ONE of my weekly jobs at Westminster is to hold ministers to account by asking them questions in the chamber.
This sounds very democratic but is less so in practice. For starters, these sessions last only between half an hour and an hour. Then there is the tiny detail that ministers usually fail to answer the specific question you ask them!
Take last week, when I had the chance to ask two questions of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Andrea Leadsom. Ms Leadsom was a leading light in the Leave EU campaign, then briefly a contender for Number 10. Her leadership bid self-destructed and Leadsom got a consolation prize of handling agriculture, something of which she has minimal experience. This is bad news for East Lothian farmers, as Ms Leadsom is now in charge of creating a new farm support system to replace the EU Common Agricultural Policy.
Eight months on from the Brexit vote and we are still none the wiser regarding any new agriculture support scheme; or the status of migrant labour needed for crop picking. Worse, after close questioning, the Prime Minister has made it clear that any new system will be centralised, not devolved – which could mean less support for Scottish farmers, given the differences in activity compared with England.
I pushed Andrea Leadsom on this, citing a suggestion from Scott Walker, chief executive of NFU Scotland. Scott says that while some things should be managed at UK level, others are best done at a Scottish level to suit local needs. But, it turned out to be one of those days when the minister was not in the mood for answering questions. I also had a private conversation with her later and formed the distinct impression that her department was in turmoil.
Fortunately, my week at Westminster was enlivened by a visit from young farmers involved in the Scottish Enterprise Rural Leadership Scheme, including Natasha Finlay from Pitcox Farm, near Dunbar. The future of our agriculture is in safe hands.