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Eight years of Ross Finnie as Scottish Minister
for Environment and Rural Affairs:
what did he have to say for himself at
NFUS agm, Dunblane, February 2007?
Teviot Scientific, Cultybraggan Farm, Comrie,
Filed 02 Mar 07
How many times over the years have Scottish farmers
been scolded by Ross Finnie for performing less well than the top
25% of their own colleagues? Increased efficiency has been his recurring
answer to the economic ills that have afflicted most Scottish farmers
in recent years.
So how has he done within his own peer group?
How does his performance compare to those of other Ministers for
comparable departments within the governments of other EU Member
The answer is appallingly badly.
But somehow he continues to get away with
it. Why should that be?
Ross Finnie, Minister for SEERAD,
answering questions at
NFUS agm, Dunblane 2007
(to enlarge photo Click
Photo ©Kimpton Graphics
We are so myopic that we seldom look further than
what goes on in England - which is, of course, within the same EU
Member State as ourselves in Scotland. But compared to the other
western EU Member States, we are at the bottom of the league in
terms of the economic performance of our farmers.
The Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition has been
in power at Holyrood since devolution in 1999, and Labour has been
in power at Westminster throughout that period. Ross Finnie, who
has out lasted four NFUS presidents, has let it be known that he
does not wish to continue in his present post after the Scottish
General Election on May 3rd, even if his party (Liberal Democrat)
was returned to power in one form or another. Possibly he is recognising
that his run of luck cannot continue indefinitely.
You would have thought that with a large proportion
of the membership of NFUS operating at a financial loss for the
past several years, they might have had something to say to Ross
Finnie when he took questions after his address at this, his supposedly
his last, NFUS agm at Dunblane, Perthshire on Friday February 23rd.
But instead, in the words of Joe Watson of the Press & Journal
the following day, the meeting went off "like a damp squib".
So Ross Finnie's luck held yet again. But it shouldn't
There is something about Scottish farmers. They
like a bonnie bit of banter. A little joke from Ross Finnie seems
enough to quell what should have been a lynching. Too often the
banter may get in the way of making strong and persistent points
in the professional arena of arguing the farmers' case. There may
also be a fear that, to be seen to attack the powerful SEERAD with
its reputation for a vicious and unreasonable penalty culture, may
add to an individual farmer's difficulties. Third world stuff, right
here in Scotland.
As a member of NFUS myself, I have to admit that
I did not contribute to the discussion that followed the Minister's
address. But I did at the NFUS business meeting in response to the
reports by the President and by the Chief Executive the previous
day. My problem with tackling the Minister was that I basically
disagreed with the strong assertion made by the retiring NFUS President,
John Kinaird, that Scottish farmers did not want subsidies. It seems
to me that those farmers who work the majority of Scotland's land,
which is classified as agriculturally poor, very definitely need
substantial subsidies that are well focused to their needs. To pretend
otherwise is folly. That subsidy money, when well focused, goes
straight out into the local rural economy.
Other EU Member States look on with bemusement
as the UK tries to negotiate for increased voluntary modulation:
so that even more money can be taken from farmers to be spent on
other forms of "rural development". The UK's predicament
has arisen out its neglect of rural development over earlier years,
so that it only got a 3.5% of the EU rural development budget instead
of twice that at 7%. What a mess!
During his address Mr Finnie remarkably managed
to cause serious confusion over the Less Favoured Area Support Scheme
(LFASS) payments to Scottish farmers. He compounded this confusion
in a meeting with the press following his talk, in which he again
gave the impression that the £40million paid earlier this
year was not a supplement, as the Scottish Executive had announced,
but an advanced installment of the total of £61miilion that
was normally due to be paid in the Spring but which is being delayed
to late 2007 or even into 2008, causing serious cashflow problems
for hill farmers. He was clearly not on top of his job. This completely
unnecessary uncertainty introduced into the cashflow management
of a large sector of Scottish farming is inexcusable. So much for
Mr Finnie's exhortations that Scottish farmers should be efficient.
Remarkably, both NFUS and SEERAD
said that there was now a distinct air of economic optimism within
the farming community. That is hardly the case from the perspective
of a mixed livestock/arable farmer in an agriculturally "Less
Favoured", but scenically spectacular, part of Perthshire -
namely myself and many, many others.
