Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment
Remarks at NFU Scotland AGM
Tuesday 14 February 2012
Mr President, NFU Scotland members, what a great pleasure it is to be with you once more in St Andrews for your AGM.
Rural Scotland, in particular, has put its trust in the government more strongly than ever.
And now, together, I believe we can prepare for a great future.
For me personally, it was an absolute privilege to be asked to serve again as your Cabinet Secretary – as Minister for Agriculture and Food!
In Scotland, we are very proud of our farmers and the many contributions you make to Scotland - putting food on our tables, such as we enjoyed last night courtesy of top class Highland producers.
And caring for our famous landscapes and generating economic activity throughout the country.
This is truly an exciting industry, coming into its own, and going places.
Recently, I was reading Tom Devine’s recent fascinating book, To the Ends of the Earth, which describes Scotland’s huge contribution to global agricultural development in past centuries where Scots farmers blazed a trail across the world.
Your forebears spread the word across the globe, from North America to Australasia, to help feed the world.
And we are still a global player today.
Indeed, this year alone we have two major international events taking place here in Scotland for the first time.
The European Commodities Exchange, otherwise known as the “Bourse”, and the World Potato Congress.
All the key players from around the world will be converging on Scotland for those events.
That makes me very proud. And it should make you feel good about yourselves and your sector.
I’ve been struck by that feel-good factor as I’ve travelled round the country – from the superb County Show in Orkney last summer to the record breaking Perth Bull Sales last week – where I once again saw David Leggat in action, the very deserving recipient of your ambassador award last night.
And let me tell you, I was careful not to move a muscle when standing next to David in case I found myself spending 20,000 guineas on an Angus bull!
And there are good reasons for the current optimism.
Beef prices are good and may set yet further. Lamb prices are up twenty per cent on last year.
The whisky sector, such a big customer for your barley, is growing strongly.
Grain prices have held up.
And seed potato exports have hit 100,000 tonnes for the first time.
The Highland Show and AgriScot are breaking all records.
The Lloyds TSB survey shows that optimism is at a 16 year high, and farmers are investing for the future.
I know there are always problems to be dealt with.
But too often, too many people talk the farming sector down – including farmers themselves.
Instead, we should be positive, because there’s a huge amount to be positive about, as we look forward to the future.
Future of the World
That future will be shaped of course, as never before, by global forces.
You’ve heard me talk, many times, about the growing world population – which will mean strong demand for the raw materials – for the food – you produce for years to come.
We have to produce more – it’s what the world requires, and it’s what we happen to be very good at.
But we have to do so without depleting our natural resources for future generations – “sustainable intensification”, as it’s now being referred to!
The first part of Brian Pack’s report set out these global challenges eloquently.
Did you know that agricultural productivity has gone up nearly two hundred per cent in the last fifty years?
But still the UN estimates that by 2050, we will need to produce seventy per cent more food than in 2009 – with dwindling energy resources, and increasing pressure on land and water.
Future of the Land
Here in Scotland we are not short of water.
And we value all the precious resources our nation is blessed with.
They support our successful food and drink sectors and we are ideally placed to help deliver food security.
Our resources also underpin our forestry, fishing, wildlife watching, hill walking - the plethora of activities that draw tourists to Scotland.
They help us manage the risk of flooding, and they give us clean air and water.
The future of our society depends on the use of our natural resources.
And we know how important it is to protect them.
That’s why the government produced our Land Use Strategy, followed by an Action Plan just before Christmas.
And it’s why I’ve promised to work with industry to draw up an agri-renewables strategy for publication later this year, allowing our primary producers to boost their business by deploying the natural resources right on their own doorstep.
However, within these overarching policies it can sometimes appear as if different objectives are in conflict with each other.
So the challenge is to reconcile them.
Take the concern about the future availability of distillery draff for animal feed.
I can’t directly intervene in the commercial decision making of whisky companies but I will encourage the supply chain to work together to recognise each other’s needs.
