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Brexit: Sheep Farmers

Volume 791: debated on Tuesday 22 May 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effect of Brexit on sheep farmers in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I draw attention to my relevant interests as a member of the Farmers Union of Wales.

My Lords, we recognise the sheep sector’s immense contribution to rural life, local economies and the iconic landscapes of the different countries of the UK. We are carrying out a programme of analytical work that will aid our understanding of how leaving the EU will affect the UK sheep sector. This work will help us shape new domestic agricultural policies and explore new trading opportunities.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Given that 90% of Welsh sheepmeat exports go to the European Union and that lambs born today will probably go to market after 29 March next year—and, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, may face a 50% or higher tariff barrier—can the Minister assure the House that the Government will have a contingency plan in place to help sheep farmers facing possible market collapse next April? When will the farming industry be given at least an outline of any such plan?

My Lords, the Government are committed to securing the best deal with the EU and beyond for the farming, fisheries and food sectors. In safeguarding the sheep sector, we have committed to continue the £3 billion of agricultural support until the end of the Parliament in 2022, and the Environment Secretary has said that support for our farmers will continue for many years to come where the environmental benefits of that spending are clear.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that livestock farmers in upland and less favoured areas—where lambing percentages are much lower and mortality rates are much higher than their lowland counterparts—must be supported following Brexit, as must their communities, and that any change in the farm payments scheme must recognise this? These are special cases.

My Lords, Brexit provides us with a perfect opportunity to review our subsidies. The vision in our consultation for the new English agricultural policy is around public money for the delivery of public good, and the uplands have the potential to benefit from new environmental land management schemes as they deliver a great deal of public good for the environment and landscape—for example, in improving biodiversity, flood risk management and carbon sequestration. We have consulted in England on what additional support farmers in upland areas may need as part of this new domestic policy and a report on this consultation’s findings will be published in due course.

Can the Minister go a little further than she did in her Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and tell us what assessment the Government have made of the consequences for sheep farmers in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England if they have to face the full common external tariff, which will be the case if we leave under WTO terms? Further, what assessment have the Government made of the consequences of removing the protection of the common external tariff in the context, for example, of the trade agreement with New Zealand? If she does not have the figures at her fingertips, can she write to me and place a copy of her reply in the Library of the House?

My Lords, we are confident of getting a deal on Brexit, which is very important to remember. Obviously assessments are going on all the time as new data becomes available. Independent assessments have also been made, such as, for example, the Impacts of Alternative Post-Brexit Trade Agreements on UK Agriculture. This assessment covered the sheep sector and highlighted the importance of low-friction trade.

My Lords, my family’s interest in Welsh agriculture has been declared. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, responding on 2 May to my speech on the withdrawal Bill, was unable to set out what the basis of the agricultural payments will be after 2020. Would it not be grossly unfair and a backward step if future payments in Wales were made on the Barnett formula rather than on the present basis? Further, can the Minister clarify the position and put an end to the anxiety of sheep farmers, whose livelihoods are at stake?

I thank the noble and learned Lord for his question and am happy to give a little more clarification if I can. As noble Lords will know, the consultation closed earlier this month, to which we had 40,000 responses. Agricultural policy is a devolved matter so there will be a system by which the Government have committed £3 billion of funding, which will continue. That money will be divided up between the four devolved Administrations according to an agreement between them and from then it will be up to the Welsh Government to decide how that money gets to Welsh farmers. In doing so, two considerations must be borne in mind. First, the UK as a whole will always be the unit for international negotiations and, secondly, we must maintain the integrity of the UK internal market.

My Lords, will the Minister give the House an assurance today that the Government will not ban the limited and highly regulated export of live trade in sheep? This is a lifeline to farmers in North Yorkshire and other upland farmers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It must not be stopped.

I am sure my noble friend is well aware that our call for evidence closed today. Of course, we will look at the responses. We have also asked the Farm Animal Welfare Committee to look at the transport of live animals. We will respond to the call for evidence in due course.

My Lords, I refer to the Minister’s earlier response about upland farmers and their ability to diversify. The Health and Harmony consultation document stated:

“Compared to lowland farms, farms within the Severely Disadvantaged Area have less opportunity to diversify”.

Would the Minister care to comment?

The noble Baroness is completely right. The opportunities for diversification will depend on the type and location of a farm. This is what the consultation tried to draw out. It tried to understand what sort of farmers will need what sort of support going forward. We will have policies supporting diversification, innovation and skills. Noble Lords may be aware that only 12% of farmers benchmark their services against widely available data for farming. That can be improved and if it is, we can improve efficiency.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that hill farmers throughout the United Kingdom are already among the lowest earners in agriculture? Any damage to them, whether through exports to Europe or the Government’s failure to support them adequately, will have a catastrophic effect in the hills on families and their children.

My Lords, I am well aware that those particular farmers are most at risk. That is why the Government are looking at how we can make sure they receive the support they need. There are many opportunities in our post-consultation policy development to look at how we will provide grants, which provide public money for public good.