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New Conservative Government brings relief and uncertainty to farmers

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David Cameron’s unexpected election victory has been largely welcomed by the industry but it has generated huge uncertainty over Europe. Here we look in detail at some of the issues facing the new regime.
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What does the new Government hold in store for farmers?
What does the new Government hold in store for farmers?

The Conservatives’ extraordinary election victory has brought relief to many farmers in the of form, for example, of clarity over key issues like the badger cull but also a large degree of uncertainty over Europe.

 

By Monday, a triumphant David Cameron had re-appointed Liz Truss as Defra Secretary and George Eustice with an upgraded status of Minister of State, as he put together his first Conservative-only Cabinet and Ministerial team.

 

On Tuesday, a new face, Cumbrian MP Rory Stewart, was added to a Defra team that otherwise brings much-needed continuity in areas like the implementation of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) and bovine TB (bTB).

 

The overall reaction from within the farming industry has been positive. At a post-election event at NFU’s London headquarters that aimed to deliver a united industry message about the need for the new Government to prioritise food and farming, NFU president Meurig Raymond said he was ‘delighted’ to see Mrs Truss and Mr Eustice back at Defra.

 

He said the NFU and the farming industry shared the government’s ambition of ‘wanting to grow more, buy more and sell more British food at home and abroad’ and urged the new administration to ‘champion British farming’.

 

Mr Raymond, who had a meeting with Mrs Truss on Thursday, said: "I want to see a robust plan put in place to reverse long- term declines in farming productivity and the nation’s self-sufficiency, increase the productive potential of farming, to stimulate investment, help farmers manage market volatility and ensure that the drive to increase British food production is at the heart of each government department.

 

"We need a government that will champion British farming, give us the tools to invest to become more competitive, more efficient and carry that message to Europe."

Badger cull

While a Labour-led administration would have created huge tensions between farmers and Government over the Party’s pledge to scrap the badger cull, the Conservative manifesto included a pledge to implement the 25-year TB Eradication strategy in full, including culling badgers where disease is rife.

 

Mr Raymond urged the Government to make further roll out of the cull ‘a top priority’ and called for an announcement ‘as soon as possible’ on the next steps.

 

But while the Conservative’s pledges on red tape adopting a science-led approach on issues like GM and pesticides have also gone down well, there are two significant clouds on the political horizon.

 

One is the likelihood of further cuts to Defra from a Government still intent on austerity measures to drag back the deficit.

 

The other is Europe. The Government’s first Queen’s Speech on May 27 is likely to include a Bill paving the way for an in-out referendum on UK membership of the EU before the end of 2017, and possibly next year.

 

Mr Raymond said the NFU would be mapping the advantages and disadvantages of EU membership in terms of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the single market. He said it was also unclear what Mr Cameron would be seeking as he seeks to re-negotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU ahead of the referendum.

 

“I would be very nervous if they start talking about repatriating the CAP,” he said.

 

Country Land and Business Association president Henry Robinson said the CLA would seek to ensure the new Government was clear about the implications for the rural economy of its policy on Europe.

 

Tenant Farmers Association chief executive George Dunn warned of an ‘uncertain few years ahead on the European question’, while NFU Cymru president Stephen James said Europe was the biggest for his organisation.

 

“We want to stay in Europe because Welsh farmers on CAP payments and access to the single market.”

The Defra Ministerial team

truss

Liz Truss

South West Norfolk MP reappointed as Defra Secretary of State.

Ms Truss took up the role following Owen Paterson’s departure in July 2014.

She has voiced concerns about CAP implementation and the use of subsidies for agricultural land for solar or biomass plants.

Her support for the badger cull has been welcomed by the farming industry.

 

eustice

George Eustice

Appointed a Minister of State at Defra in the reshuffle, having previously held the more junior title of Parliamentary Under-Secretary.

Enjoyed an excellent election result, increasing his majority in Camborne and Redruth from 66 in 2010 to more than 7,000 in Thursday’s vote.

Praised by the industry as having done a good job as Farming Minister over the past 20 months.

Rory

Rory Stewart

MP for Penrith and the Border, first elected to Parliament in 2010 and has campaigned to improve mobile phone and broadband coverage in rural areas.

He is a former diplomat who served as a senior coalition official in occupied Iraq in 2003–04 and is also described as an academic, author and documentary maker

He was appointed a Professor of Human Rights at Harvard University in 2008, a role he left in 2008.

 

A new Government – what are the big issues for farming?

Europe

Europe

The Conservative’s position on Europe brings with it both opportunities and threats for farmers.

