Ulster Unionist Leader, Robin Swann MLA, has welcomed a new report by a leading UK think tank which has suggested each nation of the UK could be given its own ring-fenced agriculture budget after Brexit.
Mr Swann said: “There is now less than a year to go before Brexit, and with the negotiations to date having been so slow and unclear, Northern Ireland’s agriculture sector is facing a number of dangers.
“One of the largest and most urgent threats is how the overall UK pot of money for future agri support will be distributed across each of the four regions post Brexit.
“Typically, UK agriculture receives around £3bn of support a year, with almost 10% coming to Northern Ireland. If we were only to receive a proportion of future funding through the usual Westminster funding mechanism based on population size, we would only be looking at receiving approximately a third of what we get at present. That’s because Northern Ireland only has between 3-4% of the overall UK population.
“Such a situation would be a hammer blow to Northern Ireland’s agri sector so such a settlement would simply be unacceptable.
“Usefully the UK’s Institute for Government (IFG) has now suggested an alternative model which would, at least in the short term, offer some much needed certainty moving forward.
“The IFG has suggested the option of a new agricultural support budget, protected and separated from the wider devolution budget settlement and block grant.
“It has suggested that future cash distribution of agri support payments could reflect the current split of the Common Agricultural Policy, something which would benefit Northern Ireland’s farmers in particular.
“The think tank has also suggested that in the future there could also be an opportunity to move away from the often flawed Barnett Formula in relation to agriculture, with budgets instead possibly being negotiated periodically, formally and at a four-nation level. Whilst that wouldn’t be without risk, and no doubt other regions such as Scotland would strenuously continue their arguments for a larger share, it would at least allow us to receive payments based on the land, size and output rather than simply the number of people who just happen to live in Northern Ireland at the time.
“The IFG is clear in its findings that a ring-fenced agricultural budget for each nation would offer a greater guarantee to farmers in the devolved nations, with funding levels set for a specific period of time. It would also protect them against money being reallocated to other policy priorities which will be a constant danger moving forward.
“Of course such a proposal may in the end not work as it would also leave the UK, rather than just the devolved Governments, responsible for deciding how much money agriculture received in comparison to other spending priorities. Yet it does at least offer a useful starting point in considering how agriculture after Brexit will be supported.”