Comment: Let’s hope deal-makers learn from history

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In THE coming months there are several major decisions to be made that will affect the future prosperity or otherwise of Scottish agriculture. But today instead of concentrating attention on these future events it might be far more profitable to look at lessons from previous decisions.

Last week, we had the Scottish Government fulminating against the reluctance of Defra to hand over levies collected in English and Welsh abattoirs for Scottish livestock. An annual sum of £1.4 million is involved.

But no-one, as far as I could see, questioned how this situation came about. To recollect, seven years ago UK body the Meat and Livestock Commission collected all the levies and then kept most of the cash, only giving the Scottish Quality Beef and Lamb Association some promotional money.

In line with the devolutionary thinking of the time, the setting up of Quality Meat Scotland was mooted and agreed. My point is that, at that time, someone involved in the discussions agreed to the formula which now sticks in the craw of the Scottish Government, QMS and many producers.

That comment is not the start of a witch hunt, but an observation that either the Scottish negotiators did not see the leakage of levy cash as being significant or they were unable to wrest it from the UK body.

The significance is that with the independence referendum coming along, there are another four UK-wide levy-collecting organisations currently in operation and if their services are necessary, I hope the negotiators are aware of the lessons of history.

(In passing, I would comment that a Scottish version of the Potato Council or the Horticultural Development Council would have an annual income of less than £1 million, so there would be precious little funding available for research.)

I suppose the biggest error in political negotiations in living memory was the “Green Pound” fiasco. Such was the enthusiasm for the UK to enter Europe in the 1970s that a monetary system was created to smooth out inter-country trading. This was the dreaded green pound, which for two decades of inequality damaged farming in the UK.

That was an understatement – in fact, it destroyed parts of the industry and to this day, in sectors such as pigs and intensive glasshouse production, we are still dealing with its legacy.

Since the arrival of the euro in 1999, that deal has faded into history, but another one, the Maastricht Treaty – where the UK is trying to prove its semi-detached approach to Europe – bedevils our farmers who are today worse off than their continental colleagues.

If these were big bad decisions, more locally, following the last Common Agricultural Policy settlement, there were a number of implementation decisions taken in Scotland which have also hampered the industry.

The decision to allow those who were no longer farming actively to continue to collect public subsidies has been a travesty for too long. I recall getting my fingers rapped in the Scottish Parliament for raising the issue in 2005, yet it now looks as if those so-called “slipper farmers” will continue to receive largesse from the taxpayer up until 2015.

Linked to that has been another bad decision: that entitlements could be transferred across differing qualities of land, resulting in large sums of cash being paid for sides of hills.

Both these really bad decisions have taken millions of pounds out of producing food – which, if we remember, is the primary reason for farming.

Another blunder from that time was the handling of the New Entrants’ scheme, where all the cash was distributed in one go, with much of it going to already established businesses; thus leaving genuine newcomers without any hope of support from the public purse.

I have no doubt the current enthusiasm for a scheme to allow new entrants this time will again encourage others to look at how they can qualify, but I hope the CAP is more robust and more accountable.

I personally doubt it, as its complexity will allow all sorts of little nooks and crannies where the financially astute will gain advantage over the industrious.

So, to all those dealing with new policies and legislation: look at previous errors and “gang warily” so you can avoid me writing about them in the future.