Farmers are unlikely to find out details of how the Government intends to protect individual sectors from the effects of a no-deal Brexit until after the UK leaves the trading bloc.
There are just 55 days to go until Britain is expected to leave the EU on October 31, but speaking to farming journalists at Defra headquarters in London today (September 6), Defra Secretary Theresa Villiers said it would be ‘premature’ to set out what form any support might take.
Organisations including the National Sheep Association and NFU have repeatedly called for clarity in order to help farmers prepare.
Asked specifically about the sheep sector, where different measures - including a headage payment on breeding ewes or a slaughterhouse premium on lambs – have been put forward and discussed by Ministers, Ms Villiers said: “We are working on options.
“I do not think it would be appropriate to make decisions on what sort of support we should give until we know the scale of the problems we would face.
“So rest assured we will be in a position to act swiftly if the need arises but we are not going to start announcing interventions we might be prepared to take. We need the flexibility to respond to what actually happens after exit day.”
She repeated Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s promise that the Government was ‘working hard to get a deal’ but that she was confident Defra’s planning went far enough to protect agriculture if Britain crashed out without one.
“I think there is a good chance a deal will be agreed. That is what we want to happen," she said.
“But we do need to respect the result of the referendum and get on with it and get ready for exit day - deal or no deal.
“Food and farming interests are absolutely at the heart of the preparations we are making for exit day.”
She added there was ‘no one better placed’ than her predecessor Michael Gove - now responsible for no-deal planning – ‘to know about the opportunities that Brexit delivers potentially for farmers but also the potential risks, particularly in the short term of a World Trade Organisation exit’.
“We are looking carefully at which sectors which might find they face a difficult period of adjustment,” she added.
“In those circumstances we have said we will be prepared to intervene to provide additional financial support and we will be monitoring the markets and prices very carefully with a view to ensuring that where there are sectors that need that support, we can give it to them.”
“Final decisions of exactly what form support should take may need to wait until after exit day but that does not mean we will not be able to provide further information in advance of exit day."
But Bryan Griffiths, NSA chairman, said detail of any support package was needed as soon as possible.
Mr Griffiths said: “We have been pushing for Ministers to organise and put something in place to underpin the market to prevent market breakdown or failure, particularly damaging to store trade at this time of year, but in saying we will not have anything in place before Brexit, this would suggest the Government is focusing on a rescue package rather than working to prevent the damage in the first place.
“We hope the Government will reconsider this and work hard to prevent the sheep industry getting to a position where rescue is the only option.”
On the Agriculture Bill and concerns it could ‘fall’ if it is not carried over to a new session, Ms Villiers said it would depend on consent being given by the House.
“In the event of prorogation we are very happy to work with the opposition in terms of carrying over legislation into the new session and that very much includes the Agriculture Bill because it is important and has some great stuff in it,” she added.
“We want to see it on the statute book as soon as possible. But these matters to tend to be reliant on cooperation between Government and the opposition.
“If it is impossible to get agreement on carrying over the Agriculture Bill we will look to reintroduce it as quickly as we can when Parliament is back in session.”
Asked if there was an opportunity to add more detail into the Bill, such as new provisions for the tenanted sector, the Secretary of State added: “We are listening carefully to the comments made as the Bill passes through Parliament.
“There may be changes and enhancements and I will be focusing on that.”
However, she did not foresee a major rewrite.
“I will build on the work of my predecessor to create what I hope will be the foundations of a word leading system of farm support which is fair to our farmers and properly rewards them, for example through environmental stewardship, for the improvements to health and welfare of animals, but also helps them become more competitive and more sustainable as well," the Secretary of State said.