6 Feb 2017
Please see a copy of Ruth Davidson’s speech to the AGM of the NFUS below.
In it, she says that Brexit offers both “challenges and opportunities” to Scotland’s farming community.
She also says she will adopt a “pragmatic” view on devolution of agriculture following Brexit, saying that while it would be “foolhardly” to place barriers to trade within the UK domestic market, the “distinctive” needs of Scottish farmers should also be heard.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson will say:
“Good afternoon and can I thank you for your kind invitation today.
“It has been, to put it mildly, an interesting year in Scotland since you last met for your AGM.
“And one that has been a roller-coaster ride for the Scottish Conservatives too.
“As you know, following last year’s election, we became the second largest party at Holyrood, becoming Scotland’s official opposition.
“One result of having those extra seats is that I believe we can now truly claim to be the party that best represents rural and agricultural Scotland.
“On our benches we now include Peter Chapman, a former vice-president of this organisation – who started off as a young man with 85 acres but who now runs a successful 1100 acre business in Aberdeenshire.
“He was joined in May by Edward Mountain, who himself farms 180 Simmental suckler cows in Moray and grows 300 acres of malting barley.
“Douglas Ross, a pedigree Holstein breeder who’s registered his own prefix. Alexander Burnett who’s both farmland and forestry surrounding Banchory and Galloway MSP, Fin Carson, who’s a farm boy born and raised.
“They join John Scott who’s got 1600 acres in Ayrshire and spent 6 years as your hillfarming convener at NFUS and John Lamont who still turns his hand to lambing on his family farm when the need requires
“Indeed, I have to say the level of our expertise in farming has surprised me.
“For example, I only discovered after the election in May that Edward and Douglas, are both fully trained in artificially inseminating cows.
“I don’t know if that skill might come in handy at Holyrood but I’ll let you know if it does.
“But where we have gained we have also lost.
“So it’s also appropriate to mention another of our farming MSPs today: the late Alex Johnstone who died in November last year.
“He remains a huge loss both to our party and to public life and I’d like to thank NFU Scotland for ensuring representation at his funeral. I know it meant a lot to his wife Linda, and son Alexander, who has kept the farming tradition on.
“The Conservatives are committed to ensuring that Scotland’s farmers have a voice in Scotland’s parliament and our members promise to put your case, not in the dry theoretical, but from the position of being farmers themselves.
“As a group of MSPs, we are determined to hold the SNP to account – as we did last year when the full scale of the CAP payments fiasco became clear.
“We also want to be your voice in UK-wide discussions so that Scottish farming is heard loud and clear.
“Two roles that will, of course, be of huge importance as we approach the coming tumultuous months.
“Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has so far thrown up more questions than answers for many of you.
“And here in Scotland, that uncertainty has been compounded by the SNP’s decision to use Brexit to raise the possibility of a second referendum on independence.
“I know both these issues are of huge importance to Scotland’s farming community, so allow me to address the rest of my remarks today on them.
“So firstly on Brexit. As most of you know, I campaigned and voted to Remain within the European Union.
“I did so because I felt it would offer the most stable way forward for our country, not withstanding the many frustrations we all feel when dealing with the EU.
“But we are leaving and when referendums take place, I believe we must accept the result.
“Had the pro-UK side lost the independence referendum in 2014, I would not have called for an immediate re-run, as the SNP are doing now.
“Similarly, I now feel the responsibility to ensure that Britain gets the best deal we can from the European Union.
“That means tackling the challenges that clearly arise – as well as seizing the opportunities that do exist.
“And many of these opportunities have been identified by farmers already.
“Just last week, a survey of young farmers by the Royal Bank of Scotland found that a majority expected Brexit to lead to both improved services for UK agricultural products and improved prospects for the exporting of UK farm produce.
“Like many people in our rural communities, the survey also found that while there is no clear consensus about what Brexit might mean for agriculture, it does offer a genuine opportunity to reset the framework for the better.
