Norfolk farmers quiz Defra minister George Eustice over post-EU subsidy plans
Norfolk farmers demanded to know whether vital subsidy support will continue if Britain leaves the EU – after a government minister told them the onus was on “out” campaigners to answer the question.
Farming minister George Eustice was speaking at the Norfolk Farming Conference in Norwich, an event exploring the agricultural industry’s economic challenges, and its commercial opportunities for future growth.
More than 300 delegates heard that 40pc of the EU’s budget was spent on the Common Agricultural Policy, which distributes subsidies and environmental payments which make up a significant proportion of farmers’ incomes – particularly at a time of falling commodity prices and tightening margins across many of East Anglia’s biggest sectors.
But while political commentators are predicting a June 23 referendum on Britain’s EU membership, Mr Eustice said the onus was on the “out” campaign to explain what the repercussions of leaving would be.
That provoked an angry response from many Norfolk farmers at the conference, who said it was impossible for voters to make an informed decision unless the post-Brexit policy plans were made clear.
Mr Eustice said: “The prime minister has made it clear that his strong preference is to get the right deal and stay in. The cabinet will make a decision after his renegotiation as to whether the government will campaign to stay in or out.
“There will be a referendum to put that to the people and both campaigns will be able to set out their stall, but the onus will be on the “leave” campaign to paint a picture of what it would look like if we left.
“The campaign has not started yet. There will be four or five months of argument and I assure you that by the end of it you will be sick of hearing about it. But you will be able to weigh up the pros and cons of coming out.”
Mr Eustice’s comments reiterated a statement made by Defra secretary and South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss earlier this year, when she said her department was not working on a Plan B for British farming in the event of an “out” vote.
Richard Hirst, who farms at Ormesby near Great Yarmouth, said: “I think it’s ridiculous. There needs to be something that tells us what life would be like. The government needs to make that quite clear.
“We are facing huge competition from Europe – it is our biggest trading partner, and that is not going to stop, but how would we compete with subsidised farming 22 miles away (across the Channel)?”
UKIP MEP Stuart Agnew, who farms near Fakenham, said: “He (George Eustice) is likely to be the minister of farming the day after the vote, so it is his responsibility. We are deliberately being kept in the dark. However you cannot keep saying you are a government without a policy.”
Swanton Morley farmer John Carrick said: “There is a very real possibility that the Brexit campaign will come to an out vote, and it is important that the government has a strategy in place to deal with it. An admission that they don’t have such a strategy – assuming that Plan A is going to work – defies logic.
“It is not the job of the ‘leave’ campaign to decide what happens next, because the leave campaign is not in power, and they have no way to implement whatever they might suggest.”
Rob Alston, whose Silfield farming business is based at Carleton Forehoe, said: “I think what the government is doing is working on the fear factor of ‘better the devil you know’. It is very difficult for the public to make a decision, and in agriculture a farmer may not be able to say what his subsidy is going to be. I would rather have a profitable industry without subsidies, but that is not possible.
“A lot of people will decide because of an emotive or a nationalistic opinion, but they are not necessarily based on the facts – because they are not available.”
Tony Bambridge, managing director of B&C Farming in Marsham, said: “If the cabinet decides that the out vote is the right vote, then they will have to put forward the case.
“At the moment, you cannot make a decision. Someone needs to put the case of what the mechanisms will be for the support across the board if we come out of the EU. It is not just the financial support. It is what will happen about gene editing, and pesticide regulation, and what will happen with conservation measures. And what is the access to the market going to be? We are going to have to take a view on that. What other markets are going to open up for us?
“There are a whole range of things that need to be considered before the food and farming industry can take a view.”
For more stories and reaction from the Norfolk Farming Conference, see Saturday’s EDP Farm and Country pages.