Orkney has a relatively diverse economy, but farming and fishing remain fundamentally important. According to the last analysis carried out by OIC, around a third of jobs in our islands are linked directly or indirectly to agriculture, while the quality of our food and drink provides a strong underpinning for our vital tourism sector.
Little wonder then that there has been such dismay at the mess created by the SNP government over farm payments. The Minister in charge, Richard Lochhead spent £180m on a new IT system and months promising that money would go out on time, only to then blame farmers when it all went wrong.
His lack of a plan B left rural and island communities counting the cost. Local economies were short changed by around £300m, creating cash flow problems not just for farmers and crofters but many local businesses in Orkney as well. After a year of wet weather and poor global commodity prices, this shambles was the last thing our farmers needed. The knock-on impacts are likely to be with us for the next 3-5 years.
We need an inquiry into what went wrong and steps taken to ensure there can be no repeat, including a commitment to adequate staffing in the relevant department and area offices. This will be all the more important leading up to the next CAP reform process in 2020, where again I would want to ensure the needs of our islands are properly recognised.
An early resolution must also be reached with the UK government over so-called ‘convergence’ funding, while civil war within the Tory party cannot be allowed to trigger the UK’s exit from the EU. This would be disastrous for all sorts of reasons, not least the impact for our farming and wider food and drink sectors.
More generally, failures in the supply chain must be urgently addressed. The dairy industry may be the most obvious example of where these failings exist, but it is far from the only one. We need a relationship between producers, processors and retailers that is more transparent and sustainable.
Our inshore fishing sector faces challenges too, but is responding well. Our products enjoy an excellent reputation, which increasingly is reflected in demand from consumers and the prices they are willing to pay. Care must be taken, however, that regulation of the sector is always proportionate and delivers tangible benefit.
The whitefish fleet, meanwhile, is struggling to contend with a discard ban that appears over-simplistic even in terms of meeting its own objectives. Discarding fish is environmental and economic madness, but we need rules that reflect the make-up of a mixed fishery and the way quotas operate.
As for quotas, the SNP must stop using these as a ‘political football’, creating needless risk and uncertainty as a consequence.
Farming and fishing are lynchpins of our economy and key to how we see ourselves as a community. If re-elected as Orkney’s MSP, I will continue to fight hard to ensure their needs are met.