The Scottish Agriculture Bill needs a sunset clause to stop Ministers being able to change policy without scrutiny over the coming decades, says Mike Rumbles, MSP for the North East of Scotland.
Over the past two years I have repeatedly used my column in the Farmers’ Guardian to call for a long-term vision for Scottish agriculture.
Our rural economy is under great pressure to meet demand, both at home and abroad, to deliver on long-term climate change targets and to manage the challenging circumstances of Brexit.
How we as a country support our farm businesses to achieve those aims and plan for the future could make all difference.
It is quite understandable that present circumstances have made that task even more difficult.
Government Ministers, just like farm businesses and everyone else, are focused on getting through the current Covid-19 crisis.
The work of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government is ongoing, however, and earlier this month we passed the first stage of the Agriculture (Retained EU Law and Data) (Scotland) Bill which will ensure that by the end of this year, Scottish Ministers will have the power to continue CAP support.
The Scottish Government will also be able to simplify or improve the current policy, as well as having new powers for collecting agricultural data.
The danger is that when this Bill is put into legislation a few months from now, there will be no legal requirement for Ministers to develop a new Agriculture Bill to outline a bespoke new agricultural policy for Scotland which has the full backing of Parliament, stakeholders and our rural communities.
As it stands, it will give future Ministers an absolute say over agricultural policy through secondary legislation for decades to come.
In short, this Bill will lay the groundwork for the transition toward our own programme of support for our rural economy, but it should not be the last time anyone except a Government Minister has a say in that process.
It is absolutely vital that we get it right when the Bill comes before the Rural Economy Committee at Stage 2.
Over the coming weeks, it will be my job and the job of others on the committee to persuade the Cabinet Secretary and convince the Scottish Government that a change needs to be made to the Bill.
There should be a so-called ’sunset clause’ to bring the powers transferred by the Bill to an end by the close of 2026.
That will mean that the Scottish Government will be required to bring a new and improved Agriculture Bill containing a bespoke agricultural support system to Parliament before that date.
I am cautiously optimistic that the Cabinet Secretary and the Scottish Government will see good sense and support an amendment to the Bill to that effect.