Defra must give farmers early reassurances about a farm subsidy regime and continued access to foreign labour after Brexit, say peers.
The impact of a Brexit on farmers was debated in the House of Lords on Thursday (21 July), almost four weeks after the EU referendum.
Conservative MP Baroness Anne McIntosh, of Pickering, called the debate amid increasing uncertainty about the effect that a Brexit would have on the UK’s food and farming industry.
John Montagu, the 11th Earl of Sandwich, who manages a small agricultural estate in Dorset with his wife, voted for the UK to remain in the EU.
Farmers and landowners were concerned that the UK government would not keep its promises to continue funding farming to the same extent post-Brexit, he said.
“Generally, I think there has been considerable dismay among farmers since Brexit simply because of the threat to their farm payments.
“The new secretary of state (Andrea Leadsom) will have to persuade the Chancellor that smaller farmers and hill farmers will not be able to carry on unless they are given stronger reassurances of support.
“Owen Paterson said at the recent Oxford Farming Conference that, ‘a sovereign UK government, no longer constrained by EU rules, could actually increase rural payments’.”
In 2013, UK farmers received €2.6bn (£2.17bn) under Pillar 1 of the common agricultural policy (CAP) and €637m (£532m) for agri-environment and rural development under Pillar 2.
The Earl asked: “How will the government ensure that British farmers continue to receive these payments? We have already heard that they may not.
“There are fears that direct payments will be significantly less under the new government because of the continuing need for austerity.”
TB trade barriers
The Earl said livestock farmers in the South West were worried about disease control and fears that trade barriers will be put up against TB, which “remains a scourge of West Country farmers”.
Meanwhile, the fluctuating milk price was a “continual source of grievance”. He highlighted a wide disparity between farmers supplying milk to supermarkets at 30p a pint and others sending milk to companies like Arla for processed milk products with a price “forever in the low 20s”.
Conservative peer Lord de Mauley said a Brexit was an opportunity to see if farming policy could be shaped to “do more for biodiversity”.
Maggie Jones, Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Labour), warned that the UK government would prioritise funding the NHS and farmers would have to “get in line” and compete with powerful lobby group to “win back anything like the payments they have enjoyed up until now”.
“Currently, 55% of UK income from farming comes from CAP support. In 2014, the UK received over €3bn for CAP basic payments to farmers. It is not pessimistic but realistic to assume that these funds will not be protected in a post-Brexit UK budget.”
Single market access
But Baroness Jones said the real challenge for farming would be whether or not the UK could do a deal to remain in the single market, with its free access to 500 million customers.
“At the moment, 73% of the UK’s total agrifood exports are to other EU countries. Seven out of the top 10 countries to which we export food, drink and feed are in the EU.”
Meanwhile, Charles Hay, the 16th Earl of Kinnoull, said farmers needed clear assurances from government on future access to foreign seasonal labour at a similar cost to now.
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