2 Jun 2017: A Report On the Angus General Election Hustings at Arbroath
Tempers flared in Angus as the second evening of The Courier’s hustings events took place.
The audience packed into St Andrew’s Church in Arbroath to pose questions to candidates for the four main political parties – Mike Weir, defending the seat for the SNP, Conservative Kirstene Hair, Labour’s William Campbell and Clive Sneddon of the Liberal Democrats.
The SNP were attacked over their handling of farming subsidies, a subject that dominated a large part of proceedings in the largely rural area.
One member of the public said that 50% of Scottish farms are unprofitable without EU payments, and challenged the panel to ensure continued subsidies.
Ms Hair said: “The Scottish Conservatives have confirmed that cash payments to farmers will be secured to the end of this parliament and the SNP latched on to that policy Fergus Ewing agreed with it yesterday that they have that security.
It’s obviously a devolved issue and not really a matter for discussion here but the Scottish Conservatives have a good team of MSPs in our Scottish Parliament with farming backgrounds and that’s really important because they understand rural issues.
That’s simply something we don’t have from the SNP, and that was shown with the CAP payment shambles where a lot of farmers are still waiting on payments from that system.
There was a £178 million paid out for the IT system which didn’t work and was 75% over budget.
In terms of post-Brexit I think it’s really important because there’s a number of areas of EU regulation that stifle farming and doesn’t allow farmers to do what they want to be doing – and that is being out working the land.”
Mr Weir hit back: “There is absolutely no certainty that once we leave the European Union whether the funds would still come to Scotland or whether it would be taken back to London and there would be a UK-wide system.
That is a worry because if a UK-wide system works in the same way other UK-wide systems work then we’d end up with less funding for Scottish agriculture than we do at the moment.”
But Ms Hair made false claims seeking to credit her party with something they had no part in.
The Scottish Conservatives secured nothing until the end of 2020 – The fact is that there will be major changes in farming subsidies world wide in 2020.
The Common Market Farming policy is scheduled for a major shake up, from 2020, as a direct result of the UK withdrawal from the EC and the culmination of discussions with World Trade countries including; Russia, China, South Africa, Brazil, India, New Zealand, Canada, Australia and a host of developing countries, for European negotiators to set a firm date for ending farm subsidies that effectively lock poor farmers around the globe out of profitable markets.
A member of the public asked for an explanation as to why farmers were still waiting on subsidy payments, despite a new computer system.
Mr Weir earned cries of derision after admitting he did not have an answer, saying: “I’ve not been involved in that, so I can’t explain the ins and outs of that. I’m a member of the Westminster Parliament.
I haven’t been involved in that, but the fact a computer system doesn’t work, I’m afraid in government that isn’t unusual.
The Westminster Government has had some pretty spectacular computer failures, with computer systems that have to be scrapped.”
The Questioner, a local farmer quipped: “I wonder if that’s the beginning of what we are going to hear from time to time tonight that Mike Weir isn’t defending the Scottish Government.
I think it’s probably quite useful for him to be able to draw that line.
If only Nicola Sturgeon was keeping out of the Westminster election I would be very much happier.”
He added: “It’s simply not good enough to say the computer’s not working, the answer is the computer’s not been programmed properly but the people who are responsible for making sure that folk get the money they need are still responsible for making sure people get the money they need.”
Ms Hair added: “It’s a typical SNP answer when they don’t take responsibility when they are wrong, or hold their hands up.
It was a complete waste of taxpayers’ money.
It’s a complete disrespect to the rural economy, which is very important to Angus, and I think its a bit of an insult for Mike Weir, who represents such a rural constituency, not to understand a system that is so important to them.”
Miss Hair and the farmer questioner were disingenuous, highlighting a failing in the introduction of IT systems which contributed to excessive delays in payments being made to farmers.
Whilst this is correct and there can be no excuse for poor performance it is not the full story and voters need to be made aware of this.
Until this year farm subsidy payments were controlled through Westminster.
At no time in any previous year were payments made on time and central government perhaps exhausted by the many complaints, by farmers and landowners decided to delegate the payments regime to each of the constituent countries of the UK.
As is often the case little advance warning was given and there was an absence of implementation advice.
It was for each government to introduce new systems and make the required payments to farmers and landowners.
Complications arose at the start, created by a much changed qualification requirement and many new claimants being added to the database which had not been updated prior to transfer from Westminster to Edinburgh.
