National Farmers Union Scotland Autumn Conference: Cabinet Secretary's speech

Speech delivered by Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands Mairi Gougeon at the National Farmers Union Scotland's Autumn Conference in Dunfermline on 26 October 2023. 

I am very happy to be hear despite it being a sobering time to as we come to terms with the effects of Storm Babet and the impact it has had on us all.

Tragically, it has also cost the lives of much loved members of our communities. Every year, we experience more extreme weather events and in early summer, the struggle was with water scarcity; this Autumn, we have had record rainfall in the shortest time. And no doubt many of you will be concerned about yet another weather warning for yet more rain over the course of this coming weekend.

Now, clearly there are discussions to be had and potential measures to be explored to help us all prepare for these kind of events again in the future – to be more resilient, to ensure our land, towns and homes can also withstand these kind of events.

But right now, I think it is important not to lose sight of the suffering of so many people and how that recovery isn’t going to happen quickly.

And that’s the case for farmers too.  I know that in your communities, you all play a really critical role in relation to the storms that we faced, as part of local resilience arrangements for extreme weather events. Helping to clear roads, fallen trees, to get through when the route is barred to all other vehicles. 

And I’ve heard of one farmer who was actually using their tractor to help a celebrant reach a wedding and allow that to go ahead – and of course others helping to tow caravans out of floodwater.

So I really just want to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone involved last week in helping to support our communities during Storm Babet and in the heavy rain earlier this month.

But I do know that this extreme weather also impacts you; your families, your livestock, your produce, and your land. I know just how much you care about all of that and, really how heart-breaking it must be for those who have lost animals and produce over the last couple of weeks.

Now I’ve had a roundtable in relation to this, I’ve been out and undertaken visits. And I have heard and seen first-hand the significant impacts that flooding has had on high-value crops – whether that is potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, and other vegetables right at the end of their growing season.

And I think while it is really hard to actually witness those impacts, it is also really heartening to see the resourcefulness, to see that willingness to overcome adversity. And not least to hear how farmers are working together to minimise that damage –  and helping each other out in pumping trapped water out of fields where flood banks had been exceeded.

Now, it will take time for the full impacts to become clear for those farmers affected by the flooding, I know that. The condition of crops and infrastructure such as flood banks has to be assessed of course only when it’s safe for that work to be undertaken. And so some impacts won’t  be known until crops still in the ground can be harvested.

But it is clear that farmers, crofters, families and workers will need help and support as part of that recovery.

First of all, I just want to acknowledge the vital support of RSABI in that, and thank them for tremendous amount of work that they do and are continuing to do to support farmers, crofters and their families through this very challenging time.

So that’s why I am pleased to announce today that we are providing RSABI with £50,000 of funding this financial year to help them to continue to provide that emotional, financial and practical support, but also importantly to bolster the charity’s Flooding Crisis Fund to provide that specific and targeted financial support to those who have been affected by recent flooding.

And I can also confirm to you today that we will be working with you to bring forward support for the repair of the damaged flood banks, protecting our vitally productive farm land that has been caused by the extreme rainfall during October.

Of course the weather events of recent weeks affect communities right across our water catchments and it is right that we do take a holistic approach to our recovery response. So I will be working with other Cabinet colleagues as we roll out our recovery response in conjunction with local communities. But I do just want to assure you that farming will be at the heart of these discussions and of our support going forward.

Of course all of these events really bring the need for climate adaptation into stark focus. Climate change is a crisis we are living with now – you in particular are in the front line of this in Scotland.

Working closely with you and the NFUS, we are already making real progress on producing more of our food needs sustainably, and encouraging more to farm with nature. There has never been a greater need for a resilient agricultural sector, that is both food secure, and climate secure.

Now through the Agricultural Reform Programme, we are supporting farmers and crofters to make changes to handle extremes in water availability. So an example of that would be improving soil management practices and planting trees. And through the AECS scheme, agricultural businesses are supported to manage water quality and flood risk. 

But of course there is more that we need to do here, which is why I have committed in this year’s Programme for Government to host a roundtable on water scarcity – but of course we are going to add flooding to that agenda now too.

I have also asked officials to look at the scope of the Agri-Environment Climate scheme which I have committed to re-open for a further round in 2024 of course if budgets allow for that. I want to see what more we can offer within that to help farmers address these twin challenges.

We recognise that farming with nature does have an impact on businesses. I have seen it first-hand, the beavers burrows in flood banks in Tayside. I know well the impact that sea eagle predation can have on livestock. Avian flu is still making egg production difficult particularly in the North East. Deer numbers where they are not controlled, are impacting grassland and devouring tree saplings, and geese in concentrated populations are damaging pasture and crops.

Lots of you are working with us to protect and restore nature and to address biodiversity loss on your farms, but we know that that can also result in unexpected costs, impacts and stress.

We recognise these impacts and we are working with businesses to find practical ways to mitigate and prevent this damage.

