Welsh Rural Affairs Secretary Lesley Griffiths has vowed to push on with plans to abolish direct payments, even if an overwhelming majority of farmers oppose them.
Ms Griffiths made the remarks in an exclusive interview with Farmers Guardian as the Welsh Government’s ‘Brexit and Our Land’ consultation draws to a close.
The consultation proposes the introduction of two schemes to replace the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – an Economic Resilience Scheme and a Public Goods Scheme.
Asked whether she would consider maintaining some form of direct payment if the vast majority of respondents to the consultation requested it, she said: “No. We have made it very clear we will not be keeping the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) because we do not think that is the best way forward, particularly in a post-Brexit world.”
Both NFU Cymru and the Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) have been fighting hard to maintain some kind of direct payment, and the Welsh Government’s refusal to engage on this point has led to accusations that the consultation is not truly genuine.
NFU Cymru president John Davies said: “The Welsh Government proposals consider productivity measures through the economic resilience scheme and environment measures through the public goods scheme, but fail to address the need for stability measures which are currently provided through the BPS.
“In our view, all three cornerstones are fundamental to a long-term policy framework that delivers on our ambition for a productive, progressive and profitable Welsh farming industry.”
Despite her determination to phase out direct support, Ms Griffiths has not yet made any ‘hard and fast’ decisions about exactly how payments will be cut.
She did, however, say the proposed five-year transition from 2020-2025 could be lengthened to help manage the move towards the new scheme, and is looking at ways to extend existing Glastir contracts in the meantime.
But farmers should not expect to see any actual public good payment rates for several months.
They should also not anticipate food security, as opposed to food production, being added to the list of recognised public goods.
“We obviously are very concerned about food security – it is very important,” Ms Griffiths said.
“But would I call it a public good? I am not sure I would call it a public good, not for a country the size of ours.”
One promise from the Cabinet Secretary which will receive a warm welcome from farming groups is a commitment to carry out integrated impact assessments to model the effect of the Welsh Government’s post-Brexit plans on farms.
The assessments will be put together before the next consultation on a more detailed set of policy proposals, which will take place in spring.
Asked if the results of these studies could change the course the Welsh Government is taking, Ms Griffiths said: “I suppose they could do yes. I do not know what is coming out of the consultation and I do not know what is coming out of the assessment, so we have to wait and see.”
Mr Davies said he was ‘pleased’ the Cabinet Secretary had committed to carrying out impact assessments, but suggested they could not be done properly without clarity on the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU and the rest of the world.
“This assessment must consider the impact on farming, the food supply chain and our rural communities,” he added.
“Policy changes must only be made if they can clearly show they deliver on our vision and ambition for the continued growth of the food and farming sector in Wales.”
On funding, the Cabinet Secretary offered an assurance that the budget available to pay farmers after Brexit would not be swallowed up by the cost of administering the new scheme.
She was also adamant that the Welsh Government had enough staff to get out on farm to offer advice, having taken on 35 new recruits in her department.
She said: “The First Minister has made it very clear the money we get from the UK Government to replace the BPS will go to farmers and land managers, so the funding [for delivery] will have to be found from elsewhere.”
Under the current allocation rules, Wales is set to receive £330 million from the UK Government to replace the BPS, but Ms Griffiths said she had ‘no assurance’ the full amount would be given.
She also told of her disappointment at being refused an opportunity to shape the terms of Defra Secretary Michael Gove’s recently-announced ‘fair funding’ review, which will look at how farming cash should be shared between the four nations of the UK.
“I did not make any contribution,” Ms Griffiths said.
“We did ask to be involved, so I think it is really disappointing that we were not. We did not even know the announcement was being made.
“We have now been asked to put forward a representative to sit on the group, which we will of course be doing.”