THE ELECTION on May 7 is widely touted as being one of the closest of recent times. Away from the photo opportunities and soundbites, farmers around the UK are keeping a close eye on political developments.
Both the FUW and the NFU have made no bones that they are looking towards central government to support farming and the wider agricultural industry. With votes precious, the question is how far political parties are prepared to bend their policies to meet farmers’ expectations. While votes in the shires of England tend to aggregate towards the Conservatives, the picture in Wales is rather more complex.
For a start, there are more small independent farms per head of population than there are in England and income from agriculture and food production make up a larger part of Wales’ own domestic product.
When one focuses on the commitments of the larger parties in Wales, there is little meat in any of the manifestos, which focus on large picture macro-economic concerns rather than practical proposals to improve the lot of farmers and agricultural workers and farming communities in the short to medium term.
The Conservative manifesto has promised a lot for the longer term:
- 25 year growth plan for food industry
- Commitment to 25 year TB strategy (including culling)
- 5 year tax averaging
- Single farm inspection taskforce to co-ordinate visits, including Red Tractor
- Treble food, farming and Agri-tech apprenticeships
- Great British Food Unit to promote British exports
- Push for Country of Origin Labelling for dairy in Europe
The long term is all very well, but at a time when farming incomes for family farms are being squeezed tighter than ever, most farmers will be most interested in the here and now. Farmers need certainty about their income and about the support they can expect from government now and tomorrow and not in the sweet bye and bye.
The Conservatives have promised to deliver in 2017 a referendum on whether Britain should stay in or stay out of the European Union. What they have not said is what they will do to help farmers replace European funding payments, upon which many farmers rely, if, in 2017, the British people choose to leave the EU. In addition, the Conservatives have not said how British farmers will be able to continue to access European markets for their produce if tariffs on imports to the EU from the UK follow, as they surely would.
The Labour Party has a significant problem with rural and farming affairs. From being an industry that commanded a seat at the centre of Cabinet discussions, farming was side-lined during the last Labour Government and there is no dedicated minister for agriculture and rural affairs in the Cabinet on the Bay.
Lingering resentment exists in some parts of the Welsh countryside over the ban on hunting with dogs, particularly on upland farms where predation by foxes is a particular problem. There also remains considerable disquiet at the way the Welsh Labour government caved in to those protesting against badger culls. In both cases, it seemed to most farmers that Labour was more interested in appeasing voters who had perhaps a more rosy view of Reynard the Fox and Brock the Badger than most farmers experience in their daily lives.
So, where Labour has a policy at all on agriculture, it is more concerned with issues at the end of the food-delivery process than those issues at source level. Labour’s manifesto commitments on agriculture (in the broader sense) are:
- End the badger cull pilots
- Expand the remit of the Groceries Code Adjudicator
- Ban zero-hours contracts – workers have right to permanent contract after 12 weeks
- Long-term food strategy
- Maximum-permitted levels of sugar, salt and fat in food marketed to children
- Broadband rollout
In times past, the old Liberal Party was the last redoubt of Welsh farmers. Broadly put, large landowners backed the Tories, farmers and rural communities tended to back the Liberals. The splintering of old ties is, however, likely to see the Liberal Democrat vote across large parts of Wales shrink significantly: while Mark Williams seems likely to hold Ceredigion, Brecon and Radnor is on a knife’s edge. With the Liberal Democrats looking to be coalition partners with any new government, its ability deliver manifesto commitments is necessarily limited, but it is likely that promises to review policies rather than put forward specific measures of their own would make them relatively easy to slot back in to either of the main party’s farming commitments.
Plaid Cymru’s pitch is, perhaps, predictably to wish a plague on both the houses of the Conservative and Labour parties, with Carmarthen East & Dinefwr candidate Jonathan Edwards claiming that: “Plaid Cymru is the champion of rural Wales. We are the only party that has a strong record of standing up for farmers and rural businesses, and opposing the establishment parties’ threats to the EU funding that the sector depends on.”