We’ve facilitated several discussions on this in the last few weeks, between government, farmers and the whisky sector, and we have commissioned research from the SAC as well.
So we continue to work on it together.
Another perceived conflict arises from competition between farming and forestry.
Yesterday, you heard from Andrew Barbour, the chairman of the Woodland Expansion Advisory Group which I established to look at this. And I hope many of you will go to the evening meetings he’s set up.
I myself have had many conversations with farmers on this subject. In my view much of the concern is because people misunderstand the government’s position.
So let me make it clear.
The Scottish Government is committed to planting ten thousand hectares of woodland per year for the next decade.
That’s a fairly ambitious target, but it’s not out of line with past experience. And early calculations for Andrew Barbour’s group show that the impact on livestock production, even in a worst case scenario, will be marginal.
Looking decades, we have expressed an aspiration – I put it no more strongly than that – for 25 per cent woodland cover.
I will listening closely to the views of the Group but ask that we don’t get hung up on one figure.
Woodland creation has a huge part to play in meeting our emissions targets and to ensure supplies for our forestry sector.
It can be also successfully integrated with farming, provided we get the right trees in the right places.
So my message is: Work with us to deliver the short-term target, in ways that exploit the win-wins. And we can look together at the longer term and set future targets accordingly.
Future of Industry
How we deploy our natural resources is the key to the success of your sector.
And the success of your sector is critical to the economic future of Scotland.
But that future, of course, will play out against a difficult economic backdrop.
And it’s disappointing that the UK Government’s austerity measures are holding back economic recovery.
But whilst we have to take the situation seriously, we have plenty of reasons to talk up Scottish agriculture.
Rural Scotland has actually performed comparatively well.
Yes, the government had to take some tough decisions in the spending review for the next three years - thanks to the Westminster cuts.
But we were able to protect the money available for key schemes like LFASS, payments for which will start next month.
And we increased significantly the budget to support Scotland’s successful food and drink industry which will increase demand for your produce.
So we have a firm base on which to build the future.
And I hope we’ll see some recent trends continuing.
Because when farming succeeds, the rural economy succeeds.
The associated infrastructure like our livestock marts, hauliers, and so on, benefits.
Many jobs therefore depend on healthy primary production.
Looking at the census figures, we can be cautiously optimistic.
Previous downward trends in cattle and sheep have bottomed out.
The national beef herd seems to be stabilising.
Although we need to keep an eye on the increased slaughtering of suckler cows, something that is perhaps inevitable given that they were selling for a record £2000 last week in Thainstone.
But if the generally encouraging trends in livestock numbers are to continue, we need to look at what some are calling the F-factors – the cost of fuel, feed and fertiliser.
When we published the 2011 Total Income From Farming figures a few weeks ago, it was good to see a healthy rise in farmers’ receipts.
But too much of that was eaten away by high input costs.
Like me, you must wince every time you read about the latest profit figures from the oil and fertiliser giants.
So, we must work together to help bring down your costs.
And that means constantly striving for efficient production.
We’ve already done good work on this.
Our Monitor Farm programme, funded through the SRDP, has shown how on all types of farm, good business decisions can bring costs down and profits up.
In fact, I can announce today that we’ve approved funding for two new Monitor Farms in Forth and Clyde.
And we’ve also approved a new pig sector Monitor Farm - along with satellite groups and a benchmarking initiative, to spread the benefit among all pig producers.
But we can do more and we can do better.
In particular, we can exploit the links between reducing input costs and other policy areas.
More efficient use of fuel means lower greenhouse gas emissions, which is good for climate change.
More efficient use of nitrogen means reduced fertiliser bills, and better water quality.
As a government we’ve touched on this in our other policies – like our Farming for a Better Climate programme.
But we can do more, and we must take note of public opinion which as we know expects farmers to do their utmost in this area.
I know NFUS has been looking at this very hard too, along with other industry bodies.
That’s a good thing.