This week, the new Minister for the Environment, Gillian Martin announced the continuation of the geese management scheme with just over £1 million of funding. And I can advise that NatureScot has agreed to review the current Sea Eagle Management Scheme and Action Plan. That review is going to consider progress on the scheme over the past three years. It’s going to review the payments, and explore possibilities for targeted support in those areas of most need.

While we need to mitigate climate change and restore nature, this has to be alongside a strong farming sector and sustainable rural communities. It is absolutely clear that we’re not going to achieve a more biodiverse landscape with thriving wildlife without the support of farmers, crofters and land managers.

And the same is true of our work to develop measures to transform our support for farming and food production, and to develop a future funding framework. We have now of course, you’ll all be aware, introduced the Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill to Parliament and I really look forward to hearing the NFUS’s evidence and engaging with you all during the bill process.

The Bill ultimately aims to deliver the key ambitions which were set out in the Scottish Government’s Vision for Agriculture. It will enable a future payments framework that incentivises those low carbon approaches to improve the resilience, efficiency and the profitability of the sector but which also continues to support sustainable food production. The work to develop the detail of what that framework will cover continues alongside the Bill, and particularly through ARIOB.

Now, ARIOB as a board is now over two years old. I don’t think many thought it would survive its first summer. But I think that is testament to the leadership and the commitment that has been shown by all the stakeholders and individual members from the farming community. Of course that work isn’t easy, because change never is. We don’t always agree but we usually manage to find a way forward.  And while discussions can of course be very robust, they are always respectful. We are also privileged to have real expertise around the table but also feeding in from our academic expert panel, and the policy group too.

But I just at this moment, want to pay tribute to the leadership in particular shown by your President Martin Kennedy. Now I know how much time, energy and credibility he has staked in co-chairing ARIOB with me. But not just for his role in ARIOB but also his wise counsel and input on a wide range of matters. I have appreciated it all – including the advice I perhaps never asked for and didn’t quite appreciate that I might need!

But I would say that he always puts his members – all of you, your interests – front and centre in everything that he does. And I know that he is as determined as I am to ensure that we get a Bill passed that creates that legal underpinning for a future framework which delivers on what this government has committed to doing. I know that  working closely with government is challenging – and isn’t always welcomed by some members – but I think it does show real leadership in so many ways.

I also want to take a moment to acknowledge Minette Batters’ time as NFU President and I think that it is great that she is speaking at your conference today. She’s had five years in that role, throughout Brexit, the pandemic and the Ukraine war, so it is clearly not a job for the faint hearted.

She has always spoken truth to power, she’s fought for all farming interests across these islands, and really blazed a trail I hope for other women to follow her, not just in the English NFU but perhaps also here at home.

It’s definitely progress to have two woman on the NFUS board but that is still far from even representing the numbers of women who are now involved actively in farming and crofting.

So I hope that more and faster progress might be made with this year’s elections.

Now I am proud of all that we have done as a government to support women in agriculture. And that we have committed to continuing to provide £500,000 funding again this year, to provide more training. And I can announce today that from that sum, we will continue to fund the Be your Best Self personal development course, and will also be funding Board Training for our Young Farmers’ organisation.

We said that we would maintain direct payments to support active farming and food production – we are doing that and we will continue to do that until 2026 and beyond.

This year, I committed to maintain the payment schedule and performance of last year, to try and help people with cashflow and to make investment decisions that benefit the whole rural economy.

Not only did that happen, but Basic and Greening payments started two weeks ahead of the 2022 start date, with money hitting bank accounts from 12 September this year. 

And as of 23 October, the BPS and Greening 2023 payments worth around £363 million have been paid to 15,834 businesses. So that means around 91% of eligible businesses have been paid and 87% of that anticipated expenditure issued.

And I can advise that new entrants’ and LFASS payments which are providing that additional financial support to those who arguably might need it the most – will also start, as planned, in December. 

Now it is well known that we are committed to shifting half of all funding for farming and crofting from unconditional to conditional by 2025. That work is well underway, with announcements made earlier this year. In June, I announced that the Scottish Suckler Beef Support Scheme will continue but from 2025, there will be conditions linked to calving interval. That is not only good for the planet, but it is also good for livestock farmers’ pockets. Longer calving intervals equate to longer periods during which a cow is incurring costs but also emitting greenhouse gases without contributing to beef production.

Government officials are working with stakeholders on the details but I do just want to address one aspect today.

I’m aware that there is some confusion on whether the calving interval will be based on a herd average or on individual animals. So I want to be clear that we plan to base any calving interval conditions on each individual animal’s calving performance, and not herd averages.

I hope that this shows that the government’s support for Scotland’s livestock sector is unwavering. Our Vision for Sustainable Agriculture sees a key role for our iconic suckler beef herd to deliver sustainable beef production which benefits communities, society as well as the planet too.

But I also want our food production to become more secure and diverse, where climate and land types allow. Producing more fruit and vegetables here in Scotland matters for a range of reasons. To make fresh, local produce more readily available in local shops, to support jobs in the agricultural sector and to increase our food security as a nation. Now creating more local food supply chains helps our carbon footprint too – especially if can find ways to make the production as low carbon as possible too.