Devolution must be respected
IN RESPONSE to a UK Government white paper on internal markets, the Farmers’ Union of Wales has stressed the importance of protecting Welsh farmers against unfair competition from other parts of the UK and countries across the globe, and that Welsh devolution must be respected.
In his introduction to the UK Internal Market White Paper, Alok Sharma MP, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, highlights how increasing differences between rules and standards applied by different Governments in the UK’s four nations after Brexit could cause market distortion, discrimination and unfair competition for businesses in a way not seen for hundreds of years.
The White Paper, therefore, proposes measures to prevent such impacts based on the principles of ‘non-discrimination’ and ‘mutual recognition’
FUW Head of Policy, Dr Nick Fenwick said: “We are glad the UK Government has woken up to the need to take this issue seriously as it has previously been kicked into the long grass because it is so politically contentious.”
Dr Fenwick said that the FUW had been highlighting the need to address this issue since the EU Referendum in 2016, and in July 2018 the FUW had published a detailed paper considering the matter entitled ‘Filling the Void – Steps towards a post-Brexit UK policy framework’.
“While we welcome the UK Government’s recognition of this issue, we are extremely concerned at the suggestion that rules could simply be dictated by London, rather than there being a means by which to reach agreement between UK Governments.”
Dr Fenwick said such a move could undermine devolution and work to the disadvantage of Welsh farmers.
“The consideration of such matters in a White Paper within months of the end of the Withdrawal Agreement period gives us very little time to hold proper detailed discussions and introduce the type of structures and bodies we truly need to make recommendations, enforce regulations, arbitrate on matters etc. in a way that is fair.”
“It also gives us very little time to sort out what are huge constitutional issues which also happen to be crucial to the running of Welsh businesses,” he added.
In response to the White Paper, the Union further stressed that while the UK Government is right to recognise the dangers of direct and indirect discrimination, unfair competition, market distortion and other issues that could arise within the GB/UK internal market, it should also recognise that the same issue exists across international borders.
“Given the current trade negotiations with the EU and USA, for example, the UK Government should also recognise the likelihood of such adverse impacts occurring as a result of inappropriate or ill-considered trade deals which expose us to different standards or unfair competition,” said Dr Fenwick.
“This is a particular concern with regard to agricultural produce produced to environmental, health and welfare, social and other standards that do not meet those required of UK producers, and subsidy and support regimes that differ significantly to those introduced in future in the UK’s four nations.”
At present, while significant differences between the UK and the EU is allowed under Single Market, Common Agricultural Policy and related rules, these are within strict boundaries aimed at minimising market distortion and unfair competition while recognising regional and national needs.
If a trade deal with the EU is reached, there is potential for market distortion and unfair competition for UK producers as a result of the fact that the EU will continue to pay farmers direct support, but Wales and England want to move over to environmental ‘public goods’ style payments – with many lobbying for farm payments to be cut altogether.
“The EU’s reaffirmed commitment to maintaining direct support for active farmers through CAP payments, coupled with a move in Wales and other parts of the UK to get rid of direct farm support in favour of environmental payments, would clearly introduce the kind of unfair competition the UK Government refers to in this paper.
“This danger is no different in principle to the dangers recognised in the Internal Markets White Paper, so also should be recognised by our Governments – not only in the context of unfair competition from the EU, our most important trading partner in terms of food, but also countries like the USA if we are to strike a deal with them.
“We need a trade deal with the EU to avoid massive damage to farms and other businesses, but we also need our governments to recognise the self inflicted damage that could be done by radically changing our own farm support systems while our main competitors twenty or thirty miles away over the sea continue with direct farm support,” he added.
Wales can lead on net-zero farming
NFU CYMRU hosted a farm visit for the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Alok Sharma MP, to demonstrate that Welsh farmers are well-placed to deliver on the industry’s net zero ambitions.
The event saw NFU Cymru launch its new document, which sets out that Welsh farmers are part of the solution to climate change.
