As the Houses of Parliament reopen after the party political conference recess, Scotland is gearing up for greater devolved powers and the greatest influence of all – the European Commission – sees a new farm commissioner sworn in, Catherine Paice reports.
Almost three-quarters of the 45 members of the European Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture voted in favour of Phil Hogan’s nomination as Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development in a secret ballot last week. This overwhelming approval was an important milestone for the new commissioner, as the size and complexity of Parliament, its 751 disparate MEPS, and its pivotal co-decision powers can make or break new Commission regulation and policies.
Earlier, Mr Hogan – who spent 27 years as a member of the Irish parliament – had faced three hours of questioning by MEPs, on issues ranging from specific farm sectors to his political record in Ireland. He has already been confronted by tricky allegations, and his lawyers have threatened legal action against Irish MEP Nessa Chileders after she sent letters to fellow MEPs expressing reservations about his appointment.
But there is widespread approval – not just in Ireland – at the prospect of an articulate, tough, knowledgeable, experienced and personable individual at the centre of farm politics in Brussels. It will take a steady hand to help see the industry through some difficult markets in the short term.
Prompted by Irish Midlands-Northwest MEP Mairead McGuinness, Mr Hogan flagged up his intention to keep a close eye on the trading practices of Europe’s leading food retailers and the supply chain at large, and the possibility of appointing a food ombudsman.
Whatever the alleged skeletons in the cupboards, EC president-elect Jean-Claude Juncker has publicly stated his belief that all nominees for his new EC team have “convincingly demonstrated” their competence – and it seems likely we can expect some fundamental changes in the way EU regulatory business is conducted and communicated.
Back in London, one of the bigger issues under discussion is Labour’s proposed annual tax on houses worth more than £2 million. Holyrood, meanwhile, is proposing a one-off house sales tax, effective from next April. Scotland’s finance secretary John Swinney (SNP, Perthshire North) said the move would boost the affordability of homes for the less well-off and first-time buyers. But the SNP was accused by the Tories of an “assault on aspiration”, and property agents have warned that the system would penalise people who were not cash rich but needed to live in more expensive areas. The Scottish Greens and the housing charity Shelter said the measure failed to address the more significant issues of a lack of affordable new homes and the council tax system.
It looks as if it will have a more significant impact on the prime residential property market in Scotland than the rural market. It is proposed that the commercial, farms and estates market will be subject to a progressive tax rate with headline transaction tax rates of 4.5% above £350,000, 3% from £150,000-£350,000 and 0% below £150,000.