‘Negative image of subsidies can be flipped in EU debate’

NFU vice-president Guy Smith wants more details over how farming would be supported outside the EU.
NFU vice-president Guy Smith wants more details over how farming would be supported outside the EU.
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FARMING SUBSIDIES may be seen as a “bad smell” but they keep farmers producing food during market downturns like the one being felt across all farming sectors today, the vice-president of the National Farmers’ Union said.

Guy Smith called for agriculture to be at the forefront of the debate about Britain’s membership of the European Union - through which payments are made to farmers annually - as Farming Minister George Eustice said satisfactory reform of the nation’s EU membership was vital.

Both men spoke at this week’s Northern Farming Conference at Hexham Auction Mart, where Mr Smith said the EU debate was a golden opportunity for the agriculture industry to make its voice heard.

He said: “Subsidies for farmers are seen as the bad smell in this country rather than a strategic need to keep us producing and to keep farms viable in difficult times.”

“In volatile times support payments keep farmers farming... so we are still there when the harvest becomes thinner and prices rise, and that’s a key point to have a strategic understanding of why we have support payments, and I think the debate we will have over the EU give us the opportunity to make these points because there are too easily overlooked.”

Mr Smith added: “Where we go with our relationship with the EU, agriculture will follow. The Common Agricultural Policy is the most important policy of the EU, 45 per cent of its budget, the NFU could not afford not to be involved in this debate. Where we are at the moment is at the interrogation stage.”

He said more analysis was needed to establish how farming would be supported if Britain withdrew from the EU.

“Don’t just tell us it will be okay, we will use all these billions we will get back from the EU to look after farmers, we want details,” he said.

“What would support payments look like? What would our negotiating and trade relationship look like with the rest of the world if we leave the biggest trading bloc in the world? Would we be flooded with low quality produce from South America?”

Mr Eustice dismissed as “nonsense” a report that only ten per cent of farmers would survive if Britain exited the EU, adding: “The truth is though that we don’t want to leave the EU, we want to reform it and stay in it.”

Mr Smith said he detected growing confidence from the Rural Payments Agency - the Government agency administering European payments to farmers - that it would make most Basic Payment Scheme payments when the payment window opens in December and in January.

He met RPA chief Mark Grimshaw on Friday and reported “more confident” body language that payments would arrive in a timely manner but said he feared “there is still time for the wheels to fall off”.

Mr Eustice said: “We are focusing on trying to get payments out as quickly as possible.

“We’ve had 800 people working on this and we expect to make the majority of payments in December and the vast majority by the end of January.”

INDUSTRY AWAITS BUDGET CUT DETAILS

After payment applications were held up earlier this year when an online-only approach collapsed, Guy Smith said he wanted the Agency’s funding protected.

“If I heard the budget of the RPA was to be cut I’d be really worried about the competence of the RPA performing next year.”

Defra will cut its budget by around 30 per cent over the next four years, and ahead of full details of the Chancellor’s Spending Review, Mr Eustice said: “We’ve always been clear when it comes to agriculture the number one priority is protecting our industry against animal and plant diseases.”