Like nearly every other industry in the country, agriculture is experiencing incredible challenges due to Covid-19, yet Welsh farmers remain in the dark as to what support, if any, they might receive, says Andrew RT Davies, Welsh Shadow Rural Affairs Minister.
At this time of national crisis, the agricultural industry is doing a phenomenal job and working incredibly hard to feed our nation, and whilst we’ve seen the very best from our farmers, we’ve probably seen the very worst from Ministers in the Labour-run Welsh Government.
We’re now over a month into the crisis and the challenges have been vast with coronavirus already having a devastating impact on farm businesses the length and breadth of the country.
The market for finished lamb is reducing by around 54 pence per kilo week on week, and some farm businesses are sustaining cuts in milk prices of 2p per litre as well as delays to payments and non-collection, leaving great Welsh produce going to waste.
Yet despite this harrowing picture, inexplicably there’s been no substantial support package for the industry forthcoming from the Minister responsible for farming in the Welsh Labour Government, Lesley Griffiths.
Last week in a ‘virtual’ sitting of the Welsh Assembly, she confirmed that farmers would be ineligible for the Welsh Government’s ‘economic resilience fund’, which was extremely disappointing and came as another hammer blow for our rural communities.
After this abject failure from the Rural Affairs Minister, I wrote to the First Minister, Mark Drakeford, asking him to personally intervene and get a grip on the situation by either ensuring the eligibility criteria to the fund is rapidly amended or a bespoke package for farmers (particularly the dairy sector) is brought forward with urgency.
The lack of action has been incredibly infuriating and the Welsh Government can’t say they weren’t warned. In one of the last full Welsh Assembly plenary sessions on 4th March, I pressed the Minister on what support she’d considered making available for the industry if the worst-case scenario did play out (and sadly it has).
Remarkably, her answers contained very little detail on the levers she’d pull and she seemed somewhat oblivious to what was coming towards us and the impact this would have on day-to-day farm life.
Sadly, farmers across Wales are now paying the price for a Minister and department which is either devoid of ideas or that is simply uninterested in supporting agriculture meet the monumental challenge that is in front of us.
It’s a very worrying time for the industry and we’re probably unlikely to see any substantial support offered with any urgency by this Welsh Labour Government, which has been best epitomised by her decision to press on with one of her so-called top priorities - the publication of widely unpopular regulations for agricultural pollution.
At a time of national crisis, this crazy decision has left the industry dumbfounded at a time when every sinew of government energy should be directing at helping farmers, not strangling the industry with yet more red tape.
Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ)
The cut and paste of NVZs – the most unpopular piece of EU legislation you could possibly find – has united farmers across Wales in dismay and anger, particularly when many of them are currently staring down a barrel when it comes to their businesses and livelihoods.
Publishing these draft regulations during coronavirus when we are facing the biggest threat to our economy and public health systems in the past century is scandalous, and I will continue to implore her to withdraw these proposals for the good of the industry and the environment.
Ever since taking on this portfolio in Welsh Government, the Minister has been led by her officials and this has resulted in poor government and poor decision-making, often at the expense of Welsh farmers.
Indeed, if these NVZs are implemented, Welsh Conservatives have been clear that we’ll go into the 2021 Assembly Elections pledging to abolish them.
However, focus now must be on COVID-19 support and it’s not too late to put together a comprehensive package for those badly hit in the industry, and that’s why I’m supporting the calls made by the National Farmers’ Union this week.
First and foremost, the NFU under Minette Batters has drawn up a robust plan to help the dairy sector and it deserves a fair hearing from governments.
The sector needs a scheme implemented to quickly and effectively stabilise the dairy supply chain provide for consumers and provide aid to those farmers who need it the most and are suffering financially at the hand of COVID-19.
The key to the success of this scheme is speed of action and in the absence of any clear leadership from Lesley Griffiths, it’s imperative that the Secretary of State, George Eustice, steps in as quickly as possible and delivers a strong intervention from central government for the whole of the United Kingdom.
A bespoke package or access to key funding schemes should also be amended to help other farm businesses who are also suffering due to severe cuts in the price of deadweight beef and a supply chain that has been dramatically interrupted with the food service sector grinding to a halt.
Let’s be clear, farmers can’t get through this alone. Government intervention is needed to safeguard all sectors within the industry so that when we come out the other side of this pandemic we are in a sustainable position and can move forward.
And this crisis, if anything, is demonstrating the central role that British food producers play in the our everyday lives.
Our country’s food security is unbelievably important, and will become even more so once we get through this crisis and move on to the inevitable post-mortem.
That’s why Governments of all colours must now pull out all the stops to support the backbone of our country – British farming – to ensure it can still function and indeed prosper when we emerge.
Andrew can be found tweeting at @AndrewRTDavies