Post-Brexit subsidy scheme leaves UK farmers ‘hugely frustrated’

Post-Brexit subsidy scheme leaves UK farmers ‘hugely frustrated’

Farmers remain “hugely frustrated” with Rishi Sunak’s government over post-Brexit subsidy payments, as ministers set out the long-awaited replacement for the EU’s agricultural support scheme.

Environment secretary Steve Barclay promised it would be “easier” for farmers to get help as he revealed the structure of payments – including hundreds of pounds per hectare for maintaining habitats.

But the National Farmers Union (NFU) said there were still “more questions than answers”, long after the post-Brexit consultation launched in 2018.

NFU vice-president David Exwood said: “It remains hugely frustrating that nearly six years on [from the consultation] … government is still a long way behind on its commitments.”

It comes as Mr Barclay also insisted that coming changes to the labelling of food products will not lead to consumers having to pay more at the supermarket tills.

The government has been under pressure to finally set out its agricultural support schemes to replace EU funding since the UK left the bloc in 2020.

Mr Barclay said on Thursday that premium payments will be offered to British farmers helping the environment, such as £765 per hectare for lapwing nesting plots, or £1,242 per hectare for connecting river and floodplain habitat.

Environment secretary Steve Barclay says post-Brexit payments will make life ‘easier’ for farmers (Getty)
Environment secretary Steve Barclay says post-Brexit payments will make life ‘easier’ for farmers (Getty)

Farmers already carrying out work to protect nature will be offered higher payments, with the amount for maintaining grasslands, wetlands and scrub rising from £182 per hectare to £646.

Applications to receive support will be open from the summer of 2024 and are designed to promote British producers while encouraging them to protect nature.

Mr Barclay said: “We have listened to farmers’ feedback and set out the biggest upgrades to our farming schemes since leaving the EU, with more money, more choice and more trust to support domestic food production whilst also protecting the environment.”

The cabinet minister added: “We’re also making it easier for farmers of every farm type and size to enter the schemes, and I encourage everyone to take a look at how you can join.”

The NFU has been highly critical of the government over slow progress in meeting promises to boost environmental land management schemes (ELMs) aimed at replacing EU subsidies.

While welcoming the increased payments and new options for support, the union said firms were still facing a minimum of 50 per cent reduction in the direct payments due in 2024.

The NFU’s vice-president said the tapering of payments planned up to 2027 “continues to be very concerning”. Mr Exwood added: “We urgently need business-critical detail on how farmers and growers will smoothly transition from existing agreements to the new offer.”

Changes include a 10 per cent increase in the average agreements in the sustainable farming incentive and countryside stewardship, and about 50 new actions for which farmers can be paid, such as developing robotic mechanical weeding.

The government has previously said it is offering £45m for those creating new technology to make farming more efficient. There will also be different payment options, with shorter agreements of up to three years available for tenant farmers.

Mr Barclay also announced government plans to change food labelling so that consumers can see if imported food does not meet UK welfare standards. The government wants people to buy more domestically produced food and would like supermarkets to have a “buy British button” on their websites.

Speaking to journalists at the Oxford Farming Conference on Thursday, Mr Barclay said the changes are intended to avoid shoppers confusing imports for their British counterparts.

He said: “It’s about recognising that there will be some consumers that want to pay for quality that do care about animal welfare … so it’s about empowering the consumer.”

Mr Barclay added: “It’s not about closing off options for others, it’s about ensuring that someone who thinks when they see the union jack flag that the thing on the shelf is British, just making sure … that quite often that is not the case.”

Ministers are hoping to have 60 per cent of the food eaten in the UK produced here, while also meeting a commitment to restore at least 30 per cent of the UK’s natural environment by 2030.

Conservation groups have largely welcomed the payments for protecting habitats but said much more needs to be done to hit the 2030 target.

Richard Benwell, chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said it was “very good to see Defra offer higher premium payments for nature-friendly farming choices” – but said more needed to be done to promote sustainable farming.

He warned: “With six years until the legal target to halt nature’s decline, it’s impossible to imagine that we’re on track to reverse long-term decline in farmland wildlife, restore protected habitats to good condition, or stop the pollution pouring into our waterways.”