Four years on from the EU referendum, Abi Kay takes a look at the Brexit promises made to farmers, and whether they are being realised.
Giving evidence to the Treasury Committee in April 2016, Boris Johnson pledged ‘all farmers will continue to receive the current levels of subsidy’.
“It is very important for my side of the argument to stress we believe in subsidising and supporting agriculture,” he said.
“It would not be reasonable to expect British agriculture to survive without direct support.”
At the launch of the Farmers for Britain campaign in March 2016, George Eustice – then Farming Minister, now Defra Secretary – promised the Government would maintain or increase the level of support farmers received in the EU and keep an element of area payments.
“Let us get one thing straight,” he told attendees of the central London event.
“The UK Government will continue to give farmers and the environment as much support, or perhaps even more, as they get now.
“After all, non-EU countries like Switzerland and Norway actually give more support to their farmers than we do.”
Daniel Hannan, former Conservative MEP and leading member of the Vote Leave campaign, had other ideas.
He told NFU conference in 2016 that farmers should be guaranteed ‘£90/acre for four to five years to bring them closer to the EU average’, and said the UK would be free to work in acres again.
Farmers in England are about to begin a seven-year transition away from the Basic Payment Scheme.
They will start to see their direct payments cut in 2021, with the whole claim gone by 2028.
Defra’s plan is to replace the BPS with an Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme which rewards farmers for providing public goods.
Payment rates for the future scheme are as yet unknown, and though the intention is to move beyond the income foregone and costs incurred model over the long-term, this methodology will continue to be used in the initial stages of the ELM pilot.
A ‘stepping stone’ scheme available from 2022, the Sustainable Farming Incentive, will also pay income foregone rates.
In February 2016, George Eustice said the Government would be able to maintain the farm support budget of £3m a year by using some of the money the UK would get back as a result of leaving the EU.
Though he acknowledged he ‘could not guarantee’ that level of support, he pointed out no-one could ensure the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget would remain the same if the UK stayed in the EU.
Boris Johnson, in an interview with Farmers Guardian at Gisburn Auction Mart in Clitheroe in June 2016, made a similar commitment.
He said: “No Government in its right mind is going to want to take away any support from farming.”
The Government committed to maintaining current levels of cash funding for farming until the end of this Parliament in the Conservative manifesto.
But concerns were raised about budgets after the Treasury recently announced funding would only be allocated to Government departments for one year, instead of the usual three, in order to prioritise the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
This means Defra will only have guaranteed resource for 2021-22, making planning for longer term projects more difficult.
Farm groups and environmental groups also fear high levels of spending on mitigating the impact of the coronavirus could bring fresh longer-term budget cuts.
Speaking at NFU conference in 2016, Mr Eustice claimed negotiating a trade deal with the EU would be straightforward.
“I actually think it would be relatively easy to roll forward something akin to the single market arrangements we have now,” he said.
“We have a trade deficit with the EU of about £60bn a year. It is in their interest to continue sending their goods here.”
In June 2019, when running for the Conservative leadership, Boris Johnson said the chances of a no-deal Brexit were a ‘million-to-one against’.
Negotiating a trade deal with the EU has proved much more difficult than anyone in the leave campaign suggested it would be, with deadline after deadline missed to reach agreement.
The main sticking points, around fishing, a level playing field and dispute resolution have seen diplomats from the UK and EU locking horns for several months.
Speaking at the Farmers for Britain launch, Mr Eustice said one of the ‘key objectives’ of a domestic agricultural policy would be investing in science and technology.
He also later expressed his enthusiasm for gene editing, saying the new breeding technique could reduce reliance on chemical pesticides.
In 2018, then-Defra Secretary Michael Gove also embraced technological advances in this space, saying they offered the possibility of ‘conquering’ human and animal diseases.
In Defra’s Agricultural Transition Plan (ATP), which sets out a pathway to the new ELM, Ministers promised to increase investment in innovation and research and development schemes which bring together researchers, farmers and growers and other agri-food businesses.
In 2020, nine innovative agri-tech projects across the UK were awarded £24m of Government funding to reduce carbon emissions in food production.
A public consultation into post-Brexit regulation of precision breeding techniques such as gene editing (GE), has also been announced.
During the referendum campaign, Mr Eustice made clear he wanted to introduce a scheme to reward high animal welfare systems should the UK leave the EU.
Mr Johnson also repeatedly said in the run-up to the 2019 General Election that Brexit would allow his Government to ban live exports and ‘champion animal welfare’.
The Government has established an Animal Health and Welfare Pathway which will open with a set of targeted and time-limited financial incentives to improve animal health and welfare during the agricultural transition.
The Pathway will provide grant aid and match funding for diagnostic testing, better health and welfare management and capital investment to improve animal welfare, among other things.
Longer term, the Pathway will join with ELM so farmers have a single entry point to access animal health and welfare and environmental funding.
On live exports, the Government announced a consultation to ban the practice this month – though experts have questioned whether this will improve animal welfare.
During the referendum campaign, Mr Eustice suggested the devolved nations would have ‘unprecedented power to design their own policies’.
“The UK Government would have control over the budget and decide allocations based on a fair formula, but there would be considerable latitude for the devolved administrations to design their own agriculture policy so it suited their own needs under the devolution settlement,” he said.
While it is true that the devolved nations do have the power to design their own agriculture policies, with Scotland opting to keep direct payments until at least 2024 and Wales outlining plans to move towards a Sustainable Farming Scheme, there are serious concerns about how new legislation to protect the UK internal market will affect devolved competences.
Under current UK Government plans, an external body will be set up to stop devolved administrations from passing legislation which distorts domestic trade and a new mutual recognition regime is to be established which could require regulatory standards in one part of the UK to be automatically accepted in others.
In practice, this means environmental and food safety standards could be undermined in one UK nation if another chose to import sub-standard produce.
During the referendum campaign, the then-leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew RT Davies, claimed Wales would benefit financially from Brexit.
He said: “Wales could be as much as half a billion pounds a year better off if the UK votes to leave the EU.”
Recent Treasury plans are set to slash rural budgets across the devolved nations by more than £455m, leading farm groups to brand the move a ‘Brexit betrayal’.
But Scotland did receive £51.4m of additional funding, and Wales £5.19m, after the UK Government accepted Lord Bew’s recommendations to increase agriculture budgets for the period 2020-22.
A long-standing row over convergence cash was also resolved in 2019, when the Chancellor agreed to ‘address the historic injustice’ of misallocation by repaying Scotland the £160m it was owed.