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March 12, 2024

Who’s representing who?

While the professional lobbyist may have garnered a somewhat dubious reputation over the years, the fact remains that the act of lobbying is part and parcel of any healthy democracy. Indeed it’s vital that our politicians are as well informed as possible when it comes to determining national policy. But equally, our politicians must also be able to resist the most powerful of vested interests who have the loudest voices. Writing in the Holyrood Magazine, Andy Wightman, highlights one area of policy – agricultural subsidies – in which the lobbyists appear to have seized complete control of policy. 

Andy Wightman, Holyrood Magazine

Amid the squeeze on public spending, there is one group of people still favoured by Scottish ministers. It is probably the only group to be regularly graced with the presence of cabinet ministers from Scotland and London at their AGMs. This year both the first minister and the cabinet secretary were in attendance. That group is the National Farmers Union of Scotland (NFUS).

With a new agriculture bill going through parliament that creates a new post-Brexit framework for farming subsidies, debate is once again focusing on why and how the public should support agriculture in Scotland.

In 2022, 50 of the largest landowners in Scotland shared a total subsidy pot of £48m, almost £1m each of public money. The top 10 per cent of recipients (1,920 farm businesses) received £382,393,417 – almost £200,000 per business, accounting for a whopping 49.7 per cent of total available public funds.

Among those receiving over £1m were the Duke of Buccleuch, Duke of Roxburghe, the Earl of Moray and the Earl of Rosebery, who between them shared over £8m in public subsidy from a system intended to support farm incomes and rural communities.

Earlier this month, representatives of smaller producers such as crofters, market gardeners and smallholders held a rally outside parliament. Their main demand is for fairness from a system that currently privileges the largest and wealthiest farmers. 

As the Scottish Crofting Federation argued: “Under the current system, most subsidies are awarded per hectare of land and based on land quality, so those with the most land and the best land receive the most money. In recent years, the bottom 40 per cent of agricultural subsidy recipients received only five per cent of the total agricultural budget while the top 10 per cent received half of it.”  

The NFUS has also been demonstrating outside Holyrood but, unlike the smaller producers, it doesn’t really need to. The president of the NFUS has been co-chairing a group to develop the new farming support system with the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Mairi Gougeon. For a number of years, NFUS policy officer Jonnie Hall was seconded to the Scottish Government (paid for by the NFUS) for two days per week to advise ministers at the same time as spending his other three days per week lobbying those same ministers.

As Gougeon proudly admitted at the NFUS AGM earlier this month: “With your president co-chairing the board with me, and the NFUS’ policy director, Jonnie Hall, playing a critical role on the policy development group that works closely with officials, the NFUS is absolutely at the heart of co-designing and developing…”

And if that was not sufficient, new agricultural minister Jim Fairlie is a member of the NFUS and will oversee what the first minister has described as “the most generous package of support that’s available anywhere in the UK”.

Back in 2013, the then minister, Richard Lochhead, even admitted in his speech to the NFUS AGM that “I have had the honour of being your representative in government”. 

The NFUS, of course, has no representatives in government, except for co-chairing government working groups and seconding policy officers. Lochhead was then a minister in the Scottish Government representing the interests of the people of Scotland.

The key reason why the system is so generous to the biggest and most influential farmers is down to Scotland’s extremely concentrated pattern of private landownership. For the past decade, this could have been mitigated somewhat but, while EU rules permitted capping the level of payments and redistributing them, Scottish ministers have consistently declined to do so. And they have refused to do so because of the institutional capture of Scottish policy-making by one of the most successful lobbying operations in the country.

The current Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill is a framework bill giving wide powers to ministers to develop the details of future farm support. But that did not stop the first minister at the NFUS AGM announcing – well before any statement to parliament – that at least 70 per cent of future support will be spent on direct payments to farmers. As has long been the case, the more land you have, the more money you will receive.

Unsurprisingly, the president of NFUS described this as a “a lobbying success for NFU Scotland”. NFUS represents around 15 per cent of Scotland’s farmers and food growers but its interests continue to shape public policy. Smaller producers are squeezed out. If you grow fruit and vegetables for local markets but have no subsidy “entitlement” or you farm less than three hectares of land, you are ineligible for any support at all. If, on the other hand, you farm 1,000 hectares and grow barley to sell to multi-national whisky companies, you are eligible for hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Earlier this month, the first minister said that “producing more of our own food, doing so sustainably, creating of course more resilience in these uncertain times, is absolutely vital to our economic interests”.

He is right.

So why are millions of pounds of public money being used to provide multinational drinks companies with subsidised barley but no support is available for growing fruit and vegetables to provide local people with dependable, healthy food?

If, as looks likely, future agricultural policy wastes scarce public resources on subsidies for some of the wealthiest people in the country and on subsidising global alcohol manufacturers while doing nothing to support small-scale local producers of high-quality food, then it will have failed.