Of the current Scottish Government, few politicians can have spent as long carving out their own niche as Richard Lochhead.
From the very early days of the Parliament in 1999, the Paisley-born MSP, representing first the North East region, then the rural constituency of Moray, was thrown into the world of rural affairs.
A shadow minister for fisheries, then the environment and rural affairs, by the time the SNP took control in 2007, he was a member of Alex Salmond’s first cabinet as Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment.
Food and agriculture is worth big money to Scotland a fact recognised this year when Lochhead won The Herald’s Politics and Business Award ahead of both Finance Secretary John Swinney and Tory finance spokesman Gavin Brown – for the “tireless work in promoting the country’s food and drink industry around the globe.”
Since taking on the role, Lochhead says he has travelled the “length and breadth” of the country meeting farmers and producers, with countless food-themed photo-opportunities. The success of food and drink in Scotland has been further demonstrated by confirmation this year that the industry target of £12bn had been smashed several years early and exports were more than £5bn.
But farming in Scotland is at a critical juncture, with a new Common Agricultural Policy now agreed across Europe, which will be in place between 2014 and 2020 and while there has been disappointment at Scotland’s share of the pot, it will allow the Scottish Government flexibility to take charge of how it is implemented.
Farmers are waiting to see what Lochhead and his officials have planned.
Speaking to Holyrood ahead of the publication of two key consultation documents on plans for the new ‘Scottish CAP’, he says: “Our farmers and crofters and primary producers underpin our fantastic success with the food and drink industry by supplying the raw materials for the processors and manufacturers.
“They are central to the economy of Scotland in terms of the massive role played by our food and drink industry – as well as particularly rural economies – because any support that’s provided to agriculture helps support jobs in a wide range of sectors across Scotland.”
He adds: “It really is fascinating just how deep agriculture reaches into our wider economy. With the success of Scotland’s larder in recent years as a celebration of our natural environment, the population at large values the role of our farmers and crofters more than ever.
“Of course, food security is now back on the agenda and the success of the food and drink industry as an economic sector also gives us a better appreciation of the job that farmers and crofters carry out.”
Despite the success of the food and drink industry, Lochhead argues that without direct support, farming in some parts of the country would just not be viable and it is this issue that has led to the political arguments between the Scottish Government and Defra in the UK, which had the responsibility for negotiating the new settlement which has now been rubber-stamped by the European Parliament.
With a change in how payments are calculated, Lochhead said it was important the new deal would help new entrants to farming – who had previously been frozen out and not receiving the same benefits and subsidies as those who had been part of the old system – and close a loophole that allowed people who were no longer active in farming to still pick up the European subsidy.
When the deal was announced – that has allowed a great deal of flexibility for Scotland to deliver its own CAP – Lochhead welcomed the deal.
But in recent weeks, the thrust of the CAP discussion has changed, focusing instead on the fact that per hectare, Scotland receives one of the worst allocations in Europe.
“While we welcomed many of the outcomes of the recent negotiations in terms of policy – we’ve been appalled by the budget agreement.
“There are two levels of support and we are third bottom in the European league for direct payments and bottom, if you look at rural development funding.
“We said to the UK Government that in terms of their negotiations, they have to take into account Scotland has such a poor allocation compared to other countries. We never made any headway with that and we are actually in a much worse position than we were going into the negotiations.”
In addition, Scotland failed in its bid to claim the entire €223m “convergence uplift”, which was paid to the UK aiming to bring all European countries up to the same standard of subsidy, with the UK Government’s argument being that despite Scotland having the lowest per-hectare payments, it had the highest level of subsidy per farm, at £25,000 a year.
“The per-farm payment is a complete red herring,” says Lochhead: “All farms are different shapes and sizes. You cannot compare Scotland’s per-farm payment with the rest of the UK because we all have our own way of implementing the Common Agricultural Policy; we all have different criteria for who qualifies for support. It’s comparing apples with pears.”
It has led to angry exchanges, with the UK Secretary of State for Environment, Owen Paterson, singled out for criticism by Lochhead. There was cross-party support for Defra to reverse the decision and Lochhead says: “It’s unusual to get parties to unite on any subject in Scotland – but Owen Paterson has managed to do that.”
He complains he was prevented from taking part in the meetings negotiating the CAP with the European Commission or EU presidency – unlike those which took place over fisheries reform.
“At our pre-meetings and during the whole process, we consistently made the argument to him that we needed a fair share of the budget, because Scotland was at a major disadvantage by being bottom of the league.
“If you look at who some other countries get, it’s telephone number stuff.”
He adds: “We have different priorities.
“Owen Paterson believes the free market can decide how farms fare and if the market doesn’t deliver then businesses don’t survive.
“In Scotland, we believe it’s in the national interest to maintain food producing capacity – it’s not good enough to rely on food imports in the decades ahead and we have to maintain the precious ability to produce our own food and maintain the skills on our land to do that.”
Lochhead said that he is not “giving up the fight” with Defra, but in the meantime, the Government still has to let Scottish agriculture know what the future has in store.
The new reformed policy will run for the next seven years, so what will the ‘Scottish CAP’ look like?
The first of the consultations was due out by the start of this month, outlining what support there will be for farms facing particular challenges, such as hill farms, or ones in particularly remote areas – as well as setting out how the policy will meet the new demands of promoting biodiversity.
In early December, a second consultation on direct payments for farming is also due out. But will this give farmers more certainty over their future?
“I’ll lay out the options and no doubt the farming community will have its own debate as to which options it favours in terms of the rural development programme,” he says. “That’s a debate that involves many different communities – farmers, crofters, environmental organisations, rural communities.”
Among the negotiations for the new CAP, 2013 has been the year that Lochhead has aimed to put agriculture at the centre of the debate over independence.
At this year’s Royal Highland Show in Edinburgh, at the SNP’s party conference in Perth and at AgriScot, a key event in the farming business calendar, Lochhead aimed to set out the case for why Scotland would be better off as an independent nation.
He claims that under the present funding formula, Scotland would have gained an additional €1bn, and insists that as the present CAP is agreed to 2020, there would be no delay in higher payments coming to Scottish farmers in the newly independent country from 2016.
Supporters of keeping the Union intact have argued that to be entitled to these payments would mean further negotiations with the other European countries and potential delays in payments to farmers.
But Lochhead says: “It is a formula for funding member states in agricultural sectors – therefore we would have the same formula applied to Scotland as a member state as every other state would have. It’s not just a case of having to change anyone else’s allocation because of what Scotland is getting.”
He denies that discussion of independence is detracting from the important issues at hand. “This about the future of our rural communities where agriculture is a backbone.
“Devolution has been really good for Scottish agriculture because of the widening gulf of priorities between the UK Government which attaches very little value to farming and the Scottish Government which attaches great priority to the future of agriculture and food – I would be surprised if you spoke to many farmers who didn’t support that.
“It’s a constant message I get, it’s night and day the difference between the value attached to farming north and south of the border by the respective governments.”
He says the row over the CAP and the budget negotiations are among a number of examples where Scotland’s needs have been ignored.
With the possibility of an EU in/out referendum on the horizon, Lochhead adds there could be further threats posed by the different policies north and south of the border.
“If there wasn’t support for Scotland’s hill farms, for instance, and to a certain extent to our crofting communities, it could well be what many farmers refer to as a ‘second Highland Clearances’, he says.
“Farming has already suffered a decline in recent years in some remote areas and there are very few alternatives. The fact that we have a UK Government which believes in leaving rural Scotland to the mercy of the free market illustrates the different political priorities north and south of the border.”