Common Agricultural Policy – Parliamentary Debate

This week I opened for Scottish Labour on the Government debate on the Common Agricultural Policy. Farming plays an important role in Scotland’s economy, society, and well-being.  Our agricultural sector not only produces food for our country and beyond, but also contributes to the vitality of our rural communities.  CAP reform is the opportunity to make sure the support, which is public money, is directed to areas where it delivers the widest public benefit.

When we consider some of the current payments – subsidy being given to land which is not actively being used, highly profitable businesses receiving significant sums of public money, while other areas receive no or little support but, it can be argued provide greater community and social benefit – this is an opportunity to deliver a fairer system that is clear about what it values. 

Of course this is not easy – a good case can be made for why a business or organisation should receive subsidy and what the potential impact of changes will be – but choices have to be made, and if we remember that this is public investment, and we are facing significant challenges in the viability of some rural communities, in food poverty, and in achieving our environmental targets in climate, water and biodiversity, we can see meaningful reform.

During the last debate on the Common Agricultural Policy this chamber was united on the issue of convergence uplift.  As one of the four signatories of the cross party letter to Owen Patterson I won’t defend the decision of the coalition Government – it was the wrong decision.  I cannot however, also take the view of the Cabinet Secretary that separation is the answer and until then any attempt of holding a review with the UK Government is futile.

The National Farming Union in Scotland has a written commitment from Owen Paterson to hold a review of the internal allocation of CAP funds which will be concluded by 2017. I think the Cabinet Secretary is mistaken to simply dismiss the review.  He may be sceptical that such a review will take place, certain farmers might be too, but we cannot just put our agricultural sector on pause and hope everything sorts it out itself.

The onus is now on the Government in Scotland to make the change from historic to area based payments.  The current consultation on direct payments takes a significant step forward and this is to be welcomed.  To have a thriving farming sector in Scotland we must ensure a varied farming sector, including smaller farms and high nature value farming.  And we need appropriate timescales for this to happen – the Irish Tunnel model would result in entitlements from historic funding still being retained decades after the allocation was initially announced, and this is not acceptable.

The Scottish Government have argued for convergence across the EU and the UK – we now need to see those principals applied to the distribution of funds within Scotland.  I welcome the consultation which is taking place, but the Cabinet Secretary needs to ensure that he takes a broad range of views.  NFU will have legitimate concerns about how changes are implemented, but there is an appetite for redistribution to areas which need the support most and is evidenced to give the greatest public benefit.

In terms of payment regions, we need something that is as simple as possible but also something that is fair – guarding too much against maps being too complex runs the risk of them being too simplistic and less effective. We have the opportunity to address the issue of slipper farmers, which for too long has been a negative aspect of CAP payment.  It is vital that this practice is ended as soon as possible and all appropriate action is taken to ensure that there are no further loopholes that can be exploited.  It is important that payments are transparent and accountable.

But this is not just about farming businesses and food production.  Agriculture is one of Scotland’s biggest sectors for emissions, and in 2011 agricultural and rural land use accounted for 20% of Scotland’s total emissions. There is more that the agricultural sector can do to contribute towards meeting our Climate Change targets, along with our biodiversity targets, and we must see a move to sustainable farming. This will benefit not just our farmers but our rural communities.

CAP reform was supposed to deliver for the environment but this has been disappointing.  We do need to see greater environmental effort.  Some may point to the greening aspect of pillar 1, which is to be welcomed but as arable farming only makes up 18% of our agricultural area it is clear that the benefits from greening will be limited.

Transfer between Pillar 1 and Pillar 2 is important.  While NFU Scotland called for 5%, Scottish Environment link and others called for the full 15%.  The advantages of a boosted Pillar 2 are clear, and I appreciate that the Cabinet Secretary was pulled in two directions, but there are benefits for the farming sector in a boosted pillar 2 as the pillar 2 funding largely stays within the agricultural sector but the money is more targeted and objective focused.  Also, the LEADER programme for rural communities gets such a small share of the funds yet can deliver so much in terms of community sustainability and provides clear public benefit; we should see more support in this area.

It was therefore disappointing to see the Government decide on a 9.5% transfer between pillar 1 and 2, compared to 12% in England and 15% in Wales.  Considering the Governments commitment to climate change and biodiversity targets and delivering sustainable development to rural communities I was disappointed that the Cabinet Secretary did not go beyond 9.5%.

When it comes to spending on agri-environment schemes, we languish perilously close to the bottom, spending only €39.9 per hector compared to the EU27 average of €235.  Whilst this is due in part to the overall amount Scotland receives from the UK, and Scotland’s slower response to this programme, it is also due to the decisions taken by the Scottish Government on how to cut the cake.  Comparable countries such as Ireland, Slovenia and Finland, who also have large areas of low intensity land, spend significantly higher amounts on agri-environment schemes whilst also spending similar amounts on less favoured areas.

The Cabinet Secretary does have difficult decisions to make, and in finding the right balance, it will not be possible to please everyone.  But this is an opportunity.  I want to see reform, I don’t want us to end up in a status quo situation, and we must set realistic timescales that prioritises the benefits that will come from change.