Ruth addresses NFUS at Royal Highland Show

22 Jun 2018

See below the text of a speech made by Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson at today’s NFUS event at the Royal Highland Show:

“Good morning everybody – and first of all can I welcome you all back to Ingliston

It’s great to return for this unique and fantastic event.

And let me thank Shepherd and Wedderburn and Bidwells for hosting this morning’s seminar where we’re going to look at the post-Brexit future for agriculture in Scotland.

My starting point on all things Brexit related is pretty simple: it is to accept the challenges it brings and seek to minimise disruption…

…but also to look positively at the opportunities that do exist and aim to capitalise on them as best we can.

By its very nature, Brexit brings with it uncertainty and concern – that is the nature of major constitutional change.

But where I differ, perhaps, from some other pro-Remain supporters is that I have little time for reheating the campaign or rerunning the vote – Brexit is happening and while it will require hard graft and real leadership, we have to make it work.

So when it comes to agriculture and our rural economy here in Scotland, I acknowledge the concerns people have about an uncertain future.

But I am absolutely certain that within that future are enormous possibilities for growth and change.

Simply put, we have a chance to revitalise rural Scotland in our grasp.

So that in the future – young, ambitious Scots see the rural sector as a real growth area, as an opportunity – something you run towards, not escape from.

Too often, currently, that is not the case.

And it isn’t hard to see why.

We all know how tough it’s been in the agricultural sector in recent years.

Without support, there would be mass bankruptcies in the industry. Profits on Scottish farms are now half what they were in 2010. Without financial support, most farms would be running at a loss.

Many have lost faith in the Common Agriculture Policy.

And, on top of that here in Scotland, we’ve had the long-running farce of an IT system that, despite hundreds of millions of pounds of investment, is still failing to deliver.

Brexit – if nothing else – is a moment when we can pause, take stock and do the hard thinking required on how to improve all of this.

And, given that the UK Government has guaranteed the budget for farming support until 2022, we have the time to do so.

The real task now is to use this crucial time to design a new approach, tailored our own needs here in Scotland and the UK, and to see it through.

We should start with some basic principles.

Our farmers’ first aim is to produce high quality food.

We have some of the best produce in the world right here in Scotland.

High quality food and drink production, built upon strong environmental standards, must remain at the core of the farming business. This is how we add value to the rural economy.

This is how we expand, and take the huge successes of the Scottish rural economy to further heights.

Everything we do should be geared towards making that easier and more commercially viable for firms across Scotland.

How do we do that?

Well, Firstly, I welcome the NFUS document – Steps to change: a new agricultural policy for Scotland. And was able to give Andrew McCornick support for much of the detail when he presented it at Holyrood in March.

I further welcome developments this week where Fergus Ewing has unveiled a consultation document on how the Scottish Government intends to go forward after Brexit – although I’d note it’s a shame the government hadn’t sought to gather submissions some time ago.

We’d also like to have seen a clear guarantee that agricultural funding which accrues to the Scottish Government after Brexit is ring-fenced for that purpose.

But, broadly, on agriculture first, we agree that the key task is to get that new support system in place to deliver long-term certainty, and to encourage growth.

Along with Michael Gove, I have been pressing the case forcibly with UK Government ministers and officials in recent months on the need to respect Scotland’s distinct needs.

The vast majority of land in Scotland has less favoured area status. In England it is only 15%.

My case therefore has been that Scotland must retain our share of the funding pot, and that the unique circumstances of farming in Scotland must be recognised.

Any future farm policy developed here must offer support for upland livestock farming and crofting needs in these areas.

Funding must be maintained in order to help overcome the difficulties posed by remoteness, harsh climate or poor soil quality.

With that support in place, we can then talk about finding a better balance so that, over time, government funding is there to incentivise the farming sector to be dynamic, inventive and protect our environment.

As the NFUS says, policy must reward the active, productive and efficient farmer and crofter. With financial support seen as an investment in the future of our countryside, not a subsidy.

And with that funding system in place for the long term, I want to see the UK and Scottish Governments focus on policies that just make it easier for agricultural businesses to get on.

Policies like an immigration system that delivers a seasonal workers scheme so we can still access labour from the EU and beyond.

By reducing bureaucracy – for example, with fewer but better targeted inspections.

By protecting the environment not via yet more time-consuming regulations, but by incentivising rural businesses through the support system.

By simplifying administration so that, finally, IT is seen as a solution, not a headache for the farming community.

