Seeing it through: Fergus Ewing wants to continue the work he’s begun on the rural economy
It’s a tough time for the rural economy. As if COVID wasn’t enough to contend with, in January Brexit also hit rural food producing businesses.
While the impact on fish exports has been the headline news, the new trade rules have hit businesses across farming and fishing.
And rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing is clearly very frustrated with the way the situation has been handled.
“I’ve lived alongside Brexit like an anti-social neighbour for the last five years,” he says, as he launches into a tirade about the problems of Brexit and the failings of the UK Government, saying there just wasn’t the “impetus of desire to address Scottish problems from Westminster”.
He describes the discussions in the XO (Exit Operations) committee as being like something you might expect “between characters in a Jane Austen novel: very mannerly, very courteous, lots of very lengthy presentations about how well it was all going. And an air of total unreality pervaded the atmosphere.”
It was his job, he says, to “jolt them out of that unreality”.
“So, you know, I pointed out that people in Scotland were losing their jobs in the seafood sector because of the export problems. They were losing their livelihoods.
“One or two of them said that if they couldn’t get their goods to market, as small businesses, they may be staring insolvency in the face.
“That the prices of fish had collapsed, that fishermen were landing their fish in Denmark, that EU vessels which land fish in ports like Lochinver, which is an important part of the overall seafood jigsaw of the economy, some of them were forced to go to Ireland because they [the UK Government] hadn’t worked out any guidance at all.
“And, from my perspective, speaking to fishery stakeholders fairly regularly on a daily basis for several years, but particularly since the turn of the year, when these problems have arisen, there was no sense of urgency [from the UK Government].
“And at the end of the day, that’s because Scotland is not their country. They’re not their loyalties to their constituents.
“So fair enough. But the idea that somehow the UK Government are sympathetic to Scotland’s interests, I’m afraid is just not so.”
Other sources of frustration are the current ban on export of Scotland’s seed potatoes to the EU and Northern Ireland, which was worth £11m, and a failure by the UK Government to even ask the EU for a grace period of six months for businesses to get used to the new export paperwork.
But while export problems have been the most obvious and immediate issue resulting from Brexit, there is also the not-so-small matter of a £170m reduction in agricultural funding for Scotland due to the UK Government changing the way support is allocated.
Ewing says this has not got the publicity it deserves, but is going to be an issue in the forthcoming Holyrood election – which could be significant in those Tory-SNP battleground seats in the North East.
The announcement of the new funding calculation was not made to the Scottish Government directly but to civil servants, and Ewing says he’s been unable to get anyone from the UK Treasury to explain the change.
“So since that happened, obviously, I’ve been pressing for a Treasury minister to come along and explain the basis of this decision and they’ve refused. Point blank refused. No Treasury minister will speak to me, or come on this IMG, the inter-ministerial group, which is designed to allow the devolved administrations to discuss things with the UK Government minister, George Eustice.”
The allocation of agricultural subsidies within Scotland will continue to follow the same rules as the EU CAP scheme until 2024, but will then be replaced by a scheme that rewards good environmental practice and land use, with greening criteria as a precondition of obtaining support.
But, Ewing says, if the UK Government doesn’t reverse its “absurd decision” to cut £170m from the Scottish budget, it will be “very challenging” to achieve that, which is why he intends to make that a “major plank” of the SNP’s election campaign.
Even with the money in place, the move to funding that has environmental strings attached will involve a big change in farming practices, which is why it is being looked at now.
“It will require farmers to change their practices over a transition period, because changing farming practice needs to be carefully managed over, I think, a period of say three or four years.
“And we will move from the current system, where they receive income basically for landholding, to a system of receiving income for producing high-quality food but in a way that meets the highest standards of tackling climate change and promoting biodiversity.”
A key part of the strategy to reach that point is the establishment of farmer-led groups for each part of the sector. These groups will set out the practical steps for their type of farming to reduce its climate impact.
The first one, on beef, led by former NFUS president Jim Walker and Claire Simonetta, reported in November, and a second on arable farming has also been launched, with more to come.
These groups will be made up of leading farming experts, scientists, academics and Scottish Government officials who are “working together on this vision of a country that values farming for food production, but also is moving farming towards the highest environmental standards that we can attain to in practice.”
Ewing thinks this approach is essential to getting farmers on board.
“Why I think this farmer-led group approach is so important, and is the only one, and the right one, is very, very simple. That to try to persuade farmers to change is not easy.
“And I think that the best way to ask them and to persuade them to change is to hear advice from their own peers, from people that they respect, from the leaders of the beef sector, the dairy sector, people that they will listen to.”
While initially voluntary, eventually the changes will become mandatory in order to meet the country’s climate targets.
“I think it has to be mandatory after a while,” Ewing says. “In other words, our message is that this is something that we require to do because of our climate change targets. We require to cut methane emissions.
“The report that Jim and Claire produced says that we can cut a substantial whack of our methane proportions from cattle by a number of practical matters of soil management, nutrient management, nitrogen, control of applications, pesticides, the use of feeds, of planet-friendly feedstuffs.
“There’s a whole series of practical things you can do, so my ask of the farmers is, tell us how you can do this differently, as farmers, and we will then set up a set of guidance which will apply for every different sector.
“But after a while, and there’s a debate about whether that should be, say, three or four years, this will become mandatory.
“So, you know, you don’t need to sign up to this, but if you don’t sign up to this, the support either won’t be available or it won’t be available to the same extent.
“The detail of this, of course, is something that we need to discuss very carefully over the coming months.
“And I hope after the election, particularly if I’m still around, the electorate and the First Minister willing, then I’m really, really excited about driving this forward, particularly with people like Martin Kennedy, the incoming chair of the NFUS, who equally shares my passion about this.”
Ewing is one of only a handful of the old guard of MSPs who were elected in 1999 who are planning to stand again at this election, with others in the Cabinet, such as Mike Russell and Roseanna Cunningham, standing down this year, but Ewing says he has unfinished work to do and wants to come back to see it though.
“I want to see Scotland becoming an independent country and I think I can play a part of that, particularly in the areas where I’ve had the fortune to be the minister, like rural, and energy, and economy, and tourism. And I think I’ve got a contribution to make.
“I’m not complacent, you know. You should never take the electorate for granted. We’ve got an election ahead. There’s no guarantee of success.
“You know, when I first started, it was a success if the SNP didn’t lose its deposit. So I’m not going to be complacent.
“But I do think if I am re-elected, and I’m asked again by the First Minister to serve, I think I can make a major contribution.
“I know the ropes. I know how to get things done. I know what needs to be achieved. I’ve got a very clear idea about that.
“And I get on extremely well with the overwhelming majority of the people I work with.
“And I think working as a team, public and private sector, we’ve achieved an enormous amount in farming and forestry, in aspects of fishing, despite Brexit, and in aquaculture, and in tourism, prior to COVID, so I think there’s a tremendous job of work to be done.
“I also on a constituency level want to see the A9 dualling completed and I want to see the Nairn bypass, and I want to see the rail improvements, and I want to see a new school in places like Nairn Academy, and I want to see the Inverness Castle transformed into a world-leading visitor attraction. And we’re well on course to do that by 2023-24.
“So I’ve got lots of things that I haven’t finished and I want to get the job done. I want to see it through.”