The sector continues to deal with many challenges, I know at not least  Brexit, which is of course far from done.  Earlier this year I announced that the Scottish Government has allocated up to £6 million over the next two years to extend support provided by the Fruit and Vegetables Aid Scheme. So I hope that this will provide much needed stability and security to the sector over the course of the next couple of years. Through the Agriculture Bill. we are legislating to enable support to continue for producer organisations beyond 2025 and into the future. 

Farming has of course a critical role in making Scotland greener, but it can also help make our country fairer too.

Through Fair Work First, the Scottish Government is asking businesses and organisations which receive public sector grants in Scotland to adopt fair working practices. Now, this includes investing in the development of their workforce, not inappropriately using zero hours contracts, taking action to tackle the gender pay gap, and enabling employees to have a voice, a say in the business they are employed, such as through recognising trade union membership. 

And it also requires all public sector grant recipients to pay at least the Real Living Wage to all employees. The Scottish Government welcomes the real Living Wage Rate of £12.00 per hour.

But I recognise that even without a cost of living crisis, this is challenging to the farming industry and I know particularly in sectors like horticulture. So I want to sit down and discuss those challenges and how we might work through them collectively.

Because the cost of living crisis requires us all to do what we can and really to help each other survive. It is exactly why Fair Work, including fair pay, matters, and we are committed to using all the levers we can to support those most affected. And some of those will be farm workers. 

But there are also compelling business reasons for farmers and crofters to adopt fair work practices. Fair work businesses reap the benefits of having a more committed, productive and fairly rewarded workforce. And they are more productive and profitable in the longer term.

Now, of course, Brexit also has to make an appearance. And I know some would rather we just moved on, that we stopped talking about it, that government focuses on the practical and not the political. But I do think, quite frankly, that would be wrong of us to do that. 

Brexit has been a disaster – imposed on Scotland against our will and I think it shows why we need to take our own decisions. It has resulted in food price rises – with little benefit for you, for the producers. It’s resulted in fewer people to work in Scotland’s economy – including in every part of agriculture; and limited trading opportunities for food and drink businesses – which again impacts on your ability to grow your farming business.

Now I would be failing in my responsibilities to you all, and to everyone across rural Scotland, if I didn’t press the UK Government on issues that are making farming in Scotland harder. And that is literally a key part of my job. Every day I go to work to stand up for the interests of Scotland’s rural and island communities and businesses. I put your needs first and I make the case for rural, island and coastal communities at every possible opportunity.  But I do also want to assure you that we do try hard to work constructively and co-operatively.

That is true of the Border Target Operating Model. Now, I hope you can trust me when I say, what got published and announced is so much more practicable and feasible because of the input of expertise and knowledge, not just from Scottish Government officials, but from all the devolved nations.  But we are still waiting for the all-important details so that we can implement the model as planned in 2024.

And as African Swine Fever sweeps through Europe, ensuring Scotland’s border is as bio-secure as possible is absolutely vital. In 2022 we invested in dedicated detector dogs for Scotland to strengthen the detection of illegal products that risk exotic diseases like African Swine Fever from entering our country.

But we also rely on the UK Government in playing its part in implementing stringent checks at English airports and ports which are the main entry point for the UK.

So Gillian Martin, the Minister for the Environment, has this week, written to the UK Government’s Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries Mark Spencer, seeking written assurance from him that the UK Government is redoubling its efforts to protect the UK and by extension, Scotland from African Swine Fever. And she has also sought assurances that the UK Government will take steps on all nations’ behalf to introduce more stringent controls on the personal import of meat from high risk countries.

Another unwelcome consequence of Brexit is the new veterinary visit attestation requirement for exports to the EU which will come into force in December. We are doing all we can to support our non-assured farmers and stakeholders, and we’re currently working on a digital solution with ScotEID which we hope to have in place as soon as possible. 

But I think one of the biggest and worst consequence of Brexit has been the impact on rural funding for Scotland. Now, I have always been clear and consistent that Scotland expects full replacement of EU funds to ensure that there isn’t any detriment to our finances, and we expect the UK Government to fully respect the devolution settlement in any future arrangement.

I know that NFUS members want to know what the funding envelope will look like in our new framework. And while I am still waiting for more clarity from Westminster, I will make this undertaking to you. By your AGM in February, I will set out the envelopes for Tier 1 and Tier 2 farm payments.

But in the meantime, I just want to offer these assurances:  

Direct payments will continue in Tier 1 and Tier 2. The envelope in Tiers 1 and 2 will take up by far the majority of our available funding. There will also be no cliff edge between the current system and moving into the Tier 1 and 2 payments. People will of course have to do more, including in Tier 1 in return for these payments.

We will be looking to apply funds to where they are most needed, to deliver on the premise at the heart of this government’s Vision for Agriculture - to have a support framework that delivers high quality food production, climate mitigation and adaptation, and nature restoration.

We will continue to work with NFUS, and work with farmers and crofters right across Scotland to find solutions to current as well as future problems and challenges.

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