On 28 September 2023, the Scottish Government introduced the Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill.
The Bill contains 3 key parts to help the Scottish Government deliver its Vision for Agriculture through support for farming, forestry and rural communities:
- A duty on Scottish Ministers to prepare a 5-year Rural Support Plan.
- The power for Scottish Ministers to provide support, usually financial, related to certain purposes.
- The ability for Scottish Ministers to amend EU-derived Common Agricultural Policy legislation.
Rural Support Plan
The Bill requires Scottish Ministers to prepare, lay before the Scottish Parliament and publish a 5-year Rural Support Plan, setting out their strategic priorities for support, and detailing the schemes which are in, or expected to be in, operation over this 5-year period.
Scottish Ministers are to consider the objectives set out in the Vision for Agriculture when preparing the plan:
- The adoption and use of sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices;
- The production of high-quality food;
- The facilitation of on-farm nature restoration, climate mitigation and adaptation; and
- Enabling rural communities to thrive.
The Scottish Government's intention is to create a new support framework. While a payment scheme will form part of this, a formal scheme is not necessarily a requirement. Scottish Ministers will be able to determine how support is provided, and what conditions are attached, to allow flexibility. The Explanatory Note and Policy Memorandum set out the 4-tiered payment scheme intended to be introduced (but these are not referred to in the Bill).
Tier 1: Base Level Direct Payments
A direct, universal, entry-level payment for undertaking agricultural activity, conditional on meeting minimum production standards to protect the environment, animal health and welfare and ensuring Fair Work.
Tier 2: Enhanced Level Direct Payment
A direct, universally accessible payment supplementing Tier 1 payments for those undertaking further activity (delivering outcomes) for nature and climate improvement practices, including recognising wider land management.
Tier 3: Elective Payments
An indirect, criteria-based, competitive or non-universal range of payments for 'specific-indicator nature and / or climate improvement undertakings' and 'specific-indicator undertakings' in relation to other Vision policy outcomes. These payments may be reliant on meeting the first two tiers.
Tier 4: Complementary Support
An indirect payment for Continuing Professional Development (CPD), advice, knowledge exchange and linkages to wider land management support from Scottish Government officials and/or public partners.
Purposes for Providing Support
The Bill allows Scottish Ministers to provide support for or in relation to a range of purposes set out below. A holistic approach may be taken to widen the scope of support, and Scottish Ministers will be able to add, amend and/or remove purposes to allow the flexibility to consider any necessary changes.
Agriculture, Food and Drink
This purpose covers farming, food and drink and particular products or sectors. Food and drink regards the entire agri-food chain, particularly where organic practices are used.
This purpose focuses on woodland creation and management, including woodland infrastructure and access for both management and recreational purposes.
Rural Communities and Economy (including island communities)
This support applies to rural communities; investing in rural businesses and enterprises; knowledge, innovation, education and training; integrated land management; quality schemes, which certify products, and producer groups; the preservation of historic and cultural sites; and recreational access to land.
Rural Land Management and the Environment
A range of purposes are included, relating to plants and soil, greenhouse gases and climate change, natural environment and animals.
Administrative and Technical Support and Monitoring
Potential support recipients can be assisted in understanding how to meet application requirements and compliance conditions through administrative and technical support.
Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)
CAP payments and schemes currently provide support for farmers, the rural economy, rural communities and agricultural products. Scottish Ministers' powers to modify the existing CAP rules end on 7 May 2026 under the Agriculture (Retained EU Law and Data) (Scotland) Act 2020 (known as a "sunset" clause") The Bill will stop the automatic sunsetting of these powers with the intention of giving the Scottish Ministers the ability to adjust and use the current CAP rules beyond 7 May 2026. Whilst the intention is to transition from the existing CAP rules to the new schemes under the Bill, the ancillary documentation to the Bill sets out that it is anticipated that this will take time. The Bill therefore allows Scottish Ministers to extend and modify the existing CAP rules to allow for the transition period.
The Bill has received criticism from stakeholders, including NFU Scotland, due to its lack of detail, particularly with regard to the support framework to be introduced. The Bill is at stage 1 and has been sent to the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee for consideration. A call for views was issued which closed on 27 November 2023. The Committee will publish its report before the Bill is debated in the Scottish Parliament where it will either be rejected or move to Stage 2.