A Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) spokesperson has told Farming Life that only small elements of the Agriculture Bill unveiled by Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) minister Michael Gove MP earlier this week will have a direct bearing on Northern Ireland.
The thrust of the Gove package will see farmers in England and Wales incentivised to adopt environmental measures that are designed to improve air and water quality, soil health, animal welfare standards and public access to the countryside. In tandem with this, direct payments to producers will, effectively, be phased out.
The DAERA representative continued: “The Agriculture Bill, which was introduced to Parliament, is a UK Government Bill.
“DAERA has worked with Defra to consider those small number of clauses which should be extended to Northern Ireland. DAERA’s primary aim has been to ensure that the agricultural support status quo will be maintained in Northern Ireland until such time as Northern Ireland Ministers, an Executive and Assembly are in place to take decisions on future policy direction.
“The clauses which extend to Northern Ireland do not make any change to existing agricultural policy in Northern Ireland; any such changes are a matter for a Northern Ireland Minister, Executive and Assembly.
“The approach taken in the extension of clauses to Northern Ireland will ensure the continuation of a legal basis for the current suite of agricultural support payments after EU exit; will provide a future Executive with flexibility to develop future agricultural policy in Northern Ireland; and will ensure that no constraint is placed on a future Executive’s ability to continue the current schemes and options available under the Rural Development Programme and Common Market Organisation for so long as that is considered necessary.
“We will be engaging with representatives of stakeholder organisations in Northern Ireland to explain the Bill’s content and purpose in detail.”
Commenting on the potential impact of the new Agriculture Bill, Michael Gove said: “The introduction of the Agriculture Bill is an historic moment as we leave the EU and move towards a brighter future for farming.
“After nearly 50 years of being tied to burdensome and outdated EU rules, we have an opportunity to deliver a Green Brexit.
“This Bill will allow us to reward farmers who protect our environment, leaving the countryside in a cleaner, greener and healthier state for future generations.
“Critically, we will also provide the smooth and gradual transition that farmers and land managers need to plan ahead.”
The Ulster Farmers’ Union says the publication of the UK Agriculture Bill is a significant step in the UK’s Brexit process and is crucial in determining the industry’s future post-Brexit. UFU president, Ivor Ferguson, said the UFU would be examining the document closely, in particular what impact it may have on farming in Northern Ireland.
Mr Ferguson was in Westminster this week, along with the other UK farming unions, and met with Secretary of State Michael Gove, MPs and representatives from the House of Lords to discuss the UK’s Brexit plans.
Mr Ferguson said the meetings were constructive and the message from farmers was clear – supporting sustainable and profitable food production must underpin the UK’s future agriculture policy.
“The UK cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to food security. We are world leading in our food production standards, both in terms of animal health and welfare and the environment. Farmers across the UK strive daily to produce the high quality, safe, delicious, and affordable food consumers expect to see on supermarket shelves. The UK must continue to ensure farmers are supported in a way to allow this to continue.”
The UFU has always argued for regional flexibility when it came to designing a new domestic agriculture policy.
“In our initial review of the Bill, we are pleased to see provisions in place that take into consideration the current political situation in Northern Ireland. In particular, it allows for a continued legal basis to ensure, as far as possible, that the status quo in terms of agricultural support can be continued until a new policy direction can be established.
“It is good news, despite the absence of Stormont, that the Agriculture Bill recognises our needs are different from the other regions. It sets out that it will not pre-judge or constrain the ability of an incoming Minister, NI Executive and Assembly to decide what is appropriate for the NI agri-food sector. However, we accept there will be some overarching UK frameworks to ensure common standards and prevent unfair competition.”
Mr Ferguson said the publication of the Bill further reinforces the importance of having a devolved government. “We are keen to progress things further and are currently consulting with members to get their views on DAERA’s proposals for Northern Ireland’s future agriculture policy framework. However, we will likely need Stormont up and running before any real decisions can be taken. It is a difficult position for farmers and their businesses, as we need adequate time to plan for changes.
“Ultimately, the future format of support for the agricultural industry will be dependent on the outcome of any future trade deals with the EU or other countries. If good deals are secured, farmers may not need more support than they receive at present. However, if trade deals are agreed that undermine the industry, farmers will need much more to keep their businesses viable.”
DUP MEP Diane Dodds said that although entitled “the UK Agriculture Bill”, the bill published this week is primarily targeted at England.
Welcoming the Bill’s publication as a further part of the preparation of support for the future of agriculture and rural communities post Brexit, Mrs Dodds said the DUP will be working hard to ensure that this Bill is properly scrutinised as it passes through its committee stages in the House of Commons.
“The Secretary of State’s view of the future of agriculture policy in this bill is largely a reflection of previous policy documents published by the department,” said Mrs Dodds. “The direction of travel proposed for England is one that envisages moving away from direct support to farmers to rewards for good environmental practice and sustainability. We recognise that, in the past, support has been directed in differing ways in the four regions of the United Kingdom but will study the bill carefully to ensure that there is a balance between sustainability of the environment and support for productive, competitive farming.
“The Bill reflects the devolution settlement. It will be up to a future agriculture minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly to set policy for our farmers. The farming sector here has relied heavily on direct support and ultimately we do not want to see moves on direct support that would reduce productivity, impacting on the wider agri food sector which is so important to our economy.
“The DUP is aware of the need to support our farmers and that is why we insisted that the Government dealt with this issue in the confidence and supply agreement. There is a clear guarantee that funding for support, at the same level, is confirmed is until 2022 (the end of the Parliamentary term). This will give farmers certainty for the immediate future at a time of change. Another key area is the clear need for transition periods to allow farmers to adjust to any new policy.
“However, the Bill is an incomplete piece of legislation. It is imperative for the smooth functioning of the internal market that we have UK wide common frameworks. It has been very unwise that Mr Gove has issued the Agriculture Bill before launching the overall UK frameworks for agriculture policy moving forward. Unless we have clear common frameworks we run the risk of regions distorting the internal functioning of the UK market.”
Mrs Dodds said she believed the publication of the Bill highlights yet another area of life where the return of the Assembly is imperative for the future prosperity of communities in Northern Ireland, adding that ‘it takes a devolution max approach’.
She continued: “As a party we will seek amendments to ensure the payments to farmers are uninterrupted in the event of further delay in restoring the Assembly. There is an amazing opportunity to build a future agriculture policy that will take our farming and rural communities into a prosperous future.
“The harsh reality and unfortunate truth is that until Sinn Fein move from their intransigent position on the restoration of Stormont, we can’t lobby Government as a region but also we can’t use the flexibility given in the Bill to design a policy which suits the needs of our farmers.”