18 February 2020

Farmers Jeer at Junior Minister Douglas Ross MP

Many Scottish farmers are beginning to raise concerns about post-Brexit policy changes and the impact it will have on our food standards in Scotland. Douglas Ross, the MP for Moray and new Junior Minister at the Scotland Office, learned this for himself as he was publicly jeered after he addressed the Scottish NFU AGM in Glasgow last Thursday.

According to Farmers Weekly, this happened when Ross suggested in answer to a question from a farmer that “clear labelling should be enough to deter consumers from buying cheap food imports”, brushing off any idea of keeping firmly and legally in step with the high food standards presently imposed by European law.

The same journal reported that immediately afterwards, Scottish NFU President Andrew McCornick responded by saying to the Minister:

“If we are going to allow products into this country that would be illegal for us to produce, that is not acceptable.”

McCornick has a strong point. As he added later, the UK Government would be selling farmers “down the river” if it allowed two sets of food standards to develop – one for imported food which would be substantially reduced and sell for lower prices, and one for locally produced food that would be more expensive.

The outcome of that in any free market is inevitable – the cheap and bad will chase out the more expensive and good, bankrupting many Scottish food businesses. Given how such businesses have grown in the past 13 years this simply cannot be allowed.

Ross’s declaration poses a severe, indeed existential, threat to many Scottish success stories and if that policy also extends to the entire food and drink industry then it will also decimate the whisky sector because some American producers are desperate to sell their product, not matured for a minimum of three years, into the UK market on the same shelves, and with the same name, as the real thing produced with generations of care and experience by craftsmen and women in Scotland and laid down in carefully stipulated conditions for that minimum period.

McCornick went on to say, publicly, to Ross that he and his fellow farmers were very anxious that “whoever is negotiating these trade deals” is made aware of these matters and added:

"We would like to see something with a bit of teeth in here to make sure that is not happening.”

The UK Government must finally honour the promises they have made for the past three and a half years about respecting the devolved settlement, and as a result ensure that the UK negotiating stance on the key issues in food and drink standards is reached only after detailed discussion with the Scottish Government, within whose devolved competence those matters actually lie.

As with genetically modified crops, we know that the highest standards are not a barrier to markets, but a vital attraction for our core and continuing customers. In other words, we know – unlike Ross and his Tory colleagues – the value of things, not just their price.

4 February 2020

Time for all Parties to support our businesses

For all their bluster on business rates for the past two years, the Tories have failed to back the interests of local businesses by voting through an amendment in favour of scrapping business rates reliefs.

These reliefs have been of great benefit to businesses in my area who have been struggling throughout the oil and gas downturn.

My SNP colleagues and I campaigned hard to get them put in place.

However, the amendments to the Non-Domestic Rates bill that will be voted on this week in parliament would see over £308 million of relief scrapped – which is strongly opposed by the SNP.

This could impact more than 100,000 businesses across Scotland, and cost smaller businesses £7,000.

This includes the small business bonus scheme which has benefited more than 7,000 recipients in Aberdeenshire, saving local businesses £12.6millon in 2018-19 and £83.4million since the scheme was introduced.

The result of this amendment would be deplorable for local businesses across the North-east.

The SNP was the only party which opposed the amendment to the Bill – which would mean that rates would no longer be set nationally and business rates reliefs, including the Small Business Bonus and rates relief for nurseries – would automatically end.

It would also remove the ability of Scottish ministers to set the business rates poundage.

Abolishing the Universal Business Rate is bad for all businesses.

However, I’m not the only one who has these concerns with worries being voiced through a network of 27 Scottish business organisations all of whom oppose the amendment.

These plans would deliver a blow to businesses in the North-east and could risk the delivery of vital local services, the work of charities and third-sector organisations.

If the plans backed by the Tories and Labour had been in place, Aberdeenshire council would have faced a shortfall of £6.8million over the past two years.

Experts and business organisations have also warned that it could create added costs and deter investment in the North-east and across Scotland.

The Federation of Small Businesses, CBI Scotland and the Scottish Retail Consortium have all expressed concerns over the proposed changes, warning it will create added costs and deter investment.

I also know from speaking to local businesses across my constituency just how much this relief scheme means to businesses each day.

It is clear that we cannot take the risk of letting the Tories in, and watching them trade away our precious economy.

Businesses in the North-east have benefited massively in rates support, providing stability for local jobs and communities and giving firms that valuable headroom to grow and thrive.

This amendment shows contempt from the Tories and Greens and threatens to scrap reliefs for businesses in the North-east.

My colleagues across the North-east must backtrack and reverse their decision to end nationwide rates relief and introduce local rates multipliers.

Stewart Stevenson
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