But the time has come to turn those thoughts into actions.
Actions that will really boost efficiency and reduce costs.
I look forward to us doing that together.
While I’m talking about efficiency, I must pause for a moment to pay tribute to Scotland’s arable farmers.
In 2011, faced with some of the worst conditions ever, you brought in a harvest that was the fourth highest in 20 years. I know the drying costs were high, not surprisingly. But what an example of professionalism, in the most testing circumstances.
Another way of boosting efficiency and income is simply to keep our crops and animals healthy – an agenda your President is pursuing with vigour.
Cattle keepers are now receiving guidance from us on BVD screening.
But nobody has tried to eradicate a disease in this way before.
We’ve put back the deadline for all breeding herds to have their initial test, to the start of February 2013. This will make sure everyone has a full year to test.
But we’re also back-dating it, so that tests done since December last year can still count.
If we can eradicate BVD, it will be worth £50 to £80 million to the industry over the next ten years.
So let’s proceed carefully but with determination to tackle a long standing blight.
We’ve already eradicated TB, of course. That means we can move away from blanket four yearly testing of all herds, in favour of a risk based approach.
Good disease control also requires good surveillance.
In October last year, I received John Kinnaird’s report on our veterinary surveillance arrangements. I immediately accepted the recommendation to establish a strategic management board to oversee the system.
I will shortly announce who will be on that board.
The surveillance system has to cover both longstanding threats, and new diseases.
Like Schmallenberg virus, now confirmed in the south of England.
We’re monitoring that situation very closely indeed. We’ll keep the industry fully in the picture as things develop.
High levels of animal health and plant health bring a double benefit. It reduces costs - but it also gets you into markets.
Over recent years, EU and Scottish governments have challenged our food and farming sectors to do better at producing what the market really wants.
The more you do this, the more you can command premium prices, instead of just being price-takers.
That’s the route to bigger profits.
You’ve responded superbly to the challenge.
Take red meat exports.
They rose again last year and are now worth around £100 million per annum.
Europe is our biggest export market.
QMS have identified plenty of potential to develop the high end markets there, for Scotch Beef and Scotch Lamb. To help this, last month I approved further funding of £300,000 to QMS, to raise its presence and profile in mainland Europe.
But it’s just as important to exploit new markets around the world.
In December the First Minister was in China, promoting Scotland as the Land of Food and Drink. Thanks to that sort of high profile effort, Hong Kong’s restrictions on bone-in beef have now been lifted.
And we’re working to lift other barriers to entry in these new markets – for instance, to get Scottish potatoes into China.
And next week I will be leading a trade delegation to Gulfoods in Dubai to exploit the rapidly growing export market in the region.
On top of existing markets and new ones, the third strand to our export strategy is to reopen doors that have been closed on us.
Like the American market. We have submitted an application to the US Department of Agriculture to lift their longstanding ban on our red meat and meat products.
There is a long way to go in the process.
But we will do everything we can to reopen this huge market to Scottish exporters.
Of course the reason our products sell so well, is that consumers value their superb quality and fantastic reputation. Consumer confidence is everything, and we have to keep moving with the times.
We must take account of consumer interests in animal welfare, husbandry standards, provenance, and locally produced food.
This localism is something that many parts of Scotland are looking to exploit.
That’s why I’m delighted today to approve a grant award of almost £1.3m, to Dumfries & Galloway Food Co operative, for a new, state-of-the art, multi-species abattoir at Dalbeattie.
NFU Scotland have been very supportive of this project, as have QMS. I'm sure we all wish the venture every success.
I hope also that it’ll help keep more Scottish livestock here, instead of leaking away to plants down south – which is all part of my desire to add value and add Scotch provenance to the primary product.
But as we work to keep our facilities up to international standards, we also have to make sure there’s a level playing field with our competitors.
One example of this is the EU trade negotiations with Mercosur.
Thank goodness, Europe seems to have acknowledged the potential consequences for the farm sector.
