Welsh farming businesses need stability at a time of Brexit uncertainty, not to copy Gove in making radical changes to payments, says Dr Nick Fenwick, FUW head of policy.
The past month has been an unusual period for Welsh agriculture, and in particular for the Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW), with the Welsh Government not only launching a public attack alleging that we are making ‘misleading’ claims in relation to the current consultation on future Welsh rural policies, but also writing to every farmer in Wales, effectively lobbying in favour of their own consultation proposals.
We have of course offered to correct any statements which are genuinely misleading – as opposed to being valid concerns and differences of opinion.
Among these are concerns raised repeatedly over the past two years that radical proposals to current agricultural policies should not be brought forward until we have some understanding of the likely economic landscape after Brexit; that account should be taken of the policies which will govern our main competitors; and that major proposals should not be brought forward without detailed economic modelling.
As readers of Farmers Guardian will know, we have also spearheaded calls for any ‘payment for public goods’ proposals to be legally watertight in terms of the WTO Agreement on Agriculture.
Given the main Welsh Government proposal – to replace direct payments to farmers with a public goods payment scheme open to all, including the forestry sector – has never been tried before, and marks the most significant change to underlying principles since the 1947 Agriculture Act, we believe the impacts and repercussions deserve thorough investigation to the Nth degree, rather than simple promises that Welsh Government want to ‘keep farmers on the land’.
The Welsh Government’s proposals are almost the opposite of what we have been lobbying for over the past two years, so it should have come as no surprise that we are encouraging people to respond, if they agree, highlighting our concerns about possible dangers, pitfalls and problems.
The publicity generated by the Welsh Government’s claim has significantly boosted attendance at the twelve open meetings we have arranged across Wales, with standing room only in all but two of the events.
Hopefully it will boost attendance at the remaining Welsh Government events to be held over the coming weeks, where farmers and others should take the opportunity to make their views known.
Given that the Agriculture Bill recently put before parliament proposes replacing direct support with a similar ‘public goods’ scheme in England, a message repeated in our regional meetings, attended by thousands of farmers, has been ‘what is the point of devolution if we are going to just follow English policy’.
In 2005, Wales took a wholly different route to England in terms of the Single Payment Scheme and Cross Compliance, and in 2015 we again took a different route, opting for redistributive payments and a payment cap in order to help family businesses as much as possible.
While Scotland is pursuing a policy based on generating stability for businesses during a period of extreme uncertainty, Welsh and English proposals are effectively based on the same principles, suggesting an abandonment of aspirations to ensure Welsh policies are designed specifically to protect Welsh businesses and jobs, and that we are now fully in the grip of the same UK charities and trusts which dominate English thinking.
The rejection by EU countries in recent days of the Chequers agreement highlights why proposing radical changes at this time is more to do with opportunism, driven by the views of powerful charities, rather than careful consideration of Brexit outcomes and what is best for rural families and communities.
And it of course underlines why the FUW was right to highlight the dangers of leaving the EU years before others considered Brexit to be an issue.