It was no real surprise that the Ulster Farmers’ Union said that at its road shows the big issue was TB, rather than Brexit or the future of support.
This is a more immediate issue, which should be capable of being solved. By contrast, Brexit is an uncertain process akin to trying to nail the proverbial blancmange onto a wall. A recent report on the constitutional implications of Brexit for agriculture underlines the need for devolution. As efforts to establish an Executive here come back to life the report is a reminder that local issues will not be solved by a London-driven solution to future support arrangements for agriculture.
The report comes with a long-winded title, ‘Uncertain post-Brexit Future for Farmers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’. That sums up the frustration of Brexit. It does not stem from leaving the EU, over which views are divided, but the lack of certainty and planning leaves farmers wondering if anyone is in the driving seat with an idea of where we are going. The report was published by the Centre of Constitutional Change, based at the University of Edinburgh. With all reports on Brexit it is difficult for authors to be completely independent. We all have opinions of various intensity as to whether Brexit will prove a good or bad idea, but to its credit this document sticks to the facts. It does however pull no punches about the fact that for agriculture Brexit has constitutional implications for the UK. It also underlines how exposed the UK regions, and Northern Ireland in particular, are to any moves that reduce the income to agriculture that came through the CAP.
There is a sense with the DEFRA Secretary, Michael Gove, that his green Brexit plans are English solutions to English problems. This report underlines why that poses a danger, emphasising the big differences between England and the devolved regions. It says that while in England half of farm incomes depend on CAP payments, this figure is 75 per cent in Scotland, 80 per cent in Wales and a massive 87 per cent in Northern Ireland. Also raised is the issue of the very different proportion of land that is in EU-defined areas of natural constraint. In the regions this ranges from around 70 per cent in Northern Ireland to 85 per cent in Scotland. In England the figure is just 17 per cent.
This is why a solution to suit England cannot work on a UK-wide basis. It is also not what farmers were promised when they were urged to vote to leave the EU to escape the red tape of the CAP. The promise then was of local decisions to suit local farming conditions, and to be fair to Gove he appears to want decisions taken by devolved administration. That depends on us having a devolved government to negotiate, along with Scotland and Wales, to persuade Westminster to let local needs drive support structures for farming.
For that to happen we need to see more involvement by local politicians and local farm lobby organisations directly into the planning process in London. For now it seems that what is happening is entirely within the Westminster bubble.
The report says that in an EU context devolution of agricultural decision making worked reasonably well. It warns however that how much flexibility there will be after Brexit is still an unknown. It also raises some difficult constitutional issues.
One is that on a per head basis Scotland and Wales receive twice the CAP direct funding payment of England, while in Northern Ireland the figure is four times the English level. The report says that unless agricultural funding is linked to the Barnett formula that decides what the regions receive from Westminster, there is no mechanism to ensure fairness.
It also warns that as the government ratchets down support payments in England, with less political fallout than would be the case elsewhere, the UK devolved regions will suffer. This would not have been the case before Brexit, when the core level of funding to be divided was set under EU rules, and not by the UK government.
This is all a daunting political prospect, but probably not as daunting as the challenge facing the new Secretary of State here, Karen Bradley, to get a minister in place to be part of the negotiations that will decide the future prosperity of farming here.