“It is surely possible to design a better support system than one which has to accommodate the needs of farmers on the shores of the Mediterranean with those on the fringes of the Arctic circle.
“What’s more, it’s surely possible to design a system here in Scotland that won’t waste £180 million on IT.
“A new system, as the NFUS has already noted, could also make it easier for you to get goods to market by stripping out some of the regulation that over-burdens you right now.
“And as Peter Chapman has reminded me, the EU has been increasingly turning its back on scientific evidence in recent years when it comes to imposing regulations on farmers and the methods you use.
“I hope and trust that a future approach will be less needlessly meddlesome and will allow you to get your goods to market more easily.
“I know, of course, that many of you are concerned about whether you will continue to have open access to those markets.
“I can assure you that my priority will be to do all I can to help secure the full comprehensive free trade deal with the European Union as proposed by the Prime Minister.
“Of course, that isn’t the only place where great Scottish produce can be exported to.
“We all know the potential for Scottish food and drink in emerging and established markets in Asia, the Americas and beyond.
“If nothing else, Brexit will focus our minds on how Britain and Scotland sells itself to those markets.
“At the Scottish Conservatives, we will be publishing our own proposals on how best to do this in the coming weeks – as we turn our attention to how we can maximise Scotland’s trading opportunities.
“And as regards the Scottish Government, I would like to see their own efforts increase to ensure Scottish products are available across the world.
“Currently, we have one Scottish Development International office in the whole of Latin America. As we get ready for Brexit, I think we should be doing more to ensure that we are ready to take advantage of such emerging markets.
“It has huge relevance for farmers, as well as for all our other sectors. There are markets with increasingly wealthy consumers who want the kind of high quality produce that your farms produce.
“So – this will be a period of change. And we all know change can be worrying. I have heard concerns from all over Scotland since the Brexit vote – so, having set out the opportunities, let me address some of those concerns too.
“Firstly on immigration.
“I know from speaking to farmers over the last few months that people are concerned about the impact on labour.
“We know that there are between 5,000 add 15,000 seasonal workers from the EU employed in the Scottish agricultural sector at any one time.
“I know the impact that a cut to the workforce might have on Scotland’s fruit farm sector in particular.
“I know the response in some quarters is that, as a result, Scotland should have its own immigration policy.
“But I also know that the concerns of vegetable farmers in Fife are the same as those of apple farmers in Cornwall.
“I don’t think – therefore – that the answer is to create separate immigration policy by region or geography. I think we need an immigration that works for sectors in the economy, with agriculture at the top of that list.
“I can assure you the UK Government recognises this issue. I intend to keep pressing them on it.
“For me it is simple. Managing immigration is right: depriving the economy of labour it needs is not.
“Secondly, on support payments.
“Again, I know many of you are worried about what happens when we leave the CAP.
“Concerns that are particularly acute in Scotland where, as we know, support payments are more important than elsewhere in the UK.
“I am sure I don’t need to tell you that average farm business income in Scotland without subsidy was below zero in each of the last 6 years – nor that debt in farming is now running at £2.2 billion.
“In my conversations with UK Government Ministers since Brexit, I do believe there is an understanding of this point.
“There is a clear recognition of the distinctive role and needs of Scottish farming – not just as a matter of economics, but as something which ensures whole communities are viable.
“I will be meeting George Eustace again very soon to feed back to him issues that you want to raise today.
“I want to take this opportunity today to assure you that I will be pressing your case to him and Andrea Leadsom as forcibly as I can.
“And thirdly, on devolution.
“There has, of course, been much talk about where powers should lie when they come back from Europe.
“Again, I know this is a matter of concern for many of you.
“My approach to this will be pretty pragmatic.
“I think it would be foolhardy for us to place barriers within our own UK domestic market.
“I don’t see the up side in leaving one complex regulatory regime in Brussels, only to burden farmers with two regulatory regimes within the UK.
