Brexit Economics European Union The Environment

Digging into the Agriculture Bill

Is new agriculture bill wheat or chaff?

Oliver Pridmore

Naked Politics Blogger

“Muhammad Ali didn’t brief everyone in advance on the rumble in the jungle,” so said former U.K. ambassador Tom Fletcher in response to the criticism that the Government wasn’t being public enough on its Brexit plans. Indeed, there was over a year’s gap between the vote to leave the European Union and the Government publishing its first significant plans on the move in the form of the EU Withdrawal Bill. So far this month, however, it’s been a bumper one for Brexit plans. From the Government, we’ve had the laying down of the Agriculture Bill. From hard-line Brexiteers we’ve had the free trade report and a publication on Northern Ireland from the European Research Group (ERG). And on the Remain side we’ve had the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Vince Cable, re-affirming his belief in a people’s vote, as well as the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, coming out in favour of such a move. As they say, it’s like waiting for a bus.

Let’s focus in on the Agriculture Bill…

When the bill was first introduced earlier in the month, the reception was mixed, with one opinion writer in The Guardian quipping that the bill was ‘more chaff than wheat’. But it’s worth remembering what it actually relaces.

The Common Agricultural Policy was first launched in 1962 and its main aim was to:

Support farmers and improve agricultural productivity, so that consumers have a stable supply of affordable food”.

EU field

There are several pillars to the policy but the most important one comes in the form of direct payments, which take up 72% of the current EU farming budget. The direct payments are simply meant as an income support to farmers and are given to them based on land ownership, no matter what they produce from this land. In addition to this basic payment, further financial assistance is given to individuals including environmentally-friendly farmers and young farmers.

Private Eye’s environmental columnist recently forecasted that “only 8 per cent of UK arable farms would currently make a profit without CAP money,” so the Government’s replacement of this system has been long-awaited.

So, let’s consider the ‘agricultural transition period’. The bill says that starting from 2021, the transition period in which the current CAP system is to be scrapped will run for seven years. However, it does add that the Secretary of State can choose to extend this period, and he can do it more than once. So, it’s clear that come exit day, there isn’t going to be a sudden plummet in income for farmers.

famer euros

During this period, farmers will be able to claim for what they would have received under the CAP system for two or more years in the form of a lump sum. After the transition period, the system will be entirely replaced by a new Environmental Land Management system. Financial assistance under this will be given to farmers who do any of the following seven things:

  1. manage land or water in a way that protects or improves the environment
  2. support public access to and enjoyment of the countryside, farmland or woodland and better understanding of the environment
  3. manage land or water in a way that maintains, restores or enhances cultural heritage or natural heritage
  4. mitigate or adapt to climate change
  5. prevent, reduce or protect from environmental hazards
  6. protect or improve the health or welfare of livestock
  7. protect or improve the health of plants

So, once the period in which farmers can claim their CAP money back is over (after the agricultural transition period), the future of UK farming seems to be one in which money is no longer handed out based on land ownership, but on environmentally-friendly methods.

Many voices in farming are already offering their differing thoughts. President of the NFU, Minette Batters, says the bill fails to offer assurances in regards to, “volatility alongside free and frictionless trade and access to a competent and reliable workforce.”

Gove

The Government, meanwhile, says that, “under the new system, farmers and land managers who provide the greatest environmental benefits will secure the largest rewards, laying the foundations for a Green Brexit”.

Parliamentary debate on the bill hasn’t properly begun yet, so the industry will have to await what changes may yet be made to the bill.

All this, plus the release of the Government commissioned report on migration after Brexit, the party conference season and the all-important up-coming EU leaders’ summit.

Phew! Perhaps Muhammad Ali had the right idea after all…

Muhammed-Ali

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