Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann MLA has warned that the recent turmoil in Parliament has ended what little clarity farmers across the UK had on the support that would be available to them after Brexit.
Mr Swann said: “The Conservative Party had previously committed to guaranteeing the same cash totals in farm support each year until the end of the current Parliamentary session. That would have been 2022 under any normal circumstances.
“Now, with the UK on the cusp of an announcement of a new general election, that guarantee is wiped out and it means that there is a chance that this year could in fact be the last when farmers receive anything near the current level of support. Such an outcome would be an unprecedented and cataclysmic disaster for British farmers.
“In addition, in either circumstance of a prorogation of Parliament or an early general election, all the draft legislation going through Westminster falls. As it stands, the UK is likely to witness both political outcomes in only a matter of days.
Mr Swann continued: “Our agri-food sector was already at its wits end with anxiety of a no-deal Brexit in October, and now the UK’s Agriculture Bill, the single key piece of legislation that was trying to provide some clarity to farmers on what support such as land payments would be available in the future after 2022, is only a matter of days away from falling.”
The Ulster Unionist leader confirmed that when a Bill has not yet passed all of its Parliamentary stages falls, it has no choice but to start from scratch all over again in the next Parliamentary session.”
He added: “That means now that payments are no longer guaranteed up to 2022, but even if the next government did come in and immediately restore that commitment we still have no idea what wider policy approach they are going to take.
“They could want to actively support farmers, remove all support away from farmers, or sit somewhere in between such as the approach of the outgoing Conservative government.
“Whilst the Bill that is about to fall mainly related to England, Northern Ireland’s policy was going to be heavily shaped by it.
“It was by no means a brilliant piece of legislation and it likely would have been further improved yet, but in the shameful absence of a functioning Executive here it was always going to be a key indicator of what support in the future would likely be available locally.
“The government also this week made the very serious announcement that it was providing Scottish farmers with a major funding top-up in a move to ensure cash was fairly allocated across the whole of the UK.
“Whilst that is good for Scotland, it could have a potentially decimating impact on Northern Ireland given the sheer acreage in Scotland that will now will receive an uplift.
“I have now written to the Prime Minister, the DEFRA Secretary of State and our own NIO Secretary of State seeking clarification if this means that any future agriculture funding model will see farmers here worse off.
“With the promise of funds until 2022 now wiped out, and the Agriculture Bill only days away from falling, and funding to be spread out more thinly this potentially could be the greatest and most immediate crisis that farmers have faced so far in the many twists and turns of Brexit.
“Meanwhile Stormont remains in paralysis, having been prorogued by the DUP and Sinn Féin nearly three years ago.”
For its part, the Ulster Farmers’ Union is also confirming that an early general election will bring with it the potential ending of the current farm support measures. According to the organisation’s chief executive Wesley Aston, a new government in London would have to pledge its support for the current payment system afresh.