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EDDIE GILLANDERS: Government pledge to maintain direct payments for Scottish farmers

By Eddie Gillanders

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THE Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Marie Gougeon, gave her most comprehensive explanation yet of what the Scottish Government is trying to achieve in the development of a new agricultural policy in a speech last week to the Scottish Parliament.

Environment minister Marie Gougeon.
Environment minister Marie Gougeon.

A pity she didn’t give the same speech at the AGM of NFU Scotland at the beginning of February when her ramblings – delivered at break-neck speed – left farmers more confused and bewildered than enlightened.

The problem then was that she was speaking in isolation as the detail of what she had to say – on the agricultural reform route map with a time-line for upcoming changes and a list of measures farmers would be required to undertake to achieve the reforms required – had only been published the same day and no one had seen it. Delegates left the meeting wondering what her speech was all about.

A new Scottish Agriculture Bill is due to go before parliament later this year to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which continues to be the basis of support for agriculture in Scotland, even though we are no longer in the EU. That will end in 2025 when the transition to a new farming support policy with new conditionality will kick in.

Ms Gougeon said the route map would fulfil one of her key pledges which was that there would be no “cliff edges” for farmers and crofters as agricultural reform is rolled out.

But she added: “It is worth saying again that the government in Scotland – no matter what Westminster does – will maintain direct payments to support our nation’s producers.”

The future support framework will provide conditional payments under four tiers – base, enhanced, elective and complementary.

From 2025, new conditionality will be delivered under existing powers for the 2025 single application form calendar year.

This will include the foundations of a whole farm plan – a tool which the government plans to co-design with the industry to help farmers and crofters plan their businesses more sustainably.

New conditions will be applied to some existing schemes to deliver on the government’s commitment to move from unconditional to conditional support for half of all funding by 2025.

The current regional model will remain in place in the early stages of transition but will be reviewed to ensure that the tier one base is fit for purpose. From 2006, new powers from the new Agriculture Bill will be used to launch the new enhanced payment which is seen as the key mechanism to incentivise farmers to undertake actions which deliver positive outcomes for climate change and nature.

A start has already been made with the launch last year of a national test programme with a budget of £51 million to help farmers to undertake carbon audits and soil testing, although take-up so far has been poor.

Underpinning all the measures is the principle that farmers should choose measures which are right for their businesses based on their farm plans but must include actions to help meet Scotland’s climate and biodiversity targets.

But Ms Gougeon stressed: “Producing more of our own food more sustainably is at the heart of our Vision for the Future of Scottish Agriculture published last year because it will enable us to be more food secure.”

Future funding of support is a potential problem as there is no funding commitment from the UK government from 2025.

“Scotland needs long-term funding certainty to enable farmers to plan, invest and deliver as we have under the CAP arrangement,” said Ms Gougeon.

“We expect full replacement of EU funds to ensure no detriment to Scotland’s finances.”

There are also concerns about the UK’s Internal Market Act which Ms Gougeon suggested could prevent Scotland from tailoring agricultural payments to the specific needs of Scottish farmers.

“This matters because of the marginal value of our land, the relative size of our holdings and businesses and our ongoing commitment to support farmers and crofters directly,” she warned.

Read Eddie Gillanders’ column each week.

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