Direct payments provide stability and security to farmers. The Welsh Government needs to acknowledge the massive impact removing them would have on food production, rural communities and the Welsh language, says Llyr Gruffydd, Shadow Rural Affairs Secretary.
It is not unusual to see Welsh farmers and Labour Ministers from the Welsh Government at loggerheads. The disconnect has been particularly apparent in recent years of devolved power in Wales.
But there is a sense that the latest clash between current Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Lesley Griffiths and the Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) over direct payments is a more of a fundamental rift as it deals with the entire future of the Welsh farming industry.
Lesley Griffiths took the unprecedented step of writing to every farmer in Wales to counteract what she has described as the FUW’s ‘misleading’ campaign to retain direct payments.
The Welsh Government’s consultation, Brexit and our Land, includes a proposal to end the single payment and is out to consultation until October 30.
This extraordinary intervention by a Minister during a period of public consultation suggests that while they want to hear people’s opinions, they will only listen to views which chime with theirs. Hardly the basis for good policy making.
The FUW has spent the summer arguing strongly that the Welsh Government’s proposals to scrap basic payments would be the biggest change since the Second World War to agriculture in Wales.
I agree, and it comes at a pivotal moment in our history. The uncertainties of Brexit would be amplified by an ill-thought-out proposal that will add to farmers’ insecurity.
Around 80 per cent of upland farmers in Wales rely on their basic payment as a safety net. It provides some reassurance that they can plan ahead for the coming year.
The EU is strengthening its active farmer rule to make sure money stays within rural communities.
The Welsh Government is proposing almost the opposite – an ‘open to all’ policy that could take money away from farming families, where ‘all’ could include banking institutions, pension funds and people who are ‘inactive farmers’ making no contribution to the local economy or community.
Scotland is maintaining basic payments for farmers and it is likely Northern Ireland will follow suit.
How can we be part of a meaningful UK-wide framework for agriculture when support for farmers from the various national Governments has diverged to such an extent? This is creating an uneven playing field for Wales.
The Welsh Government’s alarming proposal mirrors that of Defra Secretary Michael Gove rather than that of Scotland, Northern Ireland and future EU policy.
There is a very real danger that this drastic shift, if done too quickly, could remove farmers’ safety-net and undermine the ability of some to continue producing food and steward the land.
The longer-term consequences for the viability of rural communities, the rural economy and, in Wales, the Welsh language and culture should also not be ignored.
This proposal has long-term implications that the Welsh Government seems unwilling to acknowledge.
Far less ambitious new schemes – for example Glastir and the changes to the SPS/BPS in England and Scotland – show things need years of planning and sometimes can go very wrong, causing payment delays and other problems.
What is proposed for Wales has never been tried before and will involve huge resources to plan and implement. I do not believe it is deliverable in the timescale envisaged, with first contracts set to be signed by around 2021.
As Plaid Cymru’s rural affairs spokesperson, I and my party stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our farmers.
At a time of uncertainty surrounding the industry, we should be battening down the hatches until the Brexit storm has passed.
We must stick with a system which better resembles existing arrangements, rather than introduce huge changes and insecurity at the greatest moment of economic and political uncertainty of our generation.
Llyr can be found tweeting at @LlyrGruffydd