The report examines the future of agriculture in Northern Ireland post-Brexit in the context of the lack of devolved government in Northern Ireland.
Farming and growing plays a bigger part in the Northern Ireland economy than in the rest of the U.K, has significant differences to the sector in the rest of the country and will be particularly affected by Brexit because of this and due to its proximity to the Republic of Ireland. The Committee expresses disappointment about DEFRA's "insufficient" approach to considering specific agricultural concerns in Northern Ireland and warns that particular structural and Brexit related challenges must be addressed quickly, with or without an Executive.
Chair of the Committee, Dr Andrew Murrison MP, said:
"Brexit brings both opportunities and threats to farmers and growers in Northern Ireland. My Committee is calling on the UK Government to provide clarity and confidence for the Northern Ireland agricultural sector by making plain how a post-Brexit agricultural policy for Northern Ireland will be devised if the political impasse continues into the New Year.
Agri-food in Northern Ireland has much to inspire optimism. However, we are concerned that its uniqueness, challenges and vulnerabilities have not been fully hoisted in by ministers. We heard evidence about DEFRA's lack of engagement with Northern Ireland’s civil service and with the sector.
We were left with the impression of drift and delay at a critical time and an over-reliance on the much hoped for restoration of an Executive."
Developing an agricultural policy for Northern Ireland
The distinctive characteristics of farming and growing in Northern Ireland mean that its agricultural sector has different needs and priorities to the rest of the United Kingdom. The predominance of smaller, more marginal businesses means that the sector is particularly reliant on direct financial support to maintain a steady income. The Committee expresses concern at DEFRA's limited engagement with farmers in Northern Ireland during its agricultural policy consultation, and concludes that there has been "insufficient recognition of key differences between Northern Ireland's agriculture sector and that of other parts of the United Kingdom."
Furthermore, the Committee is concerned that without a Northern Ireland Government the urgent challenges and opportunities of Brexit run the risk of being overlooked, leaving Northern Ireland's agriculture sector adrift without a dedicated, devolved policy framework. The Committee recommends that, if the NI Government is not restored by the end of the year, the Government should set out how it will develop post-Brexit agricultural policy for Northern Ireland.
Financial support for farmers in Northern Ireland
For the typically small farms of Northern Ireland, subsidies and payments are existentially significant. The Committee heard evidence that the UK Government’s "public money for public goods" proposal and its desire to improve farm efficiency, while broadly welcomed, was designed with England in mind and could have a serious impact on farms in Northern Ireland if the scheme is not modified to reflect the very different character of farming in Northern Ireland. The Committee urges the Government to revise its definition of public goods to include the survival of farms as "essential rural assets", and to commit area payments beyond 2022, with small farms and those reliant on pasture and husbandry on marginal land particularly in mind.
While the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove MP recently announced that agricultural budgets will not be Barnettised post-Brexit, the Committee heard that greater clarity for the future is essential to ensure Northern Ireland has a basis for planning its own future agricultural policies and support mechanisms. The Committee calls on the Government to bring forward plans for the allocation of funding for agricultural support post-2022.
Trade, cross-border supply chains and North-South cooperation
Northern Ireland's agri-food sector is closely integrated with that of the Republic of Ireland, and agricultural produce crosses the border frequently. £899.5 million worth of food and live animals were exported to the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland in 2017. The Committee heard evidence that a no-deal scenario, whilst unlikely, could result in fresh milk, live animals, cereals and flour being unable to cross the border to the Republic of Ireland and perishable goods unable to access wider EU markets. The Committee warns that land-based businesses have not been given clarity on what no-deal, however unlikely, will mean for cross-border trade.
The Committee is also concerned that the Government's consultation on tightening controls on live animal exports with the EU does not specify whether animals travelling by road across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will be exempt. The Committee calls on the Government to introduce necessary exemptions to avoid significantly harming Northern Ireland’s agricultural sector, which exports thousands of live animals to the Republic each week.
The agricultural workforce
Much of Northern Ireland's agricultural workforce is drawn from the European Economic Arena (EEA) and the Committee notes that it is "vital that the importance of agriculture to Northern Ireland's economy is reflected in the Government's approach to immigration and labour policy." The Committee calls on the Government to establish mechanisms through which the sectoral priorities of Northern Ireland can be reflected in immigration policy, particularly for professionals such as vets, tradesmen like butchers and those with particular skills like pickers.