YOUNG FARMERS made their thoughts known on the future travel of Scottish agriculture, during a two-day action-packed trip to Westminster, last week, meeting with various political advisors, high ranking officials and MPs.

Sixteen in total took part in the political trip, with groups from Inverness, Edinburgh and Glasgow all touching down in London during the early hours of Tuesday morning, before swiftly moving on to the first item on the agenda for the day – a meeting with the UK Government’s deputy director of policy, Nick Leake, at the Scotland Office.

He explained to the young farmers the enduring cost of Brexit to the political process: “We haven’t done any policy planning since 2015 – when Brexit first reared its head – as it takes up so much of our time. Little legislation has been passed during this period as our resources have been reallocated to dealing with Brexit,” he stressed.

He went on to suggest that the recently announced Scottish Agri Bill may not appear until Autumn and explained what being part of the UK Agri Bill would mean for Scotland.

“Both the governments of the UK and Scotland agree that we need common frameworks, be that for movement of goods and animal welfare standards etc. There will not be a UK wide framework for agriculture, it will be tailored to Scotland,” he continued. “However, taking a schedule in the UK Agri Bill would just give Scotland powers to implement its own Agri Bill – the UK Bill would set minimum standards rather than enforce harmonisation,” he claimed.

Ranald Angus from Bower YFC, queried Mr Leake on his concerns over future trade deal negotiations:

“We are not a country who can compete on quantity, but on quality – we will always push quality. As an industry should we be concerned about our markets being flooded by cheap, poor-quality produce?”

Mr Leake responded: “As a country we still care about the same values that we did before Brexit and those values will be upheld when future trade talks with the likes of Brazil are discussed, and that includes maintaining the high standards we currently follow,” he emphasised.

He did make the point, however, that on leaving the EU, the UK will now have seven times less clout to offer when negotiating trade deals.

Andrew Taylor from Crossroads YFC, pressed Mr Leake on the growing appetite for a second independence referendum: “In the event of a no-deal Brexit, will a second indyref be back on the cards?”

“A chaotic Brexit is the only thing that might trigger a move towards a second referendum,” replied Mr Leake, who suggested that the SNP are being careful not to push forward this agenda at the current time – suggesting that support for a second referendum is waning.

The group then had lunch in the Scotland office, where they had a sit down with the parliamentary under secretary of state for the Scottish and Northern Ireland office, Lord Ian Duncan, who spoke frankly and openly about the state of play in British politics:

“Theresa May is in real difficulty – she can’t get support from within her own party. But her deal is the only one on the table and it is a bill that delivers for agriculture,” he stressed. “All the ingredients are there, and no one is offering a better deal. People are clear in what they don’t like but don’t offer any solutions to what they would like.”

He went on to stress that Brexit isn’t responsible for all of the challenges facing the agricultural industry, pointing out the labour shortages facing the soft fruits sector.

“The whole of the EU is experiencing a short fall in workers – this is a competitive problem not a Brexit problem,” he explained. “Brexit may have knocked confidence in Britain as a destination but there are other factors at play such as a weak currency and improving economies across Europe.”

Ian Cullens, of Kinross JAC, questioned why there is not an indigenous solution to offer to labour shortages across the rural sphere and asked whether it was time to improve rural skills education.

Lord Duncan replied: “Parents are the biggest deterrent to kids wanting to work in rural Scotland – they don’t want to encourage their kids to pursue a career within rural industries. Part of this is down to the fact that people aren’t aware of the technical skill involved in running a farm – there are extraordinary skills these days in farming businesses,” he continued. “It is not an issue of money, as there is good money out there for rural jobs, it is about changing mindsets. It is not an easy task maintaining our land, but it is a vital one and we need to begin to think how we can really get more people working in rural Scotland,” he stressed.

Taking a moment to enjoy the unusually warm temperatures for late February, the group wandered over to Trafalgar Square, a short pitstop before arriving at the NZ High Commission for a tour of their building and a discussion with regional manager for Europe, Ben O’Brian.

He revealed that New Zealand is coming under increasing pressure to operate within stricter environmental limits and declared their intention to lead the world in good environmental practice – with ambitions to plant over a billion trees in the next ten years.

Moving on to the topic of discussing UK consumer demand for lamb, Alistair Brunton of East Fife JAC made the point that demand for lamb is increasing in the UK as the Muslim population increases.

SAYFC proved to be on the pulse with the latest in agri-politics when chairman David Lawrie of Kinross JAC jokingly remarked that they in fact ‘hosted George Eustice’s leaving drinks’ on the Tuesday evening, two day’s ahead of his resignation from the government as farming minister. The young farmers were treated to a drink’s reception, hosted by Luke Graham MP and attended by various Conservative MPs, including the former farming minister. Kirstene Hair, MP for Angus, welcomed the group by recalling her former days as a member of young farmers and then over the next two hours the group had the opportunity to meet and discuss the future of Scottish agriculture with around eights MPs in attendance.

Day two saw the group convene in Westminster to attend Prime Minister’s Questions. Some members of the group had been able to attain public access to the House of Commons chamber from their local MP and were able to sit in on proceedings. With only a month to go until Brexit day, it was an amazing experience to sit up close to the decision makers of the country but also a stark reminder of the divisive behaviour which is holding the country back from coming to a deal.

The previous day Theresa May announced that she would be allowing MPs a vote on the extension of article 50, if the next meaningful vote on her new Brexit proposal on March 12, doesn’t get passed.

Outside Westminster, Brexit protesters were out on force, waving their banners and chanting to passers-by – with press hotly on their heels. Moving past all the hustle and bustle outside Westminster Abbey, the group then moved on to a meeting at the NFU headquarters close-by, where they were given a presentation by the acting head of external affairs at Westminster for NFU, Rocky Lorusso.

Echoing the comments of Nick Leake from the Scotland Office, he explained how Brexit has held back decisions on the future of travel for the sector:

“The Government has ground to a halt in the UK. Key legislation has been postponed and we find ourselves in a holding pattern which is really unhelpful for the agricultural sector,” he stressed.

“We are really worried that in a post-Brexit world that we will see a diminution of standards and are currently trying to change the language in the Agricultural Bill to say that future governments will not enter in to any future trade agreements that will diminish our high standards,” he explained. “However, we have found that the government are really unwilling both in the Agri Bill and the Trade Bill to put anything on paper that will bind their hands in future trade negotiations.”

Romy Jackson of Bankfoot JAC, probed Mr Lorusso on Scotland’s decision not to take a schedule in the UK Agri Bill and asked whether politics was getting in the way of doing the right thing:

“The Scottish Government could lose out on not being engaged with the UK Agri Bill and it is definitely too late to be setting up new taskforce groups - this should have been done two years ago. Engagement is key as it puts uncertainty to bed and there is enough uncertainty facing the agricultural industry just now.

On a positive note, he ended by explaining the work which is about to be carried out by the ENFU, to improve their engagement with school kids on the topic of farming and food production. However, Lianne Brunton, of East Fife JAC highlighted the great work of RHET in Scotland in educating pupils through class room talks and on farm experiences - which the group were surprised to hear is unique to Scotland.

Overall the trip was a great success and gave the group fantastic open-door access to some of the UK’s leading policy makers and sparked an important conversation around the importance of engaging the next generation of young farmers with the future of agricultural policy making in the UK.