Of course we need to trade with third countries across the whole range of economic sectors. But it’s not acceptable that European agriculture should be the sacrificial lamb.
Personally, I would be surprised if anyone chose imported beef over Scotch beef.
But we must not let our sector be undermined.
So I’m pleased that the Agriculture Commissioner has paid close attention to this.
And I’m pleased that, if there is a deal, the Commission has proposed a new fund to mitigate the impact in key sectors like the beef industry but we must tread carefully and not allow our beef sector to be needlessly undermined.
Another example that reminds us of the need for a level playing field is the recent chaos surrounding the 1 January deadline for European rules on laying hens.
I was as angry as you were about the way this was handled.
All Scottish producers are now complying with the regulations, which is excellent. I know that took a huge and expensive effort.
But it’s just not acceptable that farmers in other Member States should flout the rules.
The EU has to learn the lessons from this episode.
Europe now has no excuse when it comes to handling the deadline for the ban on sow stalls, in 2013.
I will continue to press the UK Government and the EU to ensure Scottish pig producers are not placed at a disadvantage for sticking to the rules.
So we need a level playing field when it comes to implementing regulations. But we also need those regulations to be sensible in the first place.
When they’re not, the result is what we’ve experienced on sheep EID.
We have, of course, already secured important flexibilities for Scotland.
But we still need a better system.
In December, I met with NFUS and other industry representatives. We agreed a course of action, which includes a commitment to review all cross compliance penalties relating to EID.
I am pleased to say that out of sixteen thousand registered sheep keepers, only 63 potential penalties are due to errors associated with EID – that’s less than half of one per cent!
Of these, only a handful are solely down to missed reads at control points. Average read rates are up to 95 per cent, and continuing to improve.
This is a testament to the efforts put in by farmers and operators alike.
However, we can still improve the system.
I have personally discussed this with the Commission, and thanks to our collective efforts in Scotland, I’ll be able to demonstrate to Commissioner Dalli the strength and robustness of our sheep traceability system.
Our call is for the regulations to focus on delivering traceability and for those that don’t to be dumped.
As many of you know, EID for cattle is also now on the horizon, with Commission proposals on the table.
Thankfully, it’s a very different situation to sheep.
Generally speaking, I think in Scotland we can support the principle of Bovine EID something that we should have explored before sheep EID!
But we still need to get the detail right.
Our clear aim is to keep bureaucracy to a minimum, while maximising the benefits of 21st century traceability for the cattle sector - both beef and dairy.
Of course the dairy sector has had ups and downs recently. But I’m pleased that, for the first time in over a decade, we are making progress on providing dairy farmers with a secure platform for growth.
In 2009 and 2010, milk producers were rightly aggrieved with the prices they received from processors and retailers.
The outlook for dairy farmers for 2012 and beyond is a lot more positive.
Our major co-ops have agreed to keep producer returns in line with the marketplace.
And with the EU Dairy package now finalised, we have a deal that will cover contracts, producer power and supply chain transparency.
As the next step, I know that Dairy UK and NFUS are now developing a Voluntary Code of Practice for the industry.
The dairy sector stands on the cusp of an exciting future. But it needs courage and commitment, on both the production and processing sides, as well as strategic support from government.
So it’s excellent that, back in September, Milk Link announced a £20 million investment in their Lockerbie Creamery.
And following discussions between First Milk and the Scottish Government, a brand new creamery will finally be built at First Milk’s site in Campbeltown with £2 million of Government grant.
And on top of that, we have seen the recent Müller UK acquisition of Wiseman, which I hope will lead to a positive future for all concerned.
So things are looking up. But I know we can do more.
For instance, biscuit and shortbread manufacturers have told me that they can’t get hold of enough Scottish butter to satisfy their demand. That’s ridiculous, when you think how efficient Scottish dairy farmers are.
Producers and processors need to work the problem out and satisfy this market. And the Scottish Government stands ready to help.
