Maggie Jones on the lack of detail in government proposals for supporting farmers post-Brexit
With just three weeks to go before the end of the EU Common Agriculture Payments system, the government has published its proposals for how the Agricultural Transition Plan will work. It will be considered in the House of Lords later today.
There are huge benefits to be achieved from increasing biodiversity, improving animal welfare, supporting public access to the countryside, and tackling the impact of farming on climate change. Indeed, during the one hundred plus hours of our debates on the Agriculture Bill, Peers showed support for the idea of shifting farm subsidies from being purely based on acreage ownership to rewarding practices that lead to environmental improvements. Although such a policy first needs the confidence of those for whom it would involve a significant transformation in their working practices.
Labour wants a thriving UK farming sector which can also deliver the environmental benefits. Our farmers have considerable public support, as illustrated by the million signatures to a recent NFU petition defending food and animal welfare standards. They are also an important mainstay of many rural communities.
Under the Transition Plan, there will be an immediate cut of 5% in farm subsidies from the 1 January 2021. But the new system for claiming payments for environmental improvements does not kick in until 2022. Moreover, between 2021 and 2024 a total cut of around 50% of basic farm payments is proposed, with a final phasing out of direct payments in 2027. With the government still working on trials of the replacement Environment Land schemes, farmers have been left somewhat in the dark as to how to best prepare.
The NFU predict that livestock farmers will have lost between 60% and 80% of income, due to subsidy reductions. This is a sector that has had significant financial problems in recent years with many selling up, and it’s not immediately obvious how those that remain will make up the shortfall. Most farmers in the upland areas have relied on subsidies to survive, with few making a profit in the course of their work. But they nevertheless represent an iconic part of rural life.
The issue is complicated by the fact that the proposals before us today are for England only. Agriculture is a devolved matter, and the authorities elsewhere in the UK are vowing to maintain direct support for their farmers. That could have a disruptive effect on food prices within the internal market – with farms in one part of the country able to send products to market for a cheaper price than those from others. So far, the government’s only solution is to set up a joint group to carry our surveillance of disparities.
But the deeper threat to our farming sector could come longer term, with the Conservatives appearing to want to leave support open to free market principles once the Transition Plan is over. As the related press release states: ‘these changes will be designed to ensure that by 2028 farmers can sustainably produce healthy food profitably, without subsidy’.
The consequences of doing that need urgent reflection now, as it may well lead to the end of small family farms and the rise of big conglomerates who would be the only ones able to compete in a race to the bottom on prices and standards. And the lasting impact of that sort of change would not just be detrimental to UK farming but an absolute travesty for our rural communities.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Defra Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl
Published 8th December 2020