Scottish farmers have been promised “fairness and equality” once the country converts to area-based payments and Defra conducts its review of convergence funding.
UK farm minister George Eustice tackled the contentious issue of convergence upfront when he opened a head-to-head debate on independence in the Highlands with Scotland’s rural affairs minister Richard Lochhead.
So-called convergence funding is allocated to member states that have a lower-than-average farm payment a hectare. The UK received €223m (£177m) from Brussels but only qualifies because Scotland’s lower-than-average payment brings the national average down. The Scottish government has argued that all of that money should go north of the border, so Mr Eustice began on a placatory note.
“I know you would like to see more done on convergence payments and I know the farming community here are unhappy with the allocation they got,” he said. “We took a historic approach this time around but once you’ve converted and completed the conversion to area-based payments we’ll review this, and when we do that review we want to treat equal types of land around the UK in an equal way so that there’s fairness. Fairness will be absolutely at the heart of the review.”
Ahead of the meeting, another of the speakers, Jim Brown of Gaindykehead in Airdrie, had called on Mr Eustice to apologise for what he described as the UK Government’s “CAP cash grab”.
“The UK Government’s record on CAP funding is an excellent example of the urgent need for Scotland to be independent and representing itself in the vital EU agriculture talks,” he said.
The purpose of the debate may have been to discuss the arguments in favour and against the splitting of Scotland and England, yet almost every issue that was raised related to the necessity of EU membership for Scottish agriculture.
The “Better together” camp argued that it would take Scotland time to renegotiate its way back in to an inferior position, while Mr Lochhead focused on the prospect of Scotland being excluded from Europe in the case of a “no” vote in a UK referendum.
“We face the threat of leaving Europe at the behest of people elsewhere and other parties we don’t vote for in this county”, he said. “If our farmers and food producers are taken out of Europe we’ll be left at the mercy – if we’re still part of the UK – of Labour and Conservative governments who don’t believe in direct support for agriculture. That’s why we need our own representation at the top table where international negotiations take place. We need the powers to reflect our own priorities.”
Meanwhile, Mr Eustice claimed the UK Government had “gone in to bat” for Scotland with the European Commission on many issues, even since the latest CAP deal had been finalised.
“Notably we’ve supported Scotland on issues surrounding livestock stocking densities, so that you can tackle the problem you have with so-called slipper farmers, and also when it comes to coupled support,” he said. “You wanted a voluntary coupled support scheme on sheep and we managed to secure that, too.”