Beef cattle prices off farm are far below what they should be, as
farm subsidy in the form of the Single Farm Payment diminishes and
costs and bureaucracy escalate. At least two years too late, Ross
Finnie now promises that the country of origin for beef served in
catering establishments must be stated. It was VisitScotland and
the Consumers Association who had been making most of the difficulties:
which is, quite frankly, weird. Meantime, the multi-billion pound
profiteering supermarkets continue to get caught mixing imported
with home-produced beef on the same shelves under a banner proclaiming
their green credentials.
Mr Finnie announced that there was
to be a new independent Food and Drink body that would help promote
Scottish products along the lines of what has been successful in
Ireland. But is creating a new body really going to overcome the
grossly unfair competition from the supermarkets with their monopoly
stranglehold, which is quietly supported by the UK government as
it helps to keep the cost of food down.
According to Mr Finnie, the vets
tell him that too many Scottish farmers are too lax about biosecurity.
But maybe a farmer needs to have some funds in order to meet the
standards that the vets reckon are required. It is not possible
to have high standards of animal health and welfare in the absence
of a profitable livestock industry.
Also, farmers may be more convinced
about the need for ever tighter rules on biosecurity on their farms
if the UK Government was on top of the task of controlling both
legal and illegal imports of meat and meat products from countries
where disease is endemic, or where there have been recent outbreaks.
Relying on paper trails is hardly sufficient biosecurity, as the
recent UK avian flu outbreak demonstrated in which imports of poultry
meat from Hungary to Suffolk were implicated.
The UK's vaccination policy to provide
protection against the spread of virulent viruses is beyond comprehension.
While free range poultry farmers in Holland can vaccinate their
flocks if they want to, no such option is available in the UK. If
a free range poultry farmer in the UK cannot house his/her birds
for as long as SEERAD may stipulate, then they have all just got
to be slaughtered. And SEERAD, along with DEFRA, have the cheek
to fly the kite that farmers should share the cost of disease prevention
and of the results of disease when control fails.
Cereal prices in 2007 may well be
better than in recent years, but talk of contracts for malting barley
at £120/tonne suggest prices will be below what was being
previously achieved in the not so distant past, and may leave little
if any profit: and, at best, a poor return on investment.
SEERAD at the behest of the EU wants
to have another go at extending the Nitrogen Vulnerable Zones (NVZs),
with all the accompanying major costs, restrictions and rules. A
central issue is the manner in which slurry can be handled: when
and how it can be spread, and the consequent need for substantial
on farm storage facilities. The scientific basis for such an extension
of NVZs is open to question, and indeed challenge. The environmental
benefit from such further legislation would appear to be minimal.
But the impression is gained that,
for all the talk, it is not the science that matters but the European
Commission's ideological policy. He told the gathering that he had
very little room for manoeuvre. This could be a breaking point for
many Scottish farmers. It could well trigger a showdown with SEERAD.
When asked whether set-a-side regulations
were to continue now that production was decoupled from farm subsidies,
Ross Finnie replied that set-a-side in today's world is an absurdity.
Yet it continues.
The dairy industry is approaching
melt down. The situation gets worse each day with more and more
dairy farms going out of business. Frankly, it was not enough for
the Minster to say that he had had fruitless talks with the Office
of Fair Trading over the Monopolies Commission preventing dairy
co-operatives of sufficient size being formed in this country. And
so it is UK generated bureaucracy that prevents Scottish entrepreneurs
setting up dairy processing plants that could compete with the international
giants, and so get value added products manufactured in this country.
The biomass industry does not look
as attractive as it was cracked up to be when the options are cruised
in any detail. Scotland, like the rest of the UK, has turned its
back on GM crops. As a result we will simply not be able to compete
with those countries who have harnessed advances in plant research:
for example, in the use of oilseed rape as a source of biodiesel.
The varieties available in Scotland are poor in yield and high in
susceptibility to disease.
