The search for clarity on horticultural funding, trade and labour

Farmers and growers still waiting for clarity from Government on key issues.

Eustice: has promised to be a champion for agriculture - image: HW
Eustice: has promised to be a champion for agriculture - image: HW

Funding, trade and labour repeatedly came to the fore at the NFU 2017 conference in Birmingham earlier this week. But farmers and growers seeking clarity on these matters will have to be patient.

Chairing a Brexit question-and-answer session with Defra minister George Eustice and National Assembly for Wales cabinet member for environment and rural affairs Lesley Griffiths, media consultant and former political editor of The Sun George Pascoe-Watson said: "Success for farming is success for Britain. Get it right and we will all benefit. Get it wrong and things will be pretty disastrous."

Referring to an earlier speech by Innovate UK senior innovation lead Calum Murray, Pascoe-Watson added: "The lights will go out on our biggest manufacturing sector if we do not have the workforce required. We need an ambitious new system."


Pressing Eustice on farm payments, Pascoe-Watson asked: "Prior to the Brexit vote you said the size of farm payments will stay the same or even increase. Can you make that guarantee now?"

Eustice responded: "I said that we will guarantee full payments up to 2020. That was delivered within weeks. I said, irrespective of what comes after 2020, when we stop sending our net contribution to the EU every year we are going to have more than enough money to fund our own agricultural policy going forward. And I also said I can be confident that Parliament will want to do so because we do have a lot of rural constituencies, we do care about agriculture and we do care about the environment.

"Am I still confident about that? Yes, I am. Will I be a champion for agriculture in the years ahead while we design a new agricultural policy? Yes, I will. But I also think we can spend the money better. We are not going through all the work we have to do to leave the EU just to put in place a carbon copy of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy). The CAP doesn't work - it is a failure and we want to replace it with something better."

Eustice says he "guarantees funding until 2020," adding: "Secondly, I can guarantee that if we are not sending money to the EU we will be able to afford our own agricultural policy and I can guarantee my views haven't changed - that I think Parliament will support it."

Looking further forward to what may happen after 2020, Eustice says: "Like anything in politics, there are things outside your control. I think initially you have to put your faith in democratic politics."

With the Treasury responsible for writing the cheques and the Home Office responsible for labour markets, Pascoe-Watson wanted to know what influence Defra has in Whitehall.

Eustice was quick to reply that decisions on spending are taken by Cabinet while Defra has responsibility in many things including the environment. "Forty-five per cent of all EU regulations sit within the remit of Defra. Defra, more than any other department in Whitehall, has the greatest number of issues to deal with, and these are complex issues."


Farmers and growers also need urgent clarity on trade. As Pascoe-Watson put it: "What confidence do you have that Liam Fox won't do a quick deal with a country like Argentina or America that will then undercut our farmers?"

Eustice pointed out the principle of collective bargaining. "Agricultural trade, under the laws we have adopted, will still be managed by Defra. We will have a seat at the table and will handle the agricultural element of the trade negotiations."

Asked about trade agreements with the EU, Griffiths said she is not confident that we will get the deal we want, but Eustice sounded more optimistic. "Just this week we had a consortium of the farming unions from countries like the Netherlands, Spain and France going to the EU and saying that it is essential they have a free-trade agreement with the UK. The UK market is the second most important market for Dutch farmers. There are big Danish companies operating here. It is in their interest.

"The crucial thing is this - the prime minister has made it clear we want to put in place a bold, ambitious and comprehensive free-trade agreement. I think this will be easier to put together than some people expect. Trying to sort out free-trade agreements with countries like the US and Japan, you get bogged down with arguments around food safety and standards. There is a huge degree of compliance and similarity with what the UK will have post Brexit, it's in their interest to put together a free-trade agreement with us. They would be silly not to take it up."


With the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs making no commitment in her conference speech on how permanent and seasonal workers will be recruited post 2019, NFU horticulture and potatoes board chair Ali Capper wanted answers to employment issues.

"We really need the Government to make up its mind. This sector, more than any other, needs certainty about where our permanent and seasonal workforce will come from. Next year, 2018, we are going to be recruiting for the 2019 season and if we don't know today how we are going to be recruiting next year, we are going to be in trouble."

Eustice stressed that nothing will change until we have left the EU. "We guarantee funding and we guarantee existing arrangement until 2020," he said. "Well in advance of that, people will know what is going to come after. We haven't yet triggered Article 50 and the answers to these questions will emerge in the course of the negotiations as we work out the policies. You will know what they are in good time.

"We have been clear that once we leave the EU we will have controlled migration, but that doesn't mean no migration. We will be looking at seasonal work permit schemes. We've had them before, we know what they look like and I think they would be relatively easy to design. But it won't be a free-for-all, with everybody able to come here all the time, and we will make sure we have the labour in the sectors where we need it."

Eustice used to be a strawberry farmer employing 300 people. "I understand the challenges of getting seasonal labour in the agriculture industry. I assure you that by the time we leave the EU you will have an answer and a scheme in place. For now there is free movement."

But Capper, quick to do her sums, said it is not soon enough. "My understanding is once we invoke Article 50 we leave within two years. So if we invoke Article 50 in March 2017, we leave in March 2019. So we need something in place so we can recruit for the 2019 season. Growers and farmers will be recruiting in the 2018 growing seasons for the 2019 season. The previous SAWS (Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme) had a tender process that took nine months. That would mean we need to start recruiting now."

Eustice re-iterated: "Once we leave the EU, we are free to do whatever we like, as quickly as we like. If we leave the EU more quickly, we will be able to make decisions more quickly."

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