Future of CAP
It would be nice to think that markets could be the answer to all our challenges in agriculture.
But we all know that across Europe, farmers rely on public support, which is justified by the benefits you deliver. Support which is now being renegotiated for the period 2014 to 2020.
The challenge for the CAP has been to strike the balance between those public benefits and the fundamental role of agriculture – to produce food and feed our nations.
And our industry needs ongoing support to feed Europe.
As you know, this is an area where we rely on the UK government to negotiate on Scotland’s behalf.
Unfortunately, I’m never quite sure where they stand on the vital issue of direct support.
They chop and change depending on location, depending on audience.
However, we do know that it remains their position that the CAP budget should be – and I quote –“substantially” reduced.
And that their own policy papers still call for the entire first pillar of CAP to be phased out.
Let me be clear – and I know you share this view:
If Defra’s vision were to come to pass, it would decimate our industry in Scotland.
So what do we need them to do?
The first thing they must do is negotiate a decent CAP budget, with fair allocations for Scotland.
On Pillar 2, they are asking for the budget to be allocated on objective criteria in future, which is a good thing.
But they’re completely missing the big prize in Pillar 1.
The Commission proposals give a Pillar 1 uplift to the member states with the lowest payments per hectare, like Latvia and Estonia. Most Member States, including the UK, agree with that.
But Scotland’s Pillar 1 payments are just as low as those of the countries benefiting from this mechanism.
The UK should be arguing for a significant uplift to its Pillar 1 allocation.
And all of that uplift should come to Scotland, as the only country in the UK with payments below the EU average.
After all, if the UK is only entitled to an uplift in the first place due to the poor allocation to Scotland, our case for one hundred per cent of the uplift is unassailable – and that’s what the UK must deliver.
What about the other main issues at stake for Scotland in the CAP negotiations?
You’ve already heard about many of them, yesterday and this morning.
We need to ensure payments only go to active farmers – but without imposing huge bureaucracy on the rest of the industry.
We need to deliver a greener CAP – but without damaging our food production capacity in the process.
We need an orderly transition to the new system – while catering for new entrants and excluded sectors from day one.
We need the option of enough coupled payments to maintain production in vulnerable areas – given the importance of our livestock sector we need the option in Scotland of at least 10 per cent coupled payments rather the proposed 5 per cent.
Above all, we need a simple but flexible CAP, so that we can tailor the measures to our particular needs.
Scotland therefore has a number of clear demands.
So, let me be clear, when it comes to the crunch negotiations, I will be asking to be in the room as part of the negotiating team when the UK Government sits down with the EU Presidency and Commissioner to strike a deal.
If the UK Government is truly prepared to represent us, then they should be perfectly relaxed about Scotland’s presence.
In the meantime, we have a lot of work to do to understand the implications for Scotland.
I know hundreds of you went to the CAP roadshow meetings held by government officials around the country in the last few weeks. The feedback from those meetings was overwhelmingly positive.
And I hope many of you will fill in the online consultation document on our website.
The CAP is a major source of rules and regulations for farming.
But it’s far from being the only one.
Needless bureaucracy helps nobody – not farmers, not government, not taxpayers.
That’s why I was delighted last month to appoint Brian Pack to chair a new review to ensure our rural regulations are relevant and proportionate and to build on the success of SEARS that led to over eight thousand fewer inspection visits.
At the moment, Brian’s carrying out a scoping study.
He’s consulting with stakeholders and others to decide which areas to focus on, prior to establishing a joint government-industry working group.
Every industry has to be regulated, and farming is no exception.
But we have to get the balance right. The working group will help us make sure we achieve that.
An important part of any regulation is what happens if the rules are inadvertently broken.
It’s essential that any penalties are proportionate – in other words, that the penalty fits the error.
And that should be the case whether it’s a cross-compliance issue on an individual farm, or the so-called disallowance system that applies to governments and their paying agencies.
