Stormont Agriculture Committee accused of ‘playing politics’ over Brexit legislation

Stormont Agriculture Committee members took a 15-minute closed session on Thursday, October 1 after tensions rose during a heated discussion over a UK-wide piece of legislation put forward by Defra.

The statutory instrument (SI) was penned to ensure payments could be made to farmers and rural communities after the Brexit completion date.

A departmental official advised the committee no negative impacts were foreseen from the legislation and warned “there is more potential for negative impacts if the legislation is not made by the end of transition”.

“At this stage, our [DAERA’s] assessment is, if we were to seek to remove Northern Ireland from the SI then we would not have time to have the standalone legislation in place for December 31 which then runs the risk of the operability of our schemes in Northern Ireland,” she warned.

“It amends earlier EU exit SIs that were made by Defra as UK-wide legislation. It would be problematic to legislate for Northern Ireland separately.

“This also creates a consistent approach to issues and makes efficient use of resources across the nations. Simply, it would not be possible to have standalone Northern Ireland legislation made by December 31.

“…It ensures that the EU regulations dealing with the governance of former CAP funding schemes will operate after transition. It makes operability amendments to EU legislation, which was incorporated into UK law as of exit day and amended to make direct payment schemes operable in 2020.”

A lack of time

Members were warned that there was not enough time for a regional version of the legislation to be prepared and passed and advised that should they withhold consent, it was likely the legislation would be imposed by Westminster regardless.

However, several remained unsatisfied that they had only been left with days to scrutinise the document.

Chairman Declan McAleer said members of the committee felt “almost uncomfortable”. “It’s very difficult for us to scrutinise. I understand you are working at pace as well. This is coming at [you] like a train,” he told the department advisor.

McAleer highlighted concern voiced by the speaker in the House of Commons that morning that the Prime Minister had “misused” SIs in the past.

Sinn Féin MLA Philip McGuigan said he agreed with McAleer that he felt “dissatisfaction with the process”.

‘Playing politics’

However, the discussion turned sour after DUP MLA William Irvine accused others on the committee of “playing politics”.

“In effect, this is necessary for the change on January 1 for [schemes] to function effectively,” he said.

“If it’s not in place by the deadline it could potentially ultimately effect DAERA’s ability to pay beneficiaries,” the official confirmed.

McAleer said: “The last thing we want to see is any negative impact on the level of payments that our farming and wider communities get. When we were scrutinising the Agriculture Bill we heard that at least 30% of our farms here would disappear if they didn’t have that type of support.”

The chair explained committee members had the choice whether they would respond to say they were:

  1. Are content with the legislation;
  2. Are opposed to the legislation; or
  3. Do not believe they have sufficient time or information to form an opinion on it.

“I think this is common sense,” Irwin interjected. “I have been on this community for 13 or 14 years. Some people on this committee don’t accept we are leaving Europe but that’s above our heads…

It’s a sad day when this committee is playing politics. I can see it more and more every day I come here.

“…They’re putting something in place to ensure payments can continue as normal after January 1. I agree there may not be as much time as we would like, but this is fairly straight forward.

“This is to allow payments to be made to farmers – I can’t see why we won’t support that. I could understand if there were issues we were not happy with.”

McGuigan refuted the claims, proposing the committee responded to say it had not adequate time to scrutinise the SI.

“This isn’t politics… this isn’t an issue about Brexit …this is quite clearly about this committee being able to do its job, which is to scrutinise legislation and things in the best interest of the people we represent,” he said.

“If we can’t make a decision on this, I don’t know what we’re doing on this committee,” Irwin replied.

During a vote over the decision, further heated discussion broke out between Irwin and Patsy McGlone, who warned: “We have seen this before with RHI”.

“You’re playing politics. I know what you’re doing, I’m not stupid,” Irwin responded.

Chairman Declan McAleer suggested the committee “take a few minutes” to move into closed session. The committee remained in closed session for 15 minutes.