“At the same time, I think it is vital that the distinctive needs of Scottish farmers are heard and that the welcome moves towards regionalisation within the EU over recent years are not stymied.
“There will, I am sure, be an almighty political row over the coming months about whether Holyrood or Westminster should be running agriculture.
“I don’t see it as a binary choice. Increasingly, we are moving towards a system of shared power in the UK – as we will soon see with welfare provision in Scotland.
“And lastly, on the issue of concerns you face, let me briefly mention the question of business rates.
“Some of you have raised your fears with me that the Government’s review of business rates might result in an end to the current exemptions for agricultural land and buildings.
“We will have to wait and see the full details of what Ken Barclay’s review comes back with.
“But for me, these exemptions exist for good reason. And ending them is not something that my party would support.
“If it does get proposed, I promise to fight it tooth and nail.
“Governing my approach over these next few months will be a focus on what works.
“And that leads me nicely to my final thoughts this afternoon.
“Because, of course, there is another option being floated before us all in Scotland – and that is to leave the UK negotiations altogether and for Scotland either to pursue a so-called differentiated deal within the UK, or to leave the UK altogether.
“And neither approach, it seems to me, works in the interests of Scottish farming.
“Since the Brexit debate, we have been guilty sometimes of treating the European single market and our own UK domestic market as if they are exactly the same..
“They are not.
“Leaving aside all the emotional and historical arguments for the Union, the reality is that the UK is a highly integrated economic unit of which Scotland is a part and upon which our prosperity depends..
“….and where fully 85% of Scotland’s agri-exports go.
“As Neil Francis, a director at Scottish Trade International – the Scottish Government’s own export body – put it recently: “Why would we try to make it more difficult to trade with our largest trading partner or reduce the amount of trade that we do with the rest of the UK?”
“He added: “Whatever circumstances play out, it will be paramount that we protect free trade or the open market with the rest of the UK.”
“And even assuming a so-called differentiated deal would be possible, there is simply no way of guaranteeing that either it, or independence, would keep that market access fully open.
“In fact, the evidence suggests that restrictions would come into force between us and our most important market of all.
“As Charles Grant, a member of the Scottish Government’s own Standing Council, has said: if Scotland was in the European single market, with the rest of the UK out, there would need to be one set of business regulations in England and another applying to Scotland – something which will hardly help to boost trade within the UK, nor help farmers get their goods to market.
“For this reason – and many, many others – I do not believe that our response to leaving the European Union should be to once again examine whether to leave our own Union of nations.
“It is a view that is now growing in support.
“Fewer than a third of people now say we should be pressing ahead with another referendum on independence prior to Brexit.
“I don’t believe this is because people across Scotland have suddenly become converts to Brexit in the last six months. Far from it.
“I think it’s simply a reflection of the fact that people in Scotland have had quite enough of the uncertainty that’s affected Scotland for far too long.
“And quite understandably, people are therefore looking at the prospect of yet another referendum campaign with something slightly short of wild enthusiasm.
“Not just people like me on the pro-UK wide of the argument…..I have to say, this is a view that I know is shared by many people who still support an independent Scotland in the long term.
“For this reason, I will be keeping up my request to the First Minister that she drop her threat of a second referendum on independence.
“I don’t believe it would be in Scotland’s interests. In a world of uncertainty, it would be the wrong course of action to take at a time when we should be prizing what stability and certainty there is.
“To conclude, may I thank you for all the work you do, day in day out, not just to keep Scottish agriculture going but to ensure that ‘made in Scotland’ serves as a charter mark for quality produce.
“I know full well the hardship and the tough times you face – and if you don’t believe me, you clearly haven’t met the farmers on my parliamentary benches.
“I said last week that I believe we need to face Brexit with the spirit of the entrepreneur
“– looking to use a moment of crisis to find what opportunities come with change.
“That has always been the approach taken by Scotland’s farming community.
“To turn challenges into opportunities – to keep rural Scotland productive.
“Can I thank you once again for your reception here today – and I look forward to answering your questions….”