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New FM and a snap general election

New FM and a snap general election

A week can be a long time in politics, but a month? Since the last policy blog was published, we have a new First Minister in the Scottish Parliament and are now nearly a week into a snap general election campaign.

John Swinney was just a few days into an attempted reset of the SNP, bringing leadership contender Kate Forbes into the fold as Deputy First Minister and Economy Secretary, when Rishi Sunak surprised commentators – as well as many of his own MPs – by announcing a July 4 poll.

So what does this mean for legislation working its way through the Scottish Parliament, and what are the political parties vying for your vote saying about climate, nature, food and farming policy?

Turbulent period

First, the Scottish Parliament. It has been a turbulent period at Holyrood, following Humza Yousaf’s decision to end the co-operation deal with the Scottish Greens – which itself followed a row over scrapping climate targets including the 75% emissions reduction goal by 2030.

Mr Yousaf planned for the SNP to continue as a minority government, but without the support of the Greens, it quickly became clear he could not command a majority in the chamber. That led to his resignation, and an expected leadership contest to replace him.

John Swinney

In the end, party veteran Mr Swinney agreed a deal with his only real challenger, Skye Lochaber and Badenoch MSP Ms Forbes, which avoided a potentially damaging internal battle.

However, on the same day that Mr Swinney delivered his first policy speech in parliament – outlining his four key objectives of eradicating child poverty, growing the economy, tackling climate change and restoring public services – the Prime Minister called an election.

All parties are now engaged in a hastily arranged campaign, raising funds, finishing up manifestos, knocking on doors and organising daily media events to get their message out.

For Mr Sunak and the Conservative party, a rain-soaked launch outside 10 Downing Street with the former New Labour anthem, D-Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better drowning out his live televised speech was hardly an ideal start to the race.

But we have more than five weeks of this to go before polling day.

Business as usual at Holyrood?

While Westminster has been dissolved and MPs who are standing again for election are back to being candidates, business at Holyrood will continue largely as normal.

That means MSPs will still proceed with legislation such as the Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill, which is now at Stage 3.

Soil Association Scotland, working with other organisations via umbrella bodies Scottish Environment LINK and the Scottish Agroecology Action Group, helped secure important amendments to the Bill at Stage 2.

These included a change to the core objectives of the Bill, adding a new line - the promotion and support of agricultural practices that protect and improve animal health and welfare. 

Further amendments that Soil Association Scotland lobbied for included an improved and wider definition of soil health in Schedule 1 – which now reads the physical, chemical and biological condition of the soil, determining its capacity to function as a vital living system and to provide ecosystem services.

We continue to make the case for the government to agree to providing more detail in the Rural Support Plan, and to include a mechanism for the redistribution of direct payments to better support small and medium-sized farms and crofts.

In addition to the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill, we have also welcomed the inclusion of measures relating to organic certification and agroforestry as improvements on tenanted land through the Land Reform Bill, which is currently at Stage 1.

Parliamentary business will continue in Edinburgh until the summer recess begins on June 29, just a few days before the general election. Mr Swinney had promised to bring forward the Programme for Government –outlining his legislative plans for the year ahead – to June rather than late August, but it is not clear if that will still happen.

What will be in the manifestos?

The Soil Association has already set out its stall as far as what we would like to see in UK manifestos.

So far, there has been little mention of climate and nature as defence, taxation and pensions have dominated the early days of the campaign.

None of the parties have yet formally launched their manifestos, but once that happens, Soil Association will be examining each to see what the parties are offering.

From a Scottish context, addressing the gap in funding for agriculture remains the top priority.

As things stand, there is no agreement in place beyond this year for the devolved administrations. At the last election, the Conservative party was elected on a manifesto commitment to retain farm funding at EU CAP levels for the duration of the parliament, to 2024.

Rural businesses have to plan ahead, and the uncertainty over future support is damaging to confidence.

Ideally, all parties would commit to a significant increase in the agricultural support budget, in recognition of the benefits for climate and nature that farmers, growers and crofters are being asked to deliver.

The budget also needs to be ring-fenced and set on a multi-year basis, to provide some reassurance to the sector.

Other issues that are likely to be raised on agriculture are future UK trade policy and how it impacts on domestic production, seasonal worker visas and border controls, particularly for meat imports following some worrying reports in the media.

Many voters will be looking for clear commitments to tackling the climate and nature emergencies, which remain popular with the public despite other issues dominating the news agenda in recent months.

By the time the next policy blog is published, we should have a clearer idea of where all the parties stand.