Penalty for support payments is an ever-tightening screw

There’s a wry saying applicable to politics that if you’re not confused you don’t know what’s going on. It can seldom have been more true than when talking about how changes to Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will affect farmers in the next five years.

More than 90 per cent of Scotland’s farmers have already had an example of how little they know. Their annual single farm payment was made at the beginning of December, which was good news, but they found it down by an unexpected average of 12 per cent on the previous year.

That can only get worse. Advisers of all types and NFU Scotland are trying to explain how much further that payment might fall each year to 2019/20, but at most meetings the specialists have been forced to admit there are many questions they can’t answer. There are so many uncertainties.

For every individual farm the answer will depend on whether land has been re-classified, if correct areas have been allocated, what they do to comply with “greening” regulations, what national totals are … and on, and on.

It’s all a classic example of a quote I saw recently in connection with something else: “Extra regulation can drive protection, but it also drives incompetence, bureaucracy and obfuscation.”

The speaker was referring to new rules for lawyers in England, but what he went on to say almost exactly describes changes to the CAP: “Where you have lots of detailed rules it often means that compliance officers don’t actually know where they stand and what’s permissible.”

In simple terms it means that the penalty for receiving support payments is an ever-tightening screw. Rules become increasingly complicated, qualification more difficult and payments less. If George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, thinks he has problems, said one farmer after last week’s autumn budget statement, “he should try being a farmer”.

Or a Scottish landowner or owner-occupier farmer as the Scottish SNP Government tightens another screw – that on land ownership.

Who owns what in Scotland has excercised many minds with even the most determined of them, such as Andy Wightman, failing to come up with a complete answer. What we do know is that a few hundred people own most of Scotland and it has long been SNP policy to do something about that.

Legislation is also being planned on the law of primogeniture, that one where the oldest male heir gets the land.

Changing that can’t be bad, although critics have pointed to the Code Napoleon in France where, at death, land is evenly divided among heirs until everyone ends up with a window box.

For the best account of how disposal of a few acres can lead to unleashing of the worst in human nature, read Emile Zola’s The Earth, or consider any farming family fall-out near you in the past few years.