Defra urged to act now over Brexit challenges for NI farming

A Westminster report examining the prospects of Northern Ireland farming post-Brexit warns Defra has not done enough given the lack of devolved government in the region.

The report raises concerns about a lack of clarity over future support payments as well as the live export of livestock by land into the Republic of Ireland and therefore, EU.

It recognised that farming plays a bigger part in the region’s economy than in the rest of the UK, has significant differences to the sector in the rest of the country, and will be particularly affected by Brexit because of its proximity to the Republic of Ireland.

The committee warned that particular structural and Brexit related challenges must be addressed quickly, with or without a Northern Ireland Executive.

Lack of engagement with NI officials

Committee chairman Dr. Andrew Murrison said: “Brexit brings both opportunities and threats to farmers and growers in Northern Ireland.

“My committee is calling on the UK Government to provide clarity and confidence for the Northern Ireland agricultural sector by making plain how a post-Brexit agricultural policy for Northern Ireland will be devised if the political impasse continues into the New Year.

“We are concerned that its uniqueness, challenges and vulnerabilities have not been fully hoisted in by ministers.

We heard evidence about Defra’s lack of engagement with Northern Ireland’s civil service and with the sector.

“We were left with the impression of drift and delay at a critical time and an over-reliance on the much-hoped-for restoration of an Executive.”

Developing an agricultural policy

The distinctive characteristics of farming and growing in Northern Ireland mean that its agricultural sector has different needs and priorities to the rest of the United Kingdom.

The predominance of smaller, more marginal businesses means that the sector is particularly reliant on direct financial support to maintain a steady income.

The report concluded that there has been “insufficient recognition of key differences between Northern Ireland’s agriculture sector and that of other parts of the United Kingdom.”

Furthermore, the committee is concerned that without a devolved Government, the urgent challenges and opportunities of Brexit run the risk of being overlooked, leaving Northern Ireland’s agriculture sector adrift without a dedicated, devolved policy framework.

The committee recommends that, if the NI Government is not restored by the end of the year, the Government should set out how it will develop a post-Brexit agricultural policy for Northern Ireland.

Financial support for Northern Ireland farmers

The committee urges the Government to revise its definition of public goods to include the survival of farms as “essential rural assets”, and to commit area payments beyond 2022, with small farms and those reliant on pasture and husbandry on marginal land particularly.

While the Environment Secretary Michael Gove recently announced that agricultural budgets will not be Barnettised post-Brexit, the Committee heard that greater clarity for the future is essential to ensure Northern Ireland has a basis for planning its own future agricultural policies and support mechanisms.

The committee calls on the Government to bring forward plans for the allocation of funding for agricultural support post-2022.

Cross-border supply chains

Northern Ireland’s agri-food sector is closely integrated with that of the Republic of Ireland, and agricultural produce crosses the border frequently.

In 2017, £899.5 million worth of food and live animals were exported to the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland.

The committee heard evidence that a no-deal scenario, whilst unlikely, could result in fresh milk, live animals, cereals and flour being unable to cross the border to the Republic of Ireland, and perishable goods unable to access wider EU markets.

The committee warns that land-based businesses have not been given clarity on what no-deal will mean for cross-border trade.

The committee is also concerned that the Government’s consultation on tightening controls on live animal exports with the EU does not specify whether animals travelling by road across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will be exempt.

The committee calls on the Government to introduce the necessary exemptions to avoid significantly harming Northern Ireland’s agricultural sector, which exports thousands of live animals to the Republic each week.