Scottish farmers look set to keep some form of direct payment beyond 2024, after Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing mounted a passionate defence of income support at the virtual AgriScot conference.
Plans set out by the Scottish Government in 2018 will ensure farmers continue to receive direct payments under a simplified Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) until at least 2024, but Mr Ewing appeared to suggest this support could extend still further, saying he was personally committed to maintaining direct payments.
He claimed it would be ‘unsustainable’ to cut all direct support, which he described as ‘earned income’, because two-thirds of farmers would make a loss without it.
Addressing farmers at the event, Mr Ewing said: “You produce food, you look after the countryside and you support rural communities.
“These are three things which are of immense value to Scotland and for which you work hard.
“Therefore I do believe although in future we need to aspire to environmental targets, and although there will need to be conditionality attached to continuing the payments, there should continue to be direct income payments, as opposed to ad hoc payments for environmental schemes.”
Despite Mr Ewing’s comments about the maintenance of direct support, which were welcomed by NFU Scotland president Andrew McCornick, the Cabinet Secretary did face serious criticism for failing to set out a broader vision for Scottish agricultural policy post-2024.
Mr McCornick took a swipe at Ministers who have previously blamed the UK Government for refusing to set out funding commitments, saying cash should ‘not be used as an excuse’ for not delivering a new farming policy.
He also called on Mr Ewing to spend the additional £50m granted to Scotland by the Lord Bew review on devolved agricultural funding to get pilots and trials of any new scheme up and running.
“What rural Scotland really needs now is a belief in the future for their industry from Scottish Government,” said Mr McCornick.
“Scottish Government should be delivering a credible and workable agricultural policy that will strengthen the economy, deal with climate change, biodiversity and have big ambitions for the best food and drink food and drink in the world by 2030.
“All the information is sitting waiting on Scottish Government desks to be pulled together. Please, stop dithering and start delivering.”
The AgriScot conference was held shortly after a row erupted over comments made by the Prime Minister, who reportedly said devolution had been a ‘disaster north of the border’.
His remarks are likely to be used as fuel in any push for a second independence referendum, and have already led to calls for the Scottish Conservatives to split from the UK party.