To conclude, no country in the union made the agreed payments deadline and to fixate on the Scottish government is unfair. There are also additional factors to give thought to:
Fact 1: The UK rates 19th. in the EU, with an allowance of £224 per hectare per annum (Germany £302, France £287)
Fact 2: The Westminster government sub-allocates Scottish Farmers £125-£135 per hectare per annum
Fact 3: In 2016 the EU recognised that Scotland was greatly underfunded and provided new money (Convergence Uplift) to be directly allocated to Scotland.
Fact 4: The Westminster government hijacked the finance and indicated Scots would need to get the begging bowl out and prove the need in each case.
The full story: Subsidy Payments to Farmers in Scotland – Convergence Uplift
A major row has broken out over the distribution of subsidies specifically allocated by the EU for the farming sector in Scotland.
The Tory government, took control of the new finance and announced that any payments from the new funds would be made through the common agricultural policy (CAP) and would be applied UK wide.
The government’s decision means that farmers in England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland will receive the same proportion of the CAP budget over the lifetime of the present agreement.
Scottish government ministers and the NFU in Scotland claimed farmers north of the border would be deprived of hundreds of millions of euros in “convergence uplift” subsidies that were “rightfully theirs”, adding that the only reason the UK qualified for the uplift was because of Scotland’s low payments under the current system.
Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead described Westminster’s decision to share out Scotland’s money across the UK as “a disgrace.”
He added: “I do not know how UK ministers will be able to look Scottish farmers in the eye after this outrageous decision that amounts to pocketing Scotland’s farm payments.
I am also aghast that Alistair Carmichael, can welcome the UK government’s decision to give Scotland the lowest farm payments in the whole of Europe and the UK.
If Scotland had been a member state in our own right during those negotiations, we would have benefited from a one billion euro uplift.
We have been denied that uplift and now we are even being denied up to 230 million euro uplift that the UK gets because of Scotland.”
NFU Scotland said farmers had been dealt “a bitter blow” by failing to win an immediate boost in European cash.
Scottish Conservative rural affairs spokesman Alex Ferguson said he was disappointed that all the extra convergence money did not go to Scotland.
Ms Hair’s own man Boris Johnson added his own perception about the farming subsidy and referred to the government failures to meet payment deadlines:
There is another take on the payment subsidy system – Rural Payments Agency – Acres and acres of madness – and they call this reform
At the bottom of the garden we have a paddock, and on evenings like this I can think of no lovelier place on earth.
The buds have budded.
The trees are in leaf.
The lambs are making a racket.
The rabbits show a boldness that verges on insolence.
Everywhere I look I see nature transpiring at every pore with the green joy of photosynthesis.
I see the hawthorn blossom, rolling for miles in great gun-smoke clouds.
I see the shade starting to lengthen from the old oak, and the lovely rickety fence, on which I sometimes balance champagne bottles and shoot them off with an airgun, and I lie down on the springy grass and look up at the pale moon in the blue sky and I breathe a sigh of deep and unchallengeable contentment.
Sometimes, you know, I just can’t believe my luck.
Because it turns out that I am not only the possessor of a magnificent paddock.
I am a farmer. Yes, folks, I am a Tibullan agricola.
I am Marie-Antoinette.
I have managed to hitch my wagon to the gravy train of the CAP and clamp my jaws about the hind teat of Defra.
By virtue of possessing 0.3 hectares of grass, excluding the dilapidated outside privy, I am apparently eligible for subsidy!
You think I am mad; but read the 98-page booklet provided by the Rural Payments Agency and you will find your lungs tightening and your lips blibbering into a pant-hoot of pure amazement at the insanity of our masters.
The government – Brussels – the taxpayer – whoever – is seriously going to pay me 10 euros a year merely for being the owner of this blissful patch of grass and rabbits.
I don’t have to farm it, in any meaningful sense.
I don’t even have to graze a pony, though I could.
I can use it for clay pigeons.
I can use it for hot-air ballooning, it says here in the pamphlet.
I can organise motocross events or nature trails across the paddock.
Provided I don’t do it for more than 28 days a year, I can even have car-boot sales.
I can invite Billy Smart’s circus to pitch their big top in the paddock, or I can let it out as a location for television.
Year after year, the cheque will come in from Brussels via Defra, 10 princely euros, as a thank you to me and my family for doing – well, for doing absolutely nothing except luxuriating in the existence of this paddock.
Weeping with laughter, I decide to ring the Rural Payments Agency to find out if I can possibly have read this right.
Yes, they say, it sounds like you qualify.
Yes, they say, there are plenty of people who have been given subsidy entitlements for having pony paddocks, just like the one you describe.
Yes, it is OK to mow it.
Yes, it is acceptable to use the land for having barbecues, playing rounders or nude sunbathing.
Yes, says the Rural Payments Agency, you can have a pony paddock and attract the subsidy, without going to the trouble of having a pony.
Yes, says the agency (now with a tremor of exhaustion in its voice), you are right in thinking that you are getting the money for nothing at all except keeping the land in “good environmental condition”.
Fantastic! I say. Where do I send the form?
And it is only then, of course, that I discover the catch.
My paddock qualifies in every respect.
This beautiful, if tiny, corner of Oxfordshire is entitled to all the dignity that goes with being a CAP-funded estate – except that, like a complete fool, I missed the deadline, in May 2005, for registering my claim.
Through sheer stupidity, I failed to grasp that last year the government changed the basis on which agricultural subsidy is to be paid.
Under the reforms of the CAP, farmers are no longer rewarded for growing barley or rearing suckler cows.
It is the end of paying Greeks for growing acres of fictitious olives.
Under the brilliant new single farm payment, the Greeks and the rest of us are to be rewarded simply for having grown acres of fictitious olives in the past.
You no longer need even to pretend to grow the olives; you simply have to show that you have title to the land and that you are keeping it in good nick, olives or no olives; and that is why the pony paddocks of England are now accompanied by EU subsidy.
If I missed the deadline, there were thousands of paddock-owners who were quicker off the mark, who whanged those forms into the Rural Payments Agency – and who caused the monumental chaos with which you will be familiar.
Across Britain there are farming families who have been driven deep into debt, and farmers who have contemplated suicide, because of the government’s disastrous failure to send out the single farm payments.
They were told they could expect the payment in December; then it was February; then March; and when, by mid-March, the Farming minister was forced to come to the Commons and apologise, it was obvious that the system was in meltdown.
And the reason it was in meltdown was at least partly because no one had predicted that the number of subsidy claimants would rise – from 80,000 to 120,000 – as the paddock-owners, the raspberry-growers, the filbert-growers and the possessors of 0.3-hectare marrow patches piled in to register their land.
And, of course, there will be some optimists who point out that the expense can’t be overwhelming, not at 10 euros a paddock.
But if you look at the Rural Payments Agency booklet, you will see how ever more of our countryside is now being sucked into a bureaucratic vortex of madness.
If you claim a subsidy for your orchard (as you may), you have to prove that your trees are 10 metres apart and that the trunks are one metre in circumference; and if you have more than 50 trees a hectare, you’ve got to prove to the inspector that the bases of the trees have previously been nibbled by sheep.
You can grow cucumbers, cabbages and cauliflowers, but not strawberries or mint!
Think of the new legions of bureaucrats being created, who will have to check whether or not you are running your subsidised nudist colony for more than 28 days.
Forty thousand new dependants have been created!
Untold acres are now under new and pointless subsidy!
And they call this reform?
Meeting in Arbroath
A Journalist Summarised the Meeting
If the hustings at St Andrew’s Church, Arbroath, had an anger meter last night, it would have looked like any graphs with ups and downs until the end.
Then it shot off the scale, with participants still yelling their fury even after the night’s chairman, The Courier’s editor Richard Neville, called time on proceedings.
Obviously the good people of Arbroath had been gradually building up a head of steam.
It began quietly enough, with the candidates chatting politely as they waited for the audience to file in.
But when show-time began, the gloves were quickly off, with the civility between candidates quickly evaporating.
While the SNP’s Mike Weir, defending the seat, may be the favourite, he couldn’t have felt like a shoo-in last night during awkward questions about the Scottish Government’s expensive lemon – the flawed £180 million IT system that failed to provide the vital support to farmers it was supposed to.
Agriculture, and the computer system failure, proved a hot-button issue.
Mr Weir’s response – that he was not an IT expert – did not wash.
He may have had moments of seeing his 11,230 majority look a bit less of a sure thing.
He did manage to recover lost ground when it came to denouncing the controversial Tory “rape clause”, though, something a feisty Kirstene Hair for the Conservatives tried and failed to explain in a manner that made it palatable.
As the audience relaxed, so their derision levels rose, with Mr Weir and Ms Hair coming in for the most laughter – and not in a kind way – but also often the most applause.
But really, although they were cross about education under an SNP government and not so happy about Brexit uncertainty and Scotland’s future, the head of steam finally exploded when Kirstene Hair mentioned Scottish independence as being the real issue.
Ms Hair gave the game away at the end of the meeting.
The Tory Party is devoid of any policies relevant to the needs of Scots.
It is a one trick pony seeking to gain the votes of anyone who might be opposed to independence.
Surely Scots are not so gullible as to fall for Ruth Davidson’s tactical ploys.