 

Ahead of any in-out referendum in 2016 or 2017, Prime Minister David Cameron will seek to re-negotiate the UK’s current relationship with the EU.

 

In an article in the Telegraph this week, he outlined his objectives including ‘powers flowing away from Brussels’ with, for example, national parliaments being able to work together to block ‘unwanted EU legislation’.

 

Speaking before the election, Defra Secretary Liz Truss said the UK would push for a ‘more scientific’ regulatory approach, with the UK having a greater say on regulation in areas like GM and pesticides.

 

But to what extent might Mr Cameron want to use the negotiations to assert more UK control over the CAP? This is a prospect that fills many with dread, given the UK’s long-held position on reducing direct payments?

 

Regardless of the EU re-negotiation, the Conservative manifesto included a pledged to pursue further reform of the CAP. Mrs Truss insisted, however, the party was determined to ensure reform did not result in UK farmers being disadvantaged.

 

Then there is the prospect, difficult to gauge how realistic a one at this stage but more likely if the rest of the EU does not give Mr Cameron what he wants, that it could all end up with the UK leaving the EU.

 

With around £4bn a year coming from Brussels each year to farms and rural businesses from the CAP and free access to the vital EU market, the stakes could not be higher. 

TB

Bovine TB

For many cattle farmers across England, particularly in the TB hotspot areas, the outcome of this election came as a huge relief.

 

After everything that had gone before, Labour’s promise to immediately scrap the pilot culls and abandon roll out plans would have been devastating for many.

 

Mrs Truss has repeatedly stated the Conservative’s intention to roll the cull out to new areas, as part of the wider 25-year TB strategy and, without the brake of coalition partners an facing a hugely weakened Labour party, the political wind is set fair.

 

But it will not be straightforward and hurdles will need to be overcome quickly if new areas are to be licensed this year.

 

A number of areas, including the once reserve in Dorset, are largely ready to go, but farmers are seeking a simplification of some of the rules and regulations around the cull, which might require consultation. Then there is also the question of the balance between controlled shooting and cage trapping in future policies.

 

NFU president Meurig Raymond said: “Whether there will be time to deliver simplification for roll out this year is questionable but there are areas out there that are desperate to go.”

 

The Badger Trust has promised to continue fighting against the policy and, as Farmers Guardian went, a legal hearing in which it was seeking more information on the costs of the cull from Natural England was imminent.

Defra’s budget

While Defra has remained intact, further cuts to one of the smallest budgets in Whitehall are inevitable, raising further questions about its ability to deliver on its priorities and respond to emergencies.

 

Mrs Truss said further savings could be made from increased efficiency without compromising frontline but not everyone is convinced.

 

Defra Ministers’ response to the joint industry proposal for new industry-led bodies to address TB and non-statutory cattle diseases will be awaited with interest.

 

Mr Raymond said: “It is vital Defra is properly resourced because it has a vital role to play in championing food and farming.”

Basic Payment Scheme

Aside from the big policy issues, an immediate priority for the new Defra team will be to ensure the Basic Payment Scheme is delivered as smoothly as possible, after all the recent problems.

 

NFU vice president Guy Smith said it was vital sufficient resource was provided to enable the Rural Payments Agency to process the applications, mainly delivered by paper, to facilitate timely delivery of payments.

Red tape

 

The Conservatives have pledged to continue the drive to cut red tape on farms, including the establishment of a single body to co-ordinate farm inspections.

 

Mrs Truss said the Farm Inspection Task Force would help ‘liberate farmers from red tape by coordinating all visits’.

British food and farming

The Conservative manifesto promised a 25-year plan to ‘champion farmers and food producers’ and enable the industry to produce more British food, including the establishment of a Great British Food Unit to help trademark and promote local foods at home and abroad.

 

Mrs Truss said farming was central to the Conservatives’ plans for economic and was seen as a ’major area for jobs and growth’.

Other issues

TFA chief executive George Dunn said he was disappointed the new administration had no plans to extend the powers of the Groceries Code Adjudicator.

 

He said TFA hoped to pick up discussions early with the new Government on measures to encourage longer term farm business tenancies.

 

National Sheep Association communications manager Joanne Briggs welcomed the science-led approach promised by the new Government and said NSA’s priority would be pushing for reform of the rules on TSEs and carcase splitting, which she said could be done at UK level.

 

CLA president Henry Robinson said his organisation would be pressing the Government to stick to manifesto promises on issues like a major business rates review, boosting British food exports and continued reform of the compulsory purchase system and delivery of reliable and effective rural broadband.

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