UK unions take opposite stances over convergence money review

Two of the UK’s farming unions have set out different arguments for how the country’s convergence money should be spent.

The Ulster Farmers’ Union said it believes agricultural output remains the fairest measure for allocating domestic farm funding across the UK and can see no justification for amending the current UK formula.

However, National Farmers’ Union Scotland (NFUS) believes the money should go towards “righting” what it describes as a “£190 million shortfall” for Scottish farmers and crofters.

Both unions have met with Lord Bew, the chairman of the current Review of Intra-UK Allocation of Domestic Farm Funding, this month.

Lord Bew review

The Lord Bew review was commissioned by the UK government last autumn at the request of the Scottish government.

The review aims to gather evidence on the allocation of convergence funding – specifically how the UK government distributed additional EU farm funding in 2013 to devolved administrations.

The long-standing view of NFU Scotland is that it was exclusively as a result of Scotland’s low CAP support payment rate per hectare (approximately €130/ha) that the UK was awarded the convergence uplift as part of the European reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

NFUS president Andrew McCornick explained that Scotland currently received below average area payment rates – about 45% of the EU average – and consequently, the UK will receive an extra €223 million (or about £190 million) over the period 2014 to 2020.

“There was never a rational justification for using historical allocations to distribute this uplift,” he said.

The UK was given the uplift because of Scotland’s low payment rate and that should have meant that the money was paid to Scotland’s farmers and crofters. Now we have an opportunity to correct this long-running sore and it needs to be addressed. We need this wrong righted.

“The outcome of this review has the potential to set the factors that will determine how agricultural support is awarded across the UK in the future. Post-Brexit, a UK agricultural budget will be needed.”

However, UFU president Ivor Ferguson explained that with Northern Ireland farmers likely to be among the worst affected by Brexit, the possibility of funding allocation adjustments could not come at a worse time for the region’s farmers.

“Northern Ireland’s agriculture supply chain is deeply integrated with the Republic of Ireland and is expected to be more adversely affected than any other UK region,” he said.

“Any suggested reduction in the amount of agricultural support for Northern Ireland will cause widespread concern – particularly if farmers in the Republic continue to benefit from robust support from the EU.

“We stressed in both our previous written submission and in our meeting that the primary objective of Pillar 1 of the CAP is to support farm incomes and the fairest, most equitable way of achieving this is to base it on agricultural output.

This provides the fairest reflection of both the historic and current activity in the supported sectors undertaken in each region.

“Indeed, based on this allocation method, Scotland actually receives the highest share of CAP Pillar 1 support than any other UK region in terms of supported sector output.

“Scotland also differentiates direct farm support based on land productivity to restrict the funding on unproductive land. We can see no reason for amending this formula.

“We also emphasised that it was essential that the panel remained within the scope of the review to inform the regional allocations of farm support committed to the end of the current parliament, limited to the amount of convergence funding.

“To do otherwise would be seen as both interfering with UK devolution and also the design of future devolved agriculture policies.”