The future of agricultural support: post-Brexit transitional arrangements

Rural Economy Secretary launches a consultation on proposals for the immediate post-Brexit period.

Presiding Officer, Scotland did not vote for Brexit, but we now have to deal with its consequences.

The Scottish Government's preferred option is for the whole of the UK to remain in the EU. Failing that, our consistent position has been that staying in the European Single Market and Customs Union is essential for Scotland's economy, particularly our rural economy.

That would enable us to continue to benefit from the four freedoms, freedom of movement of goods, services, people and capital, and from a wide range of environmental, animal, plant and food standards, but it would mean we are outside the Common Agricultural Policy.

In recent months, a wide range of stakeholders have promoted the prospect of change.

"No change is not an option." This was one of the central conclusions of the Agriculture Champions.

That premise also features strongly in the discussion paper published by the National Council of Rural Advisors last week: "now is the time to change the way we think, act and operate to tailor bespoke policy frameworks".

NFU Scotland have also titled their discussion document for a new agricultural policy for Scotland post-Brexit simply as "change".

So change now seems inevitable. What we must therefore determine is how far we go and importantly, how fast.

Yet, we are having to navigate our future through a bewildering set of uncertainties.

We do not yet know when we might be made to leave the EU – it might be 29 March 2019, it might be the end of 2020 or at some date, as yet unknown.

There is little clarity over funding. We have a commitment from the UK Government to provide the same cash total in funds for farm support until the end of the current UK Parliament, and for contracts entered into before the end of March next year to be honoured. We are leaving the EU on 29 March 2019 but have absolutely no idea what will follow.

But that is all. Additional information around funding guarantees has been sought by me and Cabinet colleagues time and again and has not been forthcoming.

Perhaps worst of all, is the prospect of being denied control over or access to the powers hard won in the devolution settlement, powers which matter hugely for rural Scotland in terms of enabling Scotland to design its own solutions on funding and policy to meet Scottish needs on farming, food production, food standards and environment.

But the clock is ticking. We can no longer wait for Westminster and must get on with determining our own future.

And while the wellbeing of Scotland might mean nothing to Westminster, it is our central and overriding concern.

Rural Scotland deserves security and stability in the short term.

So today Presiding Officer I am launching a consultation on proposals to provide stability and security for rural businesses in the immediate post-Brexit period.

It marks the start of the process of developing a new rural support policy for Scotland. It also forms part of the civic conversation being led by the National Council of Rural Advisors over the summer to shape a comprehensive new approach to supporting Scotland's rural economy.

This consultation focuses on what might be done to provide stability in the period immediately after Scotland might have to leave the EU in 2019.

It sets out ideas for short term simplifications that could help current claimants of CAP-related support, while also improving or enhancing the delivery of policy goals.

It also asks questions on how best to support and integrate agriculture into the broader rural economy over the transition period and beyond.

And finally it seeks views on how pilot projects might be developed and used to test different approaches to rural support which might be taken forward into the future.

It is not an entirely open ended consultation. I am clear about what I think the key proposals should be. And that these proposals should aim to deliver stability and security for businesses and communities.

Firstly, this plan proposes that we have a transition period. The Agriculture Champions' recommendation and rationale for a three to five year period is compelling.

Such a transition period would provide the space we need to properly develop and devise a new and different approach for Scotland.

This is in stark contrast to the one year transition period currently proposed by the UK.

Within this five year window, I am proposing we have a two year period of stability, where we continue to adhere to EU rules.

During this initial phase, I would envisage that current EU support schemes would remain largely the same, providing security when it is needed most.

That security will be enhanced for over 11,000 farmers and crofters by my decision also to maintain LFASS in 2019 at 80%, ensuring that our most marginalised farmers and crofters continue to receive the support they need.

In the second phase of the transition period, I am proposing to make some amendments to payment schemes to simplify and improve customer service or provide enhanced public benefit.

And also to make clear that we are not standing still during this crucial period.

I want to explore and consider income parameters for farm payments but I also want to declutter the payment landscape by removing penalties for minor indiscretions.

Such an approach signals a key shift in mindset and attitude – away from strict compliance to a relationship based on trust that values and supports delivery based on outcomes.

I also want to reduce the administrative burden on a range of steps in the payments system and process, including around inspections, mapping and scheme rules.

And further, I am proposing that we use this time to streamline and synergise some of the myriad Pillar II schemes.

These measures will free up resources – in their widest sense – to be used to invest more in activity that we do now that we will want to continue in the future.

So, for example, we already know we want to support more new and young entrants into farming and food production so will want to continue providing support in that area.

But we will also utilise resources to innovate and to develop and pilot new approaches.

As well as encouraging new and young entrants, we know we have inter-generational challenges that we will need to address.

As part of this consultation, I also want to hear views on the longer term direction of travel.

All ideas and proposals will be explored as part of the wider civic conversation around how best to sustain a vibrant and flourishing rural economy in the future.

Key to this will be exploring how best to combine delivery of desirable outcomes for rural Scotland with support in the future.

A new rural policy framework should seek to ensure that public investments in social, economic and environmental capital not only create a stable and secure environment for rural businesses, but contribute to a sustainable, productive, diverse and thriving rural economy.

Presiding Officer, there is no doubt that the next few years are going to be extremely challenging for rural Scotland.

But unlike the UK Government which becomes more chaotic and clueless by the day, this Government is focused on its responsibilities to protect and serve the best interests of the people and businesses in our rural communities.

Since the EU referendum almost two years ago, the UK Government has provided little clarity and almost no certainty.

With less than a year to go to a Brexit that Scotland neither voted for nor wants, we cannot wait any longer.

Rural Scotland needs and deserves as much security and stability as can be provided in the short term and today I have published a plan to help achieve that.

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