NFU Scotland in 2014 as the Union’s first dedicated Parliamentary Officer. Within her role, Clare briefs politicians in the Scottish, Westminster and European parliaments on key issues impacting Scottish food producers and represents members interests in the policy-making process. Clare started her career working for a public affairs and communications agency, where she worked with clients in the renewable energy and planning sectors. She graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in Politics and Sociology in 2012.

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