NFU Cymru President John Davies presented the report to the Secretary of State, who also holds the role of nominated President for COP26, as part of the on farm meeting.
The visit was hosted by NFU Cymru Next Generation Group member Llŷr Jones, whose 1,600-acre sheep, beef and egg farm near Corwen also produces renewable energy to satisfy the farm’s energy needs, exporting the surplus power to the grid.
As part of his visit to Derwydd Farm, Mr Sharma was also able to learn about the scale of work carried out on the farm as part of Welsh Government’s Glastir agri-environment scheme, including creating habitats for wildlife, tree planting, protecting some 30 acres of peatland, hedgerow management and soil and grassland management.
During his visit, the BEIS Secretary planted an apple tree as an example of the environmental work the agricultural sector carries out to sequester carbon, while also providing food and aiding biodiversity.
Speaking after the visit, NFU Cymru President John Davies said: “By focussing on improving farming’s productive efficiency; improving land management and enhancing land use to capture more carbon; and boosting renewable energy and the wider bio-economy, Wales’ farmers will be able to play their part in addressing the issues brought about by climate change. By reducing carbon emissions in these ways farmers are in a strong position to achieve the industry’s goal of achieving net zero by 2040.
“I am thrilled that we were able to welcome the BEIS Secretary, Alok Sharma MP, on farm today to see Llŷr Jones’ exciting and impressive farming enterprise, which has carbon capture and renewable energy at its heart. Llŷr’s farm is just one of a wide network of farms across Wales who are harnessing innovation to reduce emissions and produce climate friendly food. These businesses are net zero leaders not just in the respect of farming, but in a wider business context.”
Alok Sharma, COP26 President and Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “I was very pleased to visit Llŷr Jones’ farm and see first-hand the actions being taken to mitigate climate change and support nature on their land.
“I welcome the NFU’s ambitious commitment to reach net zero by 2040, and I look forward to working across governments, business and civil society in the run up to COP26 to raise global commitments to reduce carbon emissions.”
NFU Cymru Next Generation Group member Llŷr Jones added: “I take great pride in the work we do to maintain and enhance the environment, encourage biodiversity and support the local community alongside my core role as a food producer.
“I was pleased to be able welcome the Secretary of State on farm today to show him how we’re always striving to positively influence the carbon impact of our business. I hope Mr Sharma enjoyed his visit to my north Wales hill farm and that what he has seen shows him that our industry has a vital role to play in the climate change challenge now and in the future.”
Broadband must reach rural communities
THE FUW has responded positively to news that there are plans to bring full fibre broadband to an additional three million homes and businesses in some of the UK’s most isolated rural communities, but stresses it must really reach them.
The connection to 3.2 million UK premises, which was given the go-ahead after an Ofcom consultation, is reported to be part of a £12bn investment by Openreach to build full fibre infrastructure to 20 million premises throughout the UK by the end of this decade.
Places set to benefit include Aberystwyth in west Wales, Millom in Cumbria, Thurso in north-east Scotland, and Ballycastle in County Antrim. Openreach is due to publish the full list of the 251 locations, referred to as Area 3, where it will build the new network. Ofcom has estimated there are 9.6 million homes and businesses situated in this final third of the UK.
Responding to the announcement, FUW Ceredigion county chairman Morys Ioan said: “The last few months have served as a stark example of how vital connectivity is. Our own Union staff, many of whom live in rural areas, have been working from home and we have continued to assist members with digital paperwork for their farm businesses. Without an internet connection this would not have been possible.
“It is really good news that this extra funding is being directed at rural communities but we must make sure that it really does go to those premises who currently are not benefitting from full fibre broadband.
“Our rural towns and villages have been left behind in the race for better and faster connectivity and it is critical for the competitiveness and viability of rural businesses, and the economy, that tangible improvements are made now.
“The FUW has stressed on many occasions that those without a connection cannot diversify their businesses, that they cannot support their children’s education and that they cannot connect readily with Government programmes for advice and support payments as they are mandated to do.”
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