Brian Henderson: CAP deliberations time is short

THE Scottish Government’s consultation on the CommonAgricultural Policy’s (CAP’s) direct support measures which was given a fortnight’s extension only a few weeks ago will, barring further last-minute curtain calls, finally come to an end on Friday.

Richard Lochheads Brussels trip today is hugely important.  Picture: Gordon Fraser
Richard Lochheads Brussels trip today is hugely important. Picture: Gordon Fraser

The late start and protracted length of the consultation has drawn considerable criticism from some commentators in the industry. And, as several of these have been keen to point out publicly, from a head start when Scotland seemed to lead the way with the launch of the Pack Report, Scottish farming has now found itself at the coo’s tail in terms of deciding how the reforms will be implemented.

There’s no doubt that the clock is ticking, and weaving together the policy that will best fit Scottish agriculture – and getting everyone to sign up to it – before the plans have to be submitted to the European Union in August this year will be a tight-run thing.

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With the Highland Show on 19 to 22 June now looking to be the earliestunveiling date, it’s also getting incredibly tight for farmers themselves to draw up their own strategies inresponse to these changes.

And of course, it’s not going to be an overnight job to get all the rules and regulations slotted into place so that the new schemes can be rolled out seamlessly next year – and, perhaps more importantly, payments made that December.

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So, is the declaration of “open season” for taking pot-shots at the ScottishGovernment – and rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead – over the delays justified?

It could certainly be argued that it’s worth taking a bit longer to get things right – and to be fair to those in charge, they’ve not had an easy run.

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Losing out on any substantial uplift to the country’s overall budget from the convergence issue – and getting a bum deal on pillar 2 payments – was always going to make the job an uphill one.

The European Commission’s perverse move of outlawing the use of stocking densities for the Scottish clause on active farmers must also have put the cat among the pigeons at Saughton House.

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Then came the shuttle diplomacy required to find a form of words agreed by Europe (which still remains elusive) for achieving the same outcome – and the simultaneous bid to get the green light to negotiate extending coupled support to 13 per cent.

Dark mutterings have been raised from time-to-time that the independence referendum might have been a distraction from getting on with the job – but that accusation might be a sword which cuts both ways. The UK government hasn’t exactly covered itself with glory when it comes to helping fast-track some of the issues.

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Coupled support remains one of the biggest unanswered questions. It’s now several months since this option was pushed forward as an answer, albeit a circuitous one, to some of the problems we’re facing – and as a consequence it has become a pivotal issue in how the reform process will be implemented.

Using the UK’s ceiling to raise coupled payments to eight per cent was part of the trade-off (some might say sop) for the convergence issue. At this level it was universally accepted that the beef sector would be targeted. But since then, some industry bodies have decided that if it could be raised to 13 per cent, coupled support could be extended to hill sheep as a means of addressingissues in the rough grazing sector.

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Initial requests from the Scottish Government to discuss using the UK ceiling to increase coupled support in Scotland with its Westminster counterparts drew a “get it cleared with Brussels first” answer.

A move which surprised many in the industry for both its speed and its outcome followed – and Lochhead seemed to have pulled a rabbit out of the hat when he returned from a visit to Brussels declaring that he had been given the thumbs up by EU farm commissioner Dacian Ciolos.

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However, more than a month on it would appear that Defra still hasn’t responded to the renewed request – which, it has to be remembered, will cost it nothing.

I’m led to believe that the issue will be well up the agenda when Lochhead meets farm minister George Eustice in Brussels today.

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Would it be overly optimistic to hope that what is beginning to look like a dog-in-a-manger attitude on Defra’s part might be changed in time to give us this crucial bit of information before our consultation ends?