Environment secretary Michael Gove has set a vision for UK agriculture that will abandon current EU subsidy mechanisms over the coming years and which will involve radical changes to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs current regulation and inspection practices.
Speaking at an agricultural conference in Oxfordshire, Gove previewed policies expected to be detailed in a spring command paper, and praised his “dedicated, idealistic and passionate” staff but not the “far too bureaucratic” processes they currently worked to.
Defra is one of the departments most affected by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, and a recent National Audit Office snapshot of Brexit-related activity across Whitehall showed it had 43 separate workstreams on the issue. Last month it emerged that barely of the 1,200 Brexit-related roles it hoped to fill by March had been taken.
In his speech today, Gove spelled out that Defra faced a long period of change for which Brexit was only the beginning.
“I don’t want anyone to get hold of the wrong end of the stick,” Gove said. “The department I am privileged to lead has some of the finest public servants in the country working for it.
“Whether it’s the policy professionals, economic analysts, vets, IT engineers, botanists and horticulturalists or hydrologists and geologists, it is a pleasure to work with such dedicated, idealistic and passionate people.
“But while the people are brilliant, some of the processes are not.”
While he sought to assure farmers that the EU subsidies they currently received would continue in the medium term, he insisted that change was vital both for Defra and the sector. Gove also predicted that some farmers may seek to leave the industry as the Basic Payments Scheme – the EU’s largest subsidy to farmers – was wound down post-Brexit.
“I want to develop a new method of providing financial support for farmers which moves away from subsidies for inefficiency to public money for public good,” Gove said
He said he envisaged guaranteeing BPS payments continued for a transition period in England that “should last a number of years beyond the implementation period [expected to commence in March 2019]”, depending on the outcome of a yet-to-be-launched consultation.
However the environment secretary said the largest BPS payments made to farmers in England would be reduced throughout the period, while compliance with some of the current “onerous” EU requirements for the payments would not be enforced.
He conceded that the change in subsidy regime may prompt some farmers to leave the industry, and that Defra would look at ways to support them.
Defra – and more precisely its Rural Payments Agency – has been strongly criticised for delays in distributing BPS funds to farmers in recent years.
Gove said he was “encouraged but not satisfied” that the RPA had paid more than 91% of farmers their BPS entitlement for the year by the end of December.
“I am looking for a new chair of the RPA to work with the chief executive and his team to drive further improvement,” he said.
Elsewhere in his speech, Gove said Defra would need to change its approach to inspection following Brexit, and freedom from Common Agricultural Policy rules.
“We inspect too often, too ineffectively and in far too many cases for the wrong things,” he said.
“At any moment, a farmer could be visited by the Rural Payments Agency, Natural England, The Animal Plant and Health Agency, the Environment Agency or their local authority.
“Each body may ask for slightly different information, or even the same information in a slightly different way.”
Gove said he wanted to explore ways the number of inspections faced by farmers could be reduced at the same time as making them “more genuinely risk-based” and focused on areas where standards were not currently high enough.
“The CAP’s inflexibilities, including the ever present fear of disallowance, means we inspect rigidly for precise field margin dimensions and the exact locations of trees in a near-pointless exercise in bureaucratic box-ticking while, at the same time, we inspect haphazardly and inefficiently for genuine lapses such as poor slurry management or inadequate animal welfare,” he said.
Gove said he also wanted to develop a “single, scaled measure” of how individual farmers performed against a “sensible basket of indicators” that brought together soil health, pollution-control, animal welfare and contribution to water quality.
“There are already a number of ways in which farmers can secure recognition for high animal welfare or environmental standards from the Red Tractor scheme to the Leaf mark,” he said.
“Outside the EU, we could establish a measure of farm and food quality which would be world-leading.”