MSPs make play for the rural vote

IT WAS flagged up as a "hustings meeting" for the forthcoming elections to the Scottish Parliament on 3 May. No less than 23 rural organisations in Scotland yesterday convened at a gathering in Edinburgh where the very considerable audience was addressed by all of the main political parties who fancy their chances of having a major influence on the composition of the next administration, which will almost certainly be a coalition.

The rural vote will be pivotal, but the proceedings, just across the road from The Scotsman office, seemed more akin to a "hug-in", with apparently little difference in rural strategy between the various parties.

However, the words of Jim McLaren, the president of NFU Scotland, were certainly straight to the point, as his style. He said: "Agriculture continues to operate in rapidly changing times. There is a huge opportunity for politicians to put in place a framework that will secure the future of the industry and rural Scotland."

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Farming has been subject to a wide range of regulations in recent years, despite the claim that the reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy [CAP] in 2003, would lessen the burden of bureaucracy.

McLaren commented: "We accept that there will have to be rules, but they must be proportionate, targeted, consistent, transparent and accountable. If we can have a market focussed industry, farmers can deliver for Scotland."

The political personalities were then called in the alphabetical order of their surnames. First to come to the podium was Shiona Baird of the Green Party. She began by berating the multiples: "Customers are so beholden to the supermarkets to the extent where we must have an independent ombudsman. There is so much good food produced in Scotland, but those who farm the land deserve a fair price for their labours."

Sarah Boyack, the deputy environment and rural affairs minister, then took the stand for Labour. She said: "The task of the Scottish Parliament is to help create conditions for economic success for Scotland, and that includes the rural regions. There is no free ride for anyone, but I think we can work together. There is a major opportunity for the development of renewable energy. We also want to promote a far higher level of local sourcing in terms of food for the public sector."

Next in line was Ross Finnie for the Liberal Democrats, who has been the rural development minister since devolution became a fact of life in 1999. The avuncular Finnie was determined not to hide his light under the proverbial bushel. "When I was first appointed eight years ago, the relationship between many rural organisations was dire. I think we have, over the years, achieved a better sort of engagement."

"There is so much happening in the food industry, but we have to do more. I would like to see something in Scotland similar to Bord Bia [the Irish food organisation], but I think it should be producer-led, and not dictated by government, as in Ireland."

Annabel Goldie, the leader of the Scottish Tories, has had her share of critics in recent weeks, but she seemed well attuned to the mood of the countryside, especially in relation to quangos. She said: "One of the first things we would do in government is to initiate a review of both the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency [SEPA] and Scottish Natural Heritage. My party wants to see a more flexible relationship shared with government and rural communities. As far as CAP reforms are concerned, let's give them time to bed in before contemplating further changes."

It was left to Richard Lochhead of the SNP to make the final statement. He was quick to grasp a theme that is gaining in credence: "Rural Scotland appears to have fallen off the radar screens in recent years. However, I believe that it is time for all of us to address possibly one of the most important issues of the 21st century - food security.

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"I do not want to live in a country that is devoid of dairy farmers, but that will happen unless a fair price is paid for milk. The same holds true for other sectors. Politics have to be more accessible, and that includes a sensible appeals procedure for farmers who find that, by some small mistake, they risk, losing all their support payments."

The subsequent discussion session was largely predictable, with all the panel participants in broad agreement on a wide range of issues. The most important was the need for greater scrutiny of EU legislation before it becomes cast in stone. The Scottish Parliament, in its present form, lacks that capability.