A unique chance to influence decisions
THE Scottish Parliament will offer farmers a unique opportunity to influence decisions, according to Scottish NFU president Jim Walker.
"We will have the chance to be involved in working groups and committees as legislation is being formed. That must be a better way of shaping policy than being asked to comment only after the document is written. If we can be in there when legislation is being formulated then we have a much better chance of influencing the outcome," he says.
"We will be able to perform a lobbying function as never before, lobbying on a weekly or even daily basis and that is why we have appointed a full time lobbyist. Until now, we have had the occasional lobby at Westminster and, more regularly, at the Scottish Office. But we have never had a chance like this to lobby parliament on a regular basis."
Mr Walker wants to approach politicians with a united front and the union has worked hard in the past year at forging closer and stronger links with other industry bodies. A new environment and land use committee has been formed which crosses committee boundaries and will be the main area for agreeing policy on major issues coming before parliament.
"There is a two-pronged job to be done. We need to provide information to MPs who know little or nothing about agriculture and rural issues. If we are the information provider it gives us great strength, we can put across our slant on issues.
"Secondly, we will get regular feed back from MPs on the threats and opportunities for agriculture, which is one of the main devolved subjects. We can have a hands-on approach and will be able to influence future rural policies and what the countryside will look like in the future," says Mr Walker.
Unless there is total independence, there will be no Scottish delegate to EU council of ministers meetings. But there is an agreement whereby Scottish ministers will be closely involved in the debate and the formation of British negotiating positions.
"It is inconceivable that a UK minister would ignore the views of the Scottish Parliament. There is no point devolving a country and then ignoring it."
He contends that it will be impossible to ignore the Scottish Parliament as far as agriculture is concerned because the industry is so much more important to Scotland.
"Agricultures contribution to the UK economy may be only 3%, but in parts of Scotland it is 23% of GPD, and the overall figure for Scotland is in excess of 10%."
The recent agreement on Agenda 2000 reforms leaves a lot of detail at member state discretion and there is room for different emphasis in different parts of the country. It is early days, but there is great scope for the regions, Mr Walker believes. "Food exports are significant earners for Scotland. We want to contribute to the economy rather than be a drain on taxpayers on some vague pretext of keeping people in the countryside.
"We want to be seen as people who contribute to the economy as we were until the BSE crisis. We need to see ourselves as food producers. What we want is a more co-ordinated policy of promotion to sell abroad the image of Scotland and the new parliament has to be the vehicle to give that facility. We must get out of the commodity market and gain premiums which allow us to meet our costs of production.
"The message from the heads of state meeting in Berlin was that they want to drive down the cost of the farm policy. I think that is inevitable, as is EU enlargement which will further dilute agricultural funding. We have six years in which to position ourselves for the future and get ourselves out of commodity markets.
"If we miss this opportunity we may have no future. We will not get another chance like this. I think farmers are more receptive to the idea than ever before because they have had a taste of trying to sell what no one wants," he says.