View from Westminster: Tough time for our farmers

It’s not often that farming makes national news headlines. But the recent spate of public protests we’ve seen over milk prices - shelves being deliberately emptied, cows walked through supermarkets - has put it right in the public spotlight.

It’s just the latest example of how our farming communities, including of course here in Berwickshire, are having a tough time of it.

Milk production is the most dramatic example of how the supply chain is failing our rural communities, and that failure is coming at a real human cost. So far 19 Scottish dairy farmers have gone out of business this year because their customers are paying them less than it costs them to produce their milk.

And it’s not just dairy farmers who are suffering. A wide range of farmers can be asked to subsidise retail price promotions. And beef producers may not know the payment terms they’ll receive from their local abattoirs.

Put bluntly, our farmers have become pawns in someone else’s game. That simply isn’t acceptable. Let’s remember that if they don’t earn money then they can’t spend it locally, and that means other jobs and businesses within their communities are also under threat.

The UK Government has attempted to provide a solution to this problem. Two years ago, it established a watchdog with the rather unwieldy name of the Groceries Code Adjudicator to try and regulate some of the worst practices and to bring fairness to the supply chain.

The difficulty is that she simply doesn’t have the power to deal with some of the worst problems. For instance, she can only act where retailers have a turnover bigger than £1 billion a year, so a lot are excluded.

Also, she can only regulate in situations where farmers supply the outlets direct, and a lot sell through intermediaries. Also, a complaint has to have been made - she can’t launch her own investigations. If the government really does want to support our farmers, then these problems need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Leading industry organisations such as the NFU Scotland and the Tenant Farmers’ Association think so too.

Hopefully we’re pushing at an open door, as earlier this year, David Cameron agreed it was time to look again at the adjudicator’s remit. But there’s no evidence he’s making it a priority and our farmers need action now.

That’s why as soon as the Commons returns from its summer break next week, I’ll be tabling a parliamentary question asking what progress has been made on this extension of powers and, crucially, when we can expect to see them in place.

Giving the watchdog more powers won’t solve all the problems, but it will be a big step forward. Scottish farmers have some fantastic opportunities. They are responsible for our world class food and drink output and play a major part in forging our landscapes, economy and national identity.

We need to help them through the challenges and give them and their communities the support they deserve. Then we will all benefit.