And by doing nothing to create friction with our own UK internal market upon which so many incomes depend.

This issue is, of course, in the headlines right now, with the UK and Scottish Governments having been unable to agree the resolution of how common frameworks for powers returned from Brussels will operate.

While those headlines have been full of talk of a constitutional crisis, I prefer to see where consensus exists.

Scottish and UK Ministers all agree we will need UK wide frameworks to police our own internal market once we leave the EU – so, for example, we don’t end up with different and unnecessary rules and regulation.

I don’t know any food and drink business in Scotland that wants to have to adhere to different rules on food labelling for example, north and south of the border.

So while the political row carries on, I very much hope that the Scottish Government can see its way to getting those frameworks up and running.

One way it could have shown such a commitment was to specifically mention the importance of the UK internal market in the consultation announced this week.

Because getting this right will give certainty to firms and farms which need it urgently.

It is in all our interests to do so.

And I also hope we can see agreement between UK and Scottish Governments on the trade deals we will be seeking to strike post-Brexit.

There is a lot of slightly hysterical talk about how we will all soon be exposed to a new Wild West post Brexit.

How chlorinated chicken will soon be at a supermarket near you. How Scottish producers will be priced out of a market containing sub-standard produce.

I simply don’t accept that.

Scottish consumers won’t wear it.

As we turn to forging new trade deals, we must maintain standards and, where possible, raise them.

As I see it, there is neither the political will, nor the consumer demand for our markets to be opened up to competitors who are producing to lower standards of animal welfare, antibiotic use, or lower environmental standards than we adhere to.

We should protect what we have – confident in the knowledge that it is in producing high quality produce that we will make our way in the world.

In short, going forward there are four key areas we need to develop.

1. We need to ensure we develop a coherent and clear policy on food, so that farmers and crofters get a fairer return from their supply chain.

2. We want to develop a new method of providing financial support for farmers which encourages efficiency, drives production and innovation, and moves away from an area based payment system.

3. We want to give farmers and land managers time and the tools to adapt to the future, as to ensure a smooth transition into a future system.

4. Farming and the environment go hand in hand. The environment and farming are not mutually exclusive, we need to build natural capital thinking into our approach towards land use and environmental management so we develop a sustainable future for our countryside.

I’ve focussed almost exclusively so far on farming support.
Let me end by talking up what I really want to see as a result of all this – and that’s to reverse the deep-seated sense we have that the rural economy is in decline.

That – if you’re young and ambitious – it’s no place for you.

This surely is what we must change most of all.

Because it’s by persuading more young people either to stay in rural Scotland, or to set up there, that we’ll really see a turnaround in its future.

How do we do that?

One of the consequences of agricultural holdings reform seems to have been to restrict the number of new tenant farmers because landlords are becoming more cautious when it comes to letting land.

One way to reverse that would be to show more imagination when it comes to contractual mechanisms than the system currently allows for.

That might give landowners the confidence to let the land – and encourage more young people to take up land that is currently not being let and lying idle.

For example, we could think about a system of joint ventures between landlord and tenant.

That’s one practical measure we should be looking at.

And we could also do it by encouraging new and emerging industries which will revitalise rural communities.

Take renewable energy.

We have always been clear that the views of local communities should be heard when it comes to on-shore wind.

But where that consent exists, we are behind it 100%.

It was for that reason that we secured a manifesto commitment from the UK Government last year to support remote island wind – which has been honoured.

The first auction for such applicants will be in March 2019.

If these developments go ahead, they will be instrumental in rejuvenating some of our more fragile island communities, providing jobs and growth.

And on top of that, we also need to examine the wider the infrastructure that rural Scotland needs.

So that you don’t have to climb the nearest Munro to get a bar on your mobile reception.

So that broadband is accessible to everybody – allowing businesses to get up and running.

So that young people can get on the housing ladder and aren’t priced out due to the fact we’re not getting enough homes built in the green belt.

That is the package that is required if we are going to turn our rural economy around.

And it’s the kind of package the Scottish Conservatives aspire to deliver in government.

We aren’t there yet – I am the first to admit that.

But I’d like to stress today that – with 3 years to go until the next Scottish elections – we intend to all we can to show we can be a credible governing force when that election comes round.

With the interests of rural Scotland absolutely at the top of our agenda.

Anyway – that’s enough of the party political broadcast for now.

So without further ado, let me once again thank Bidwells and Shepherd and Wedderburn again for hosting us today.

Thank you all for coming.”