Will Westminster fairly represent Scottish farmers?

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By a Newsnet Reporter

The Westminster Governments’ Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), Caroline Spelman will put her head into the lion’s den once more when she addresses an audience of Scottish farmers and politicians in Edinburgh at the end of this month.

Ms Spelman, has previously caused major controversy in Scotland due to her stance on reform of the EU Common Agricultural Policy.  Caroline Spelman and her Ministerial Colleague Jim Paice MP, head up the UK delegation to CAP negotiations in Brussels on behalf of the whole UK – the UK being the Member State.

A war of words broke out last year between Westminster and the devolved nations when it became clear that the official UK stance, being put forward at EU level, was at odds with the needs of farmers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The UK negotiating party were taking a “cut the CAP” argument to the EU, when in fact 3 out of 4 of the countries in the UK were crying out for more support, if only to bring their farmers’ subsidies into line with those paid elsewhere in Europe.

It would appear that nothing has changed in the intervening months, with The Scottish Farmer magazine recently reporting Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs Richard Lochhead as stating: “It is very disappointing that the UK Government continues to undermine Scottish agriculture by demanding (in Europe) a very substantial cut in the direct payments which are a lifeline to so many Scottish farmers.”

The stage is therefore set for an interesting showdown when the DEFRA contingent come face to face with their Scottish opposite numbers at the Edinburgh conference.

The theme of the conference looks to be no-less controversial than the English participants.  Plans being put forward by Europe under the CAP reform proposals suggest that 30 percent of direct payments to farmers will now be contingent on a set of ‘greening’ requirements being met.

The ‘greening’ of agriculture is nothing new, and indeed has been largely welcomed in the past by Scottish farmers – who have boosted biodiversity with agri-environment schemes – and consumers alike.  The controversy in this series of CAP reforms centres around the greening proposal for a ‘three-crop rule’.

The major crop across Scottish livestock farms is grass, with perhaps a couple of fields sown down to barley to produce winter feed.  The EU proposals would force Scottish farmers to turn their one or two small fields of barley into a mish-mash of three different crops – with no account taken of the fact that the only crops that will grow on many Scottish upland units are grass, some varieties of barley, the ubiquitous kale and the odd turnip.

NFU Scotland President Nigel Miller, who will chair part of the conference, said: “The EU Commission’s greening proposals are almost unanimously controversial across the whole of the EU but are the cornerstone of Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Cioloş’ vision for the new CAP.”

The NFUS ‘greening’ conference looks set to play a key part in setting Scotland’s position on these difficult proposals. Whether Caroline Spelman and DEFRA, will at last  pay heed and get tough with Brussels, will remain to be seen.

Unfortunately, reports this week suggest that Ms Spelman may have matters other than agricultural on her mind.  The Daily Mail reported this week that Ms Spelman’s teenage son, Jonathan, has received a 21 month playing ban from Englands’ Rugby Football Union for the use of banned anabolic steroids and growth hormone.

The ban comes despite the Spelman family shelling out a reported £61,000 in fees for top defence lawyers.

NFU Scotland’s conference ‘DEVELOPING GREENING OPTIONS FOR NORTHERN EUROPE’ will take place at the Moredun Research Institute, Pentlands Science Park, Bush Loan, Penicuik, EH26 0PZ on Monday, 30 April and Tuesday, 1 May.