The UK Government must explain how policy for Northern Ireland’s farmers will be drawn up without an Executive ahead of Brexit, it’s been claimed.
A committee of MPs has said the approach by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in Westminster (DEFRA) to date had been “insufficient”.
In a report today, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee said that after more than 600 days without a devolved administration, “urgent challenges and opportunities of Brexit run the risk of being overlooked”.
With agriculture a devolved matter, the MPs said the local farming community may be left “adrift” without a dedicated, devolved policy framework when the UK leaves the European Union.
“Brexit brings both opportunities and threats to farmers and growers in Northern Ireland,” said the chair of the committee, Dr Andrew Murrison.
“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.”
The report said the farming industry here had “distinctive characteristics” compared with the rest of the UK.
The MPs said they were concerned over DEFRA’s limited engagement with farmers here when drafting post-Brexit policy, concluding there had been “insufficient recognition of key differences between Northern Ireland’s agriculture sector and that of other parts of the United Kingdom”. Dr Murrison added: “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.”
Days after DEFRA secretary Michael Gove suggested that the Barnett formula will no longer be applied to agricultural budgets, the report said a funding system designed for England “could have a serious impact” for farmers here, where subsidy payments remain a crucial source of income.
The report said £899.5m worth of food and live animals crossed the border last year.
The committee called 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. It also heard evidence that farm produce could be left sitting at the border in a no-deal scenario.