You’ll have seen last week’s disallowance decision relating to mapping issues in Scotland from 2003 to 2007.
Of course, any disallowance is disappointing.
But it’s commonplace across pretty much all member states – even countries with an impeccable reputation, like Denmark and Sweden.
The £35m involved is much smaller than it could have been – thanks to a major effort by government to influence the Commission.
Because we prepared for it, the money withheld by Europe will be covered by Scottish government contingency funds.
In other words, there will be absolutely no effect on farm payments, this year or in the future.
I hope you agree that this is yet another illustration of our commitment to your industry.
I might be naïve to think we’ll never be hit by disallowance again.
We need ongoing industry support to minimise the risk of disallowance without increasing the risk of penalties.
But we can say for certain that our systems today are far more robust and effective than they were at that time.
And we’ve achieved that improvement while maintaining a payment record that’s second to none.
2011 was the fifth year running where we delivered 70 per cent of Single Farm Payments by early December.
We have now paid 97 per cent of this year’s claims.
That’s over £450 million going out to support over 18,000 farmers.
Future of Farming – young people
Farmers and crofters on whose contribution our rural economy depends.
That’s why the future of farming and the future of Scotland are so intertwined.
Because the industry’s future is not just about money, markets and machinations in Europe – it is of course about people!
And the future largely depends on our young people.
There is no greater challenge than getting new blood into the sector.
No doubt the best way is for the sector to offer them a profitable and viable future.
But there are other ways, such as bridging the gap between young people and food.
There are still children – and many adults, I’m sure – who don’t know where their food comes from.
How it’s produced, how it’s prepared, or what impact it has on the environment.
So I am committed to ensuring that every child in Scotland has the opportunity to learn more about the food on their plate.
NFUS members are key to helping us achieve this.
Maybe by offering visits to your farms, to help young people make the connection between the work you do and the food they are eating.
Hopefully, some of them will be tempted to look for a career, in food production.
In which case they’ll need access to world class further and higher education.
It’s encouraging to see the exciting changes flowing from the merger of Scotland’s land-based colleges, which will offer a vast range of opportunities.
But one thing is for certain.
If tomorrow’s students are to become the farmers of the future, the need access to the means to farm.
This means they will have to have access to CAP support from day one.
But crucially, they will need access to land, especially land to rent.
The future of the tenancy sector remains a hot topic and a difficult, complex once.
If there had been easy answers, we would have found them before now.
And as you know, we’ve been fine-tuning the landlord-tenant relationship, based on the recommendations of the Tenant Farming Forum.
Because Scottish Government policy is to encourage a vibrant tenanted sector.
That’s why I was pleased to offer starter tenancies on two Forestry Commission holdings in Fife recently.
And I’ll be writing to the UK Government seeking fiscal incentives to encourage land on to the letting market.
But ultimately, we need landowners, yes, to run good businesses but also to recognise what I believe to be their moral duty to provide opportunities for new entrants.
When I speak to landowners, I often hear how important it is to attract new blood into farming.
But some landowners are constantly finding excuses for not letting land.
They asked me to rule out the right to buy, and I did that.
They then told me I might change my mind and I didn’t.
And then they told me “but a new Government might come along and change things!”
So whatever we do to boost the confidence of landowners, it sometimes seems it’s never enough!
The bar just keeps being set higher and higher!
But I do know many landowners are taking their responsibilities seriously.
Indeed, I was pleased to see last week’s announcement of new tenancies by Buccleuch Estates – we need more of that!
So much more needs to be done.
Last week’s developments in the Moonzie case demonstrate that.
How can we expect the tenanted sector to operate properly when neither side can be certain about what they’re signing up for?
And it is absolutely ludicrous that we have found ourselves in a situation where QCs are hired at several thousand pounds a day to settle rent disputes.
So what can we do?
I warmly welcome Nigel’s contribution to this debate yesterday.
And the TFF is looking at a further set of issues, like arbitration and dispute resolution.
