Farmers Guardian asked five experts from farming and the environment what they would like to see farm subsidies supporting in 2020, whether the UK stays in the EU or not. Well I say experts, two of them were current or former farm ministers (both farmers) so whether they qualify as experts or not is in the eye of the beholder. Abi Burns from RSPB gave the most sensible response, as you would expect.
George Eustice gave a little more away over and above what we already know.
Eustice confirmed the obvious, that if he had his way a new post-Brexit farm subsidy system would be written by the NFU, stating
“A UK agricultural policy will not be dumped on everyone from on high like the CAP. We will work with farming organisations to develop good policy.”
He continued to peddle the highly dubious claim that farmers would get as much – perhaps more subsidy after Brexit than now, as farmers in Switzerland and Norway do:
“The UK government will continue to give farmers and the environment as much support – or perhaps even more – as they get now.”
Let’s just look at whether a comparison with Switzerland and Norway is appropriate here. The average Swiss farm is 23ha in area (average UK farm 84ha in 2010) and each farm receives an annual subsidy of 65000 swiss francs, or £45000 a year. This works out at £2000 a hectare! This is ten times as much as farmers in the UK receive from the EU.
Is Eustice really suggesting farmers would receive anything like their Swiss counterparts?
Even wealthy Switzerland is now planning to reduce these gargantuan subsidies – though the last time they tried it, subsidies went up.
What about Norway? While Switzerland’s farmers receive the second highest level of subsidy in the world, Norway’s receive the highest level in the world.
Moving swiftly on…
Eustice argues that outside of the EU the UK Government, and devolved governments, would have far more control over how the money was spent. This is indubitably true – blindingly obvious really. Though we would still be bound by the same WTO rules as the rest of the EU, and that means state aid rules. State aid rules are designed to prevent one country giving its farmers unfair economic advantage over another, by means of unfair subsidies.
Creating an entirely new set of rules to govern how subsidies are spent in the UK may not be a bad idea, it all depends on who sets the rules, how they are administered and whether they are enforced.
Eustice’s vision for UK farm subsidies is that they are spent on
1) Promoting profitable food production eg through the introduction of GM crops and removing regulations which are designed to protect the environment and human health.
2) “Safeguarding the environment while promoting habitats”.
Given Eustice has been in Defra for a few years now, you might think that he would have learnt something about things like the environment and wildlife habitats. So who actually wrote this phrase? The use of the word “while” is particularly odd.
A couple of examples of “while” come to mind:
“I drank a cup of coffee while catching up on my emails”; the two things happened at the same time, but there was no direct causal relationship.
“We must protect jobs in the steel industry while continuing to ensure businesses can make a profit in these difficult time” might have been something Sajid Javid had said had he really cared about the steelworkers of South Wales. This use of the word implies that two things can in theory happen, there may be a causal relationship, but there are challenges that make the likelihood of them happening more difficult.
Eustice’s proposal suggests that safeguarding the environment will make promoting habitats less likely, or that they happen at the same time, but are unrelated. Either way it makes little sense. As for “promoting habitats” this is a piece of meaningless jargon – it doesn’t mean that a PR campaign is being launched to tell consumers how wonderful peat bogs are, but rather “promote” means being seen to be encouraging without actually doing anything.
3) improving animal welfare.
Eustice has repeatedly stated that he wants farmers to be paid extra for higher animal welfare standards. But the UK is rightly proud of its relatively high animal welfare standards (at least compared to much of the EU). So this remains a proposal without any detail.
On area payments, Eustice is now talking about making part of the payment conditional on farmers signing up to an independent farm accreditation scheme, to deliver “environmentally sensitive farming”. This looks like it is equivalent to privatising the current, much derided, greening element of the basic payment. Interestingly he name-checks The Rivers Trust, alongside LEAF – as possible administrators of such a scheme.
I wasn’t able to find anything from The Rivers Trust in relation to them proposing a farm accreditation scheme – can anyone else enlighten me on this?
Eustice’s idea of farm accreditation was that farmers, having bought into an accreditation scheme (the cheapest one?) would be “automatically rewarded” without any forms being filled in or farm inspections. What sort of accreditation scheme is that? At the very least, the taxpayer (who is funding all this) might expect some monitoring of outcomes – that habitats had been promoted, for example.
While arguing for the abandonment of the two pillar CAP system, Eustice wants to retain a separate pot of money for “stewardship”, “To promote improved wildlife habitats and higher animal welfare standards.”
back to promotion again. Isn’t this just another way of splitting the budget into two strands in the same way that the CAP is split? Eustice wants a simpler broader scheme which also pays for improved animal welfare. That means less money going to the very best quality habitats (promoted or otherwise) and back to the money for old rope approach of the Entry Level Scheme.
On animal welfare Eustice claims that
“We are reaching the limits of what can be achieved for animal welfare through regulation in a competitive global market. However, we can reward farmers for adopting animal welfare systems of production.”
Is he really suggesting that market forces are preventing higher animal welfare standards from being developed in the UK, and that we should pay subsidy if we want to improve them? Surely this would be contravening those State Aid rules I mentioned earlier. In any case it’s a craven submission to the market. Animal welfare and environmental protection have developed in the UK in spite of the market, global or otherwise.
Eustice finishes his thoughts by suggesting that regulations governing farm subsidies would be simplified – and goes further.
“We would establish a clear distinction between regulatory requirements which should be a matter for the courts and payments to farmers for the environmental and other benefits they provide. There would be no more automatic fines. In future, agencies like the RPA or Environment Agency would have to take farmers to court and bring a prosecution for serious breaches and there would be far greater use of warnings and improvement notices.”
There we have it. Under a post-brexit farm subsidy system, landowners who break the rules, by for example repeatedly polluting rivers with effluent, or ploughing up old grassland, or leaving maize stubbles overwinter to exacerbate flooding, would not risk having their subsidies cut, but would have to be taken through the courts.
Eustice has pulled back the curtain a little further to reveal his vision for farm subsidies, if the UK votes to leave the EU in less than 4 weeks time.
It’s a vision that anyone who cares for the environment and for low intensity farming, or who wants to see higher animal welfare achieved, should be alarmed by.