Scotland, along with the rest of
the UK, is miles behind in the technology of using biomass as source
of renewable energy. Sweden and Finland are way ahead. Likewise,
the UK has lost its nuclear energy expertise. The UK has been lazy
on account of having North Sea oil, and has not bothered to develop
the technological research that is needed to find other sources
of energy as our oil supplies run out and our nuclear plants become
have the upper hand, and there are far more of them amongst the
voters of the urban Central Belt in Scotland, and among academics,
than there are farmers who look after the land. But, sadly, the
said "environmentalists" have little idea of what it takes
to look after land in an integrated manner. Farmers have long known
how to do that - long before the politicians' buzz word "sustainable"
was ever applied with such monotonous repetition. It is no accident
that the words "farming" or "agriculture" no
longer feature in the name of Ross Finnie's Department. Whatever
his fine words, the decline of Scottish farming has been his main
agenda, putting in its place "other uses for the land"
that involve "social inclusion", etc, etc. Witness the
Land Reform (Scotland) Act of 2003. It is more than time that the
letter F for Food was introduced into a Scottish Minister's title,
along with the letter A for Agriculture. At present the two letters
taken together reflect what SEERAD has done for Scottish farming,
compared to what his counterparts in other EU member states have
The government's grant system for
environmental projects is in disarray. There is a serious loss of
confidence in the Rural Stewardship Scheme, and a schemes to promote
renewable energy production are poorly thought through and late
in appearing. There is huge uncertainty as to what might be available
after 2008, which is just next year. How can one plan ahead in any
great scale in the face of such unreliable government programmes?
Even City Councils are having problems
with the Scottish Executive's bureaucracy. Believe it or not, The
Scottish Executive has not got around to issuing licences for biomass
boilers that could be used in their drive to meet their own ambitious
targets for energy from renewable sources. Are you supposed to buy
the expensive boiler from abroad and then apply to the Scottish
Executive in the hope that within a reasonable time they might get
around to issuing a licence? That is the position that the City
of Dundee Council is facing with regard to their efforts to develop
"green" energy systems.
With the introduction of decoupling
and the Single Farm Payment, farmers were promised a reduction in
regulation and bureaucracy. Instead, red-tape has increased substantially.
The amount of time the farmer has to spend on endless record-keeping
continues to escalate, as do his liabilities.
SEERAD has acquired the new powerful
weapon of docking a farmer's Single Farm Payment if he is not thought
to comply with each and every one of the regulations that come under
the broad banner of "compliance". Again, Scotland gets
more and more like a third world country, with more rules than a
farm can afford to meet. And more opportunities for SEERAD to impose
heavy financial penalties with which to flog the industry it is
supposed to be supporting, as it tries to protect its own back from
an avalanche of inappropriate EU directives.
Another damaging blow to Scottish
farmers was the recent decision to keep the Scottish Wages Board,
whose function has been outdated since the minimum wage legislation
came into effect some years ago. But worse, this dysfunctional Wages
Board, on its chairman's casting vote, decided to abolish the age
categories, so that young inexperienced persons thinking of coming
into the industry are priced out of the market. Again, the Minister
said he could do nothing about it.
There were more fine words from Ross
Finnie, such as
"Scottish farmers have to
apply the advances made by Scotland's world leading research institutes".
But the Scottish Executive has been
busy cutting their funding, be it at the Scottish Crop Research
Unit or the Moredun Research Institute. The total sum expended by
the Scottish Executive on livestock health and welfare is a mere
£9million a year.
The Scottish Environmental Protection
Agency (SEPA) would appear to have got out of control, and there
appear to be little that Ross Finnie is willing to do about it.
SEPA is a fine example how government departments and their agencies
make big business out of gold-plating bureaucracy at every opportunity
to their own glorification, with little benefit - and often much
harm - to others.
This is an appalling record for Mr
Finnie, on whose watch most of this has happened. Scotland was famous
internationally for the quality of its livestock and its malting
barley. But what now? Many traditional Scottish farms will simply
not be able to produce the product that they would like to, and
which the public - both at home and abroad - wants. And it is emphatically
not due to their lacking in efficiency or endeavour. It is due to
the wretched economic climate for farming that the Westminster and
Holyrood Governments between them have engineered .
Ross Finnie is due to stand down
from being Scotland's Minister of the Environment and Rural Affairs.
He does so as Scotland, as part of the UK, lies bottom of the league
within the developed EU Member States in terms of the economic situation
of its farmers. France, Germany, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and others
all do much better than us. Yet the UK pours massive funding into
the EU, with little return.
Mr Finnie, In your own words directed
at Scotland's farmers, being anything less than within the top 25%
indicates that there is scope for serious improvement. Within your
own peer group of Member State Ministers you are in the bottom range
of the bottom 25%.
We, as farmers, cannot carry on like
this. Things have got to change.
Last modified: 4th March