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Union seeks urgent clarity as Scottish Government cuts rural budget for second successive year

Martin Kennedy (NFUS President)

NFU Scotland says an announcement by the Scottish Government that the Rural Affairs budget will be cut for a second consecutive year undermines Scottish Government claims that there will be no ‘cliff edge’ when it comes to farm support. 

In a letter outlining 2023/24 in-year budget changes to the Scottish Parliament, Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance Shona Robison MSP intends to cut several Scottish Government portfolios to address a significant shortfall in the wider Scottish budget.

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In the Scottish Government’s Emergency Budget Review in 2022 to support people and businesses through the unprecedented cost crisis, £33 million of funding awarded to Scotland as part of the 2019 Bew Review into the fair allocation of agricultural support in the UK was deferred. As that £33 million is part of the £620 million of ringfenced funding from the UK Treasury, the Scottish Government is obliged to spend it as Agricultural Support and Related Spending. In June, NFU Scotland received a categorical assurance from the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance that the £33 million deferred from the agricultural budget last year would be returned to the agricultural budget. 

Instead of that money being rightfully returned, NFU Scotland is angered to find that a further £28 million of uncommitted funding is to go the same way as detailed in the 23/24 in-year budget changes as set out to the Scottish Parliament’s Finance Committee this week. The Union had not been informed or consulted on the decision.

At a time when it has asked for a significant increase in future funding to ensure future food production, the Union firmly believes this sends the wrong message to the industry on Scottish Government’s commitment to rural Scotland. President Martin Kennedy, Vice President Alasdair Macnab, Director of Policy Jonnie Hall and Parliamentary Affairs Manager Beatrice Morrice met with Shona Robison on Wednesday afternoon (22 Nov) to highlight the impact of the further round of cuts.

While the Finance Secretary reaffirmed her commitment to fully return the total amount, now in excess of £60 million, an explicit commitment in writing was requested as to when exactly the Scottish Government will return outstanding funds to the agricultural portfolio and what they will be used for. In addition, the returned funds must be over and above the current budget level. The Union is adamant that there can be no erosion of funding.

Following the meeting, NFU Scotland President Martin Kennedy said: “There is justifiable anger and frustration that, for the second year in a row, millions of pounds of hard won ‘Bew’ money has been deferred from the Scottish agricultural budget. That was a decision taken with no warning or consultation.

“We welcome guarantees from the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance that these funds will be returned, and we are committed to working with ScotGov to look at how that money will best deliver for farmers and crofters, but many will see that as a promise of ‘jam tomorrow’ when we need that support now.

“The entire Scottish Rural Affairs budget, including agriculture, currently makes up just over 0.5 per cent of total government spending in Scotland. For this, farmers and crofters manage 70 per cent of the land, generate a gross output of £3.3 billion annually and make an unparalleled contribution to the economic, environmental, social and cultural wellbeing of Scotland – we believe this represents a fantastic return on investment.

“At a time when our farmers and crofters are facing a growing number of high-priority demands, and will undertake the heavy lifting on food production, climate change mitigation and biodiversity enhancement on behalf of the nation, the Scottish Government must immediately return in full all agricultural support funds through accessible measures so farmers and crofters can deliver on what are Scottish Government priorities.”

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