So, all sides must continue to play a role including government – but we do need more progress and more quickly.
I am therefore writing to the TFF today asking to meet the group as a matter of urgency to discuss how we can best take forward a focussed set of priorities forward and set a strict timetable for action.
Because we must do everything we can to get young people into the industry.
Young people like the members of your New Generation Group, who spoke here yesterday.
You all know that I was committed, from day one in this job, to encouraging and supporting new entrants.
It has been and continues to be one of the toughest challenges I face – I don’t deny that.
I introduced dedicated new entrant support into the SRDP. Then I increased it to the maximum allowed under EU rules.
And new entrants are a top priority in my negotiating position on the future CAP.
As I told Commissioner Ciolos, the new CAP regulations must make proper provision for them.
Not just for new entrants from the recent past – important though that is.
But so that new entrants can continue to get into the system throughout the whole period to 2020.
To make sure we get it right here in Scotland, I propose to set up a new entrants panel later this year. Its role will be to advise me on how best to use the new CAP rules, in Pillar 1 and Pillar 2, to support new entrants.
But we must continue to try new policies to help meet the needs of new entrants.
For instance, I am told that a key issue for new entrants is access to advice.
So I want to do what I can to help.
And that’s why I am delighted to announce today a new programme to be delivered by the Scottish Agricultural College through our Advisory Service.
From April, SAC will work up a range of services for new entrants, including a dedicated web site, workshops, guidance notes, and help with business plans.
It will include an online forum where potential farming partners can get in touch with one another – whether for traditional tenancies, or other arrangements – this kind of match making service is desperately needed.
I know NFUS and other organisations have also got ideas in this area. I believe we have the same vision for the future of this industry, and I’m determined to work with you to deliver it.
Future of Scotland
I said earlier that the future of agriculture will influence Scotland’s future.
Let me say, I also firmly believe that the future of Scotland will determine the future success of agriculture.
Your industry, your families and your own lives will be influenced by the direction Scotland takes in the coming years.
And that debate is going to dominate Scotland between now and the Autumn of 2014 when every one of you and your industry will have a say over our country’s future.
I urge you also to give us your views in the referendum consultation, launched by the First Minister on Burns Night.
It seeks your views on the most important question Scotland will have faced for 300 years.
Every farmer and crofter should be thinking about Scotland’s relationship with the rest of these islands, with Europe, and with the world.
You will have lots of questions, and between now and the referendum I will do my best to answer them as honestly as possible.
But after being your Minister for nearly 5 years, I am convinced, more than ever, that your interests lie, in having more of a say over your future.
And speaking up for ourselves rather than allowing others to do that for us, especially when they are not saying what we want them to say!
To take more decisions here in Scotland rather having to devote time and energy to lobby and influence UK Governments.
Very occasionally that works, often it doesn’t.
And where decisions are taken on the international stage, Scotland has much to gain through direct representation, and the status that brings.
We can be a player rather than being frozen out of the formal, and informal, networks where many of the big decisions are taken.
Crucially, a direct voice in Europe would mean that we would not have to settle for a share of the UK’s priorities, and compromise with UK Ministers before we have to further compromise with the EU.
We would set our own priorities and take our place amongst the other Member States.
In fact Scotland at the top table will be a useful and friendly ally with the rest of the UK when we have common ground, but we will have the opportunity to put our own distinctive case where necessary.
But you have time to consider the options and you will have your say.
Scotland is on a journey – just as your industry is on a journey.
Wherever we end up, I think we can all agree that is an exciting journey – it will not be without its challenges but I have no doubt that an even better Scotland and an even better industry is our destination.
We must work together to make the most of Scotland’s incredible strengths.
The skills of our people.
The richness of our heritage.
The beauty of our landscapes.
And the wealth of our resources.
Preparing for the future is good.
Whether it’s the future of our country, our land, our sector or our people.
It’s an exciting future. It starts now. And we can shape it together.
I very much look forward to with with you all in the times ahead.