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NFUS: UK, Scottish Govts Urged to Resolve Differences on Agriculture Bill

16 November 2018

NFU Scotland has called upon the UK and Scottish Government to resolve their differences on the Agriculture Bill.

The Union has urged the respective Governments to end the current impasse and to work constructively to ensure that Scotland can develop and implement a new Scottish agricultural policy after Brexit.

In letters sent to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove MP and the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy, Fergus Ewing MSP, NFU Scotland President Andrew McCornick has called for meaningful progress to break the current political log jam between both governments on how to agree future policy, financial frameworks and repatriation of powers.

The UK Government’s Agriculture Bill was published in September and is currently receiving scrutiny in the House of Commons. The Bill is 'enabling' legislation, providing broad powers to current and future governments to provide financial assistance and make other policy interventions around land use and agriculture after the UK’s departure from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

However, the Bill has also given rise to legitimate questions about the ability for governments to continue to make agricultural payments in the immediate aftermath of EU exit in 2019 and 2020. Governments must provide clarification on this in order to give much-needed certainty and stability to farmers and crofters.

The main thrust of the Bill is to establish a new framework for agricultural policy in England and for the Welsh and Northern Irish administrations who have opted to take Schedules within this Bill. At present, Scottish Government has refused the option to take powers via a Schedule in the Bill and is keeping open the option of introducing its own Scottish Agriculture Bill to the Scottish Parliament.

However, there are other elements of the Bill which will also have a significant impact on agriculture across the UK, whether Scotland takes powers within this Bill or not. NFU Scotland has been clear from the outset that it is not only the outcomes of the legislative process that will shape agriculture in the future but also the decision-making processes that are established via the Agriculture Bill.

It is the view of NFUS that, due to the continued impasse between governments on these issues, the Bill has become very politicised and that the required policy measures that will secure the best possible outcomes for Scottish agriculture are being put at risk. As well as writing to UK and Scottish ministers this week, NFU Scotland has provided a position statement to MPs and officials, setting out the areas of contention within the Agriculture Bill where it considers amendments are needed.

Commenting, Director of Policy Jonnie Hall said: "Less than five months from Brexit, our members are desperate for certainty and confidence. The politicisation of the process has, so far, been unhelpful and we must see meaningful progress between the two governments soon.

"We need the very best outcomes for Scottish agriculture, so it is vital that both Holyrood and Westminster act with urgency and establish a satisfactory outcome for all sides. The real prize from exiting the EU is to move away from the CAP, while developing and implementing new agricultural policies that are bespoke to the unique and differing needs of the UK. This will only happen if both governments break the current impasse and play their respective and complementary roles.

"As things stand, the Agriculture Bill will legislate for powers adapted for Wales and Northern Ireland to be exercised by Ministers in those territories. However, due to the continued stand-off between UK and Scottish ministers on the principle of agreeing common, UK-wide frameworks the Scottish Government has chosen not to take any powers in this Bill. This means that it is uncertain how the legal framework on which a new Scottish agricultural policy is developed will be enabled.

"If the requirements of both governments can be met, then Scottish Ministers could take up the option to include a Schedule, right up to the final stages of the Bill. An alternative possibility is that Scottish Government introduces its own Bill on agricultural matters to the Scottish Parliament.

"But with the current absence of a clear commitment from the Scottish Government to take such an alternative route, it is our current view that a Schedule should be included in the Agriculture Bill, if the Bill is amended to allay concerns in other areas.

"If the Scottish Government were to take up the offer of having a Schedule inserted into the Bill, that would provide the necessary legal basis upon which Scotland could continue beyond Brexit with agricultural policies with very similar objectives and operations to existing measures, such as Voluntary Coupled Support and the Less Favoured Area Support Scheme.

"Moreover, it could also provide the vehicle to design and implement new measures that deliver an improved Scottish agricultural policy that is more fitting to the needs of our unique agricultural profile.

"We are firmly of the view that the inclusion of a Schedule bespoke to Scotland’s needs, and which would enable Scottish Ministers to act in such regard, must only be instigated and agreed by Scottish Government.

"It is equally clear to us that such an option would only be taken up by Scottish Government if the Bill is amended to reflect the legitimate concerns of Scottish Government as regards the potential for the UK Secretary of State to have the power to impose financial constraints on Scottish agricultural policy in areas of devolved competency. Legal advice taken by NFU Scotland has lent support to the Scottish Government’s position on this particular aspect."

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