Comment: Rural affairs committee dragging heels on CAP

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I DO not know if exam papers still start some questions with the phrase “compare and contrast” inviting you to look at two seemingly similar things but which on closer inspection are quite different.

If you are up for a challenge, then compare and contrast the activities of the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment (RACCE) committee and the House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee.

The latter body last week put out a call for evidence on the forthcoming Common Agricultural Policy. In particular, the Westminster parliamentarians wanted proof that it would be, as the European Union leaders promised, “greener, fairer and less bureaucratic”.

The committee wants to see proof from their civil servants that the reforms will not, as many fear, add to the pile of paperwork faced by farmers.

The inquiry has been welcomed by the English NFU, which described it as “hugely important”, with the CAP policy affecting almost every farmer in the country.

So the EFRA committee, under the formidable chairmanship of Anne McIntosh, is on the front foot, scrutinising the issues of the moment.

It is also currently looking into the horsemeat scandal, as well as how tree diseases are being imported into this country. It has previously investigated milk pricing, bovine TB and the profitability or otherwise of farming in the uplands.

In these and other inquiries, EFRA has not been slow to criticise the UK government and pick out where improvements and alterations could be made.

In contrast, much of the current agenda of the RACCE committee is taken up by land reform issues. Despite the CAP being the single biggest economic driver in the rural scene, the last time MSPs looked at CAP reform was 16 months ago in March 2012.

The forward programme of the Holyrood committee does indicate they will look at how the Scottish Government intends to consult with stakeholders on how the next CAP will be implemented. But to me this is a passive role compared with the active decision to investigate matters by their English political counterparts. The message seems to be the Scottish CAP policy will be set by others.

There is no attempt by the rural affairs committee to influence what will be the biggest policy changes in the rural scene for decades. This absence of elected Scottish political influence is all the more marked when the devolved nature of the next CAP is recalled.

For the first time ever, decisions on big issues – how quickly it will be phased in, how much will be paid in direct payments and how much in rural development, and how to operate the new entrants scheme – will be taken in Scotland.

There may be gripes from the Scottish Government that even more decision-making had not been devolved, but there seems to be little appetite from the rural affairs committee to take a positive role in setting the details of the new CAP.

Compare and contrast? There is no comparison!