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Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill

Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill

What is it about? 

Post Brexit, the new bill is designed to replace the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which was the agricultural policy formerly dictated by the European Union. 

CAP provides financial support to farmers and the rural economy in EU member states. Its rules have remained in force in Scotland as part of the assimilated law (otherwise known as retained law), but the EU’s new 2023-27 CAP rules do not apply. However, the Scottish Government is keen to remain aligned with CAP rules where possible – as its ultimate position is to rejoin the EU upon achieving Scottish independence. 

Introduced to parliament last September, the bill has four main objectives: the adoption and use of sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices; the production of high-quality food; the facilitation of on-farm nature restoration, climate mitigation and adaptation; and enabling rural communities to thrive. 

The scheme will also help deliver the government’s Vision for Agriculture, the overarching strategy document which aims to position Scotland as a global leader in sustainable and regenerative agriculture.

To do so, the bill suggests a new four-tiered support framework, divided between direct and indirect payments. 

Tier 1 and 2 feature entry-level payments to protect areas including the environment and welfare, and “enhanced” payments for improving climate practices. Tiers 3 and 4 are competitive and reserved for “specific” improvements or for the trading of skills for wider land management support from the government or public partners. 

What will Scottish Ministers be able to do? 

To deliver “high-quality” and “sustainable” food, ministers will provide financial aid for the use of organic practices and certification. 

Following recent emergencies concerning food production management, ministers will also be able to intervene in “unforeseen” circumstances and provide financial support. 

The legislation will support flora and fauna genetic resources in areas such as reducing the risk of pests and the use of inherent genetic variation in individual breeds for efficient production. 
It will also support forestry through measures including afforestation.

Ministers will also publish a Rural Support Plan. Covering up to a five-year period (to allow for a flexible support model), the plan will outline priorities for providing support and details on the support schemes and  clarify how support aligns with other statutory duties.

But what is ‘sustainable and regenerative agriculture’ exactly? 

That is a question asked by many in the consultation for the bill, which ran from August until December 2022 and received 392 responses. 

Ministers will publish a code of practice to clarify these terms. That code will be subject to amendments every five years to keep up with new developments in the sector. 

What else did the consultation say? 

Overall, proposals received positive responses, with over 60 per cent supporting the four-tier payment scheme and 78 per cent agreeing that ministers should be able to declare when there are unforeseen conditions affecting food production or distribution. 

However, division arose on whether areas relating to non-agricultural land management, like forestry, should receive support under the bill, with just over half of participants believing it should. 

Wait, isn’t there an ongoing row over the rural affairs budget? 

In short, yes. The National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS) has been demanding funds for over two years after the agriculture budget suffered significant cuts. 

The Scottish Government’s Emergency Budget Review in 2022 deferred the award of £33m funding specifically pegged for the sector, which came from the UK Government’s review of domestic farm support. In June, Deputy First Minister Shona Robison assured the sector it would receive the multi-million sum back – but the 2024/25 Scottish budget published at the end of last year showed a further £28m cut in funding. 

Last month, rural affairs secretary Mairi Gougeon announced a £15m return to the rural portfolio in the 2024-25 budget. However, the NFUS remained unhappy. Last Friday, Gougeon was set to join First Minister Humza Yousaf for a Q&A session at the NFUS annual conference.

What’s next? 

The Scottish Parliament has agreed to complete stage one of the bill by 29 March. 
The Rural Affairs and Islands Committee is scrutinisng the bill and has taken evidence form a range of stakeholders including the NFUS. It will hold its final stage one evidence session with Mairi Gougeon on 21 February before putting together its report. 

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