Andrew Arbuckle: Something-for-nothing culture has to be brought to end

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WE ALL live by our reputations, and I am told that mine is, in part, as a fairly easy-going bloke. But this week, I am going to give that view of me a bit of a knock as I get a bit worked up about the reputation of farming.

After a decade where the public image of the industry improved though a whole succession of television programmes featuring everyday life down on the farm, the darker side came under the spotlight last week when the cameras turned to the scandal of farm subsidies going to non-farmers and ex-farmers.

I have been going on about this for six or seven years, as more farmers who were working at the beginning of last decade moved into retirement.

As the programme found out, they could transfer their subsidy entitlement to some faraway county for some nominal amount of cash and they would continue to get cash from the public purse while, at the same time, denuding their former farm of any subsidy entitlement. This has been a positive deterrent to the incomer.

At the same time, some sharp operators, not necessarily farmers, realised the regime allowed them to buy up quota as an investment and they did so and they are now the recipients of large amounts of lolly.

My concern was and still is that this is money that is effectively going out of the industry. Money that was originally paid over in return for producing sheep, cattle or growing cereals is now being used as an investment or for the comforts of retirement.

Just how much money is oozing out of the system to those whom I would categorise as non-active is difficult to gauge but my own calculations would be somewhere between £50 million and £100m a year, or almost 20 per cent of the total amount of subsidy paid to Scottish agriculture.

That is money the taxpayer is handing over in the belief that it helps them get a secure supply of cheap food.

Since the last reform broke the link between production and support, output from Scottish farms has declined. The latest manifestation of this came last week with the December census figures showing a reduction in the numbers of livestock kept.

No wonder the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers president, Alan Craig, described the figures as “very worrying.” It is no good having an industry with a reputation for a top-class product such as Scotch Beef if there is no beef to back it up.

In the past decade covering the period where Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was changed to remove the linkage between the numbers of livestock kept and the cash subsidy, sheep numbers in Scotland have fallen by one third, beef cattle numbers are also down by more than 10 per cent and we now have only two thirds of the dairy cattle we had at the turn of the century.

Although the European agricultural commissioner believes that Scotland can take action against those “slipper farmers” who are pocketing the cash, the Scottish Government seems unlikely to be prodded into action.

Whether this is because of the informal nothing controversial while the independence debate is around policy or for some other reason I do not know. Although trading in single farm payments is still ongoing, this practice will be derailed by the forthcoming CAP, which is now coming down the track.

I believe it is now unlikely anything will be done to stop slipper farmers getting cash under the present regime.

So attention must be given to ensuring the next CAP contains no such loopholes where the financially astute can milk the system or where someone no longer contributing to producing food can sit back and receive an annual present from the taxpayer.

My problem is the current CAP proposals look to be a fruitful area for those who look at how they can maximise their subsidy income with only a nod in the direction of growing or producing.

Linking production to support is largely a no-go area because of World Trade Organisation requirements. A great deal of hope is, therefore, being invested in ensuring only active farmers are rewarded.

There are two problems with this solution and these are defining activity and monitoring that activity. I expect this to be an area where the fly boys will exploit.

I believe it is essential that any future CAP should have clauses for financial clawbacks when loopholes are being exploited. It happens in the banking industry and if it can be imposed there then anything is possible.

Having got that off my chest, I feel a little better now.