Bulging in-tray as MSPs return from recess
MSPs returned to parliament this week after an October recess period which was dominated by horrendous events in the Middle East.
On the domestic front, communities in Angus are counting the cost of more extreme weather – with Storm Babet forcing hundreds of people from their homes.
And there was a different type of storm created by an announcement at the SNP’s Autumn conference to freeze council tax next year – made without consultation with local councils and very little warning to the SNP’s partners in government, the Scottish Greens.
All of this adds to a bulging in-tray for the last session of 2023, with tough decisions looming for a Budget due in early December amid estimates from the Fraser of Allander Institute of a £600m gap between government commitments and expected resources.
Progress on the Ag Bill
The business of parliament over the next few months will also include the Stage 1 process for the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill.
The Bill was introduced on 28 September and has now been assigned to the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee.
That means that MSPs on the committee will examine the Bill, gather views and produce a report before the first debate the Bill in the parliamentary chamber.
Soil Association Scotland, along with many other organisations, has been examining the Bill and the accompanying documents.
The Bill addresses many of the points we raised in advance of publication, which is very welcome.
Key headline points
Essentially, this Bill is about two things, one is to replace the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) framework following the UK’s departure from the EU. The Bill will provide Scottish Ministers with powers to develop a new support framework for agriculture, forestry and rural communities, with the intention of a smooth transition from the legacy CAP schemes.
Secondly, the Bill is designed to deliver upon the Scottish Government’s Vision for Agriculture, which was published in March 2022, setting out the wider policy aims the government is looking to achieve. Central to this vision are three main themes – high quality food production, climate mitigation and adaptation and nature restoration.
There is not the room in this blog to go into exhaustive detail on the Bill and related documents, but there are some key points that we think are worth addressing.
Firstly is the first section on ‘objectives and planning’. This includes a set of overarching objectives for agricultural policy – an explanation if you like of what this Bill is trying to achieve.
These objectives echo the three main themes mentioned above – a focus on the adaptation and use of sustainable and regenerative farming practices; the production of high-quality food; the facilitation of on-farm nature restoration, climate mitigation and adaptation; and enabling rural communities to thrive. This section reflects our ask for a clear purpose clause, although the wording does not directly reference the Vision for Agriculture aspiration around ‘transformational change’.
The second point to highlight is the commitment to producing a Rural Support Plan, which will come in five-year cycles and be subject to parliamentary scrutiny.
This reflects two of our key asks, on the need for a strategic plan for agriculture and for programming periods to be set – similar to those that existed under the CAP – to provide some certainty for rural businesses.
Our understanding at this stage is that the intention is that the Rural Support Plan would include an indicative budget, subject to the normal annual parliamentary budgeting process, but we will be seeking more clarity on that point.
A third point to highlight at this stage is that the Bill as introduced commits Scottish Ministers to producing a Code of Practice for Sustainable and Regenerative Farming.
This essentially means that the government must define what constitutes “sustainable and regenerative” farming. This will be welcome as there is a degree of ambiguity about these terms.
Our expectation is that this code will be a form of guidance for farmers and crofters, rather than a set of standards, and will be linked to the adoption of climate and nature friendly measures under Tier 2 of the planned four-tier framework, the ‘enhanced’ payment.
Two final points for this blog are on the provision within the Bill to support organic producers, which will be important to meet the Scottish Government’s ambition to grow the sector, and on the provision for powers for Ministers to cap support payments, which was something the government committed to exploring in the 2021 Programme for Government.
Inclusion of the power to cap payments does not necessarily mean that it will be used, however. We have joined a coalition of organisations including Landworkers Alliance, Scottish Crofting Federation, Nature Friendly Farming Network, Propagate and Pasture for Life, calling for a mechanism within the Bill for a mandatory redistributive payment to frontload support so that more of the budget is directed towards small and medium-sized farms.
Much of the detail that farmers, crofters and land managers are waiting for – around eligibility and payment rates in particular – will come via secondary legislation rather than through the Bill itself.
However, the Bill will require careful scrutiny from MSPs and other interested parties as it works its way through parliament between now and summer 2024.
We look forward to playing our part in that process.