Defra Ministers are ‘in constant discussion’ with industry about delaying the phase out of direct payments, as the Agriculture Bill faces a fresh hold up due to the coronavirus epidemic.
Parliament will break up early for its Easter recess this week, once it has passed emergency legislation to deal with the outbreak, and there are already questions about how the Commons and Lords will continue with their work scrutinising legislation when they are due to resume sitting.
Video conferencing is being considered for the work of select committees, and the Labour Party has called for online voting to be introduced to prevent Parliamentarians having to physically walk through the lobbies together.
The Agriculture Bill itself is very unlikely to move to report stage in the House of Commons before the Easter break, and it still needs to go through several stages in the House of Lords.
The plan is to bring forward the next stage of the Bill ‘as soon as parliamentary time allows’, and the Government is working to ensure essential business can continue as far as possible, but Defra’s permanent secretary, Tamara Finkelstein, has previously warned the legislation will need to be passed by summer this year if the current transition timetable is to be maintained.
On the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) specifically, a department spokesman has told Farmers Guardian the ‘general position’ is that the direct payment phase out will go ahead as currently planned, but officials are discussing the possibility of delay given the huge impact the coronavirus epidemic is having on farm businesses.
Industry bodies including the CLA, TFA and NFU are all calling on the Government to rethink its plan to begin cutting farm payments in England next year, as farmers forced to close diversifications take a huge hit to their income.
CLA president Mark Bridgeman said: “There is wide industry support for a delay in the start of transition away from direct payments in agriculture.
“Assuming the Agriculture Bill does progress, it is essential that Defra reconsiders the transition clause in the Bill, allowing the start of transition from direct payments to be delayed for at least 12 months, given the huge uncertainty of how COVID-19 will impact the industry.
“It also allows time for Defra to develop a coherent set of policies to make the whole transition programme work.”
Concerns are also being raised about Defra’s capacity to deliver its post-Brexit policies when so much effort is being expended to get on top of the issues relating to coronavirus.
TFA chief executive George Dunn said it was vital the Bill has renewed focus on the issue of food security once the Bill does begin to progress, given the current crisis.
“On a practical basis, there is no question that the transition to the new policy environment must now be delayed,” he added.
“There is no way we will be ready to start the transition next year. The Government must accept it cannot start the transition until 2022 at the earliest. Farmers, the bedrock of our food system, need certainty.”
Minette Batters, NFU president, pointed out the consultation on the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme closes on May 5, but the union was unable to consult with its members now the country has moved into lockdown.
“On every level, it seems delay is inevitable when we have got such concern over farming finances now,” she said.
“We desperately need a